As European airlines suspend the flights to Belarus that once offered one of the few exit routes out of an oppressive state already in the grip of closed land borders, many Belarusians fear the return of a Soviet-style Iron Curtain around their country.
Western leaders have called for tougher sanctions and drastic aviation bans following the brazen diversion of a passenger plane and subsequent arrest of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich on Sunday, and millions of citizens of Belarus are now facing an anxious future.
“We are cut off from the rest of the world,” 54-year-old Nikolai, who is only identified by his first name due to security concerns, told CNN from his home in Minsk. “(President Alexander) Lukashenko is doing everything possible to isolate the country and return the Iron Curtain.”
“I don’t feel trapped, but there’s no freedom either,” he added. “All my friends are worried about the future of the country … we are very pleased with international solidarity and assistance.”
European Union (EU) leaders on Monday called for a ban on Belarusian airlines flying in European skies and urged their national carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace. Many, including Finnair, Air France and KLM, have followed suit.
For Belarusians inside the country, the restrictions will squeeze what little freedoms they have left under strongman Lukashenko.
Belarus partially closed its land borders to its own citizens wanting to leave the country in October last year, citing Covid-19 concerns. In reality, critics say it was an attempt by Lukashenko to tighten his 27-year-grip on the country, following a disputed presidential election in August that sparked some of the biggest demonstrations in the country’s recent history.
Travel restrictions were imposed on neighboring Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, though not Russia, an indication of Lukashenko’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Belarus and Russia share border controls under a longstanding agreement, meaning direct road links to Russia are open to Belarusian citizens.
Inside Belarus, there are conflicting feelings about the most recent flight ban.
One tech industry worker in Minsk, who preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told CNN that a “feeling of total helplessness” following the “brutal” pushback of riot police against protesters during demonstrations – which she attended for over three months last year – has pushed her family to leave the country.
“The police are detaining people directly in their neighborhoods and the reports about ill-treatment in detention are brutal,” she said, adding that she broke into tears when she heard about Protasevich’s arrest – thinking he could face the death penalty.
Now, the rerouted flights are upending her plans to relocate to a neighboring country for work in June. Although her flight with Belarus’ flag carrier Belavia was canceled, leaving by land still remains an option for her as she has a job offer. Her husband, however, would need to risk a detour via Moscow, she told CNN.
The tech worker said she believes that the flight ban is a small price to pay for the future of the country. “If these bans help Europe to pay attention to what happens here, I am OK to tolerate the inconvenience,” she said, noting that she hopes they will “kick off more real sanctions.”
But not everyone feels as patient.
“Most people in my circle constantly talk about the need to leave the country. The news that the last way out is closing has caused a lot of anxiety – everyone wants to know they can leave if they have to.” Some people are very angry at the European politicians for the decision, she added.
Ales, 31, who is only identified by his first name, told CNN from Minsk that “many people like myself are happy that the West finally is doing something real. However many people are anxious about not having the possibility to fly to the EU countries or Ukraine.
“Due to the closure of the land border, the plane was the only option for many people to leave the country. There are still options to transit through Russia but it is more expensive and lengthy,” he said.
Ales added that: “Right now, all Belarusians are hostages to Lukashenko’s regime, and he is the one to blame for the international isolation of Belarus that worsens all the time.”
Another citizen, Anastasia, who lives in Minsk and preferred not to give her second name due to safety concerns, told CNN it was important “not to wait for the moment when it will be impossible to leave for many years like it was with the Iron Curtain in the USSR.”
Anastasia said she and her husband Vladimir were “very happy” with the EU’s response. “We believe that terrorists have seized power in our country, and they should be treated exactly as terrorists,” she said.
Belarus borders three EU member states – Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – and a striking image of flight paths tweeted by European Council President Charles Michel early Tuesday showed hundreds of planes skirting around the country. Some routes appeared to have returned to Belarus airspace later in the day.
Families kept apart
For Belarusians outside the country, the flight ban throws doubt over when they’ll be able to see family members again.
A 33-year-old Belarusian man living in the UK, who preferred not to give his name due to safety concerns, told CNN that he relied on his Belarusian family for childcare – but it would be a struggle for his parents to visit without direct flights.
“The decision is of course an inconvenience for the general public, but it also is for the regime – so I support it for now,” he said.
Olga, a 33-year-old Belarusian living in the UK who preferred not to give her last name, said the demand for flights via Moscow would increase with the EU ban. But those Russian flights were “expensive and inconvenient” for a family with a small child, she added.
A trip between Minsk and London via Russia would take over 13 hours instead of the more usual three. But Olga thinks the EU’s reaction is adequate: “It is an action against the regime, which is much better than just words of concern.”
“On the other hand, Belarusian authorities have been killing most means of communication inside the country and with the rest of the world – and now the opportunity to leave is also taken away,” Olga said. “Looks like we’re a North Korean branch now.”
Protasevich was one of dozens of Belarusian journalists and activists campaigning in exile against Lukashenko’s rule. He is the founder of the Telegram channel Nexta, which helped mobilize anti-Lukashenko protests, and was charged last year with “organizing mass riots and group actions that grossly violate public order.” He is on a government wanted list for terrorism.
The 26-year-old journalist was traveling on Ryanair flight 4978 from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday when shortly before touchdown the plane was diverted by Belarusian air traffic control to the capital Minsk over a supposed security alert.
The diversion sparked widespread fury and mounting fears for Protasevich’s safety after a video emerged of the dissident Monday in which his supporters believe he is confessing to crimes under duress.