European and British leaders have responded to Sunday’s forced Ryanair diversion by calling for the ban of Belavia Belarusian Airlines, the flag carrier of Belarus. Such bans, while theoretically logical, often hurt the very people they intend to help.
Belavia Ban Will Have Unintended Consequences
For decades, the United States tried to promote democratic reform and regime change in Cuba through an embargo, including a flight ban. Families were separated, citizens remain impoverished, but the prevailing theory was that allowing air travel and greater commerce between the two nations would not trickle down to help people but only prop up the communist regime.
Yet a Castro remained in power until only recently and the island nation just 90-minutes off the coast of Florida still professes allegiance to communism. Even more sobering is the poverty that impacts so many citizens to this day.
Blaming the embargo for the economic woes of Cuba fails to get to the root of the problem, a corrupt government and unworkable system, but it has not helped stop communism or bolster the Cuban people.
A similar argument could be made in Iran, contrasting the pain of the Iranian people with the corruption of their theocratic rulers. Sanctions hurt governments, but they also hurt people, many people just trying to make an honest living and provide for their loved ones.
In Belarus, sanctions are already in place. They will persist and grow more severe. The United Kingdom has already revoked Belavia’s operating permit and the European Union has now followed. Belavia, which planned to serve 20 EU destinations this summer, will now serve zero. Lufthansa has already suspended service and the EU has encouraged other EU carriers to do the same.
But who will be impacted most in a nation that has strict exit controls? With flying west now more difficult than ever (versus flying east to Moscow, which was considered a domestic flight with no passport control until 2017), will there be a new iron curtain that ends up hurting the very people it intends to help?
The hope may be that more and more citizens, upset with the Europe’s last dictator, rise up and rebel on an even larger scale than after disputed presidential elections last summer.
But speaking as a traveler who has visited a host of “naughty” nations and exchanged in meaningful dialogues with the citizens (particularly in Cuba and Iran), I always believe engagement is the better policy. Ideas are spread through engagement and when citizens experience the culture and commerce (and sometimes the indulgence) of the west, it becomes a very effective motivator for reform (why else would Mainland China exercise such strict control of information?).
I’m always skeptical of flight bans, particularly as a tool of diplomacy, because I think they often hurt who they are intended to help. I think the people of Belarus will ultimately hold their leaders accountable. But I think we hinder that from happening by banning airlines like Belavia from the west or by western carriers halting service to Minsk.
What are your thoughts on the ban on Belavia and flight bans in general?