(Bloomberg Opinion) — The double standards defense is the Kremlin’s go-to device whenever it’s accused of wrongdoing: “You Westerners have no moral right to point fingers because you do it too.” It’s telling that Russia has unfolded the double standards umbrella over Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who on May 23 scrambled a fighter jet to land a Ryanair Holdings Plc plane in Minsk so he could get his hands on one of the passengers, opposition activist Raman Pratasevich. The list of “precedents” Russia is helpfully citing is an indication that flying over Russian airspace, too, can be extremely risky for opponents of President Vladimir Putin, even if the “precedents” themselves don’t hold water.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova named four incidents that, in her view, and thus in official Moscow’s, justify Lukashenko’s action. The first one of these involved the diversion to Vienna of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane in July 2013. Returning home from a conference in Moscow, Morales was suspected by U.S. authorities of bringing with him Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of highly classified intelligence information; several European countries abruptly refused Morales’s aircraft overflight clearance, in effect forcing it to land in Austria before it ran out of fuel. Snowden, of course, wasn’t on the plane, which may or may not have been searched in Vienna to compound the Bolivian leader’s humiliation.
The parallel appears to make sense to some high-profile commentators — for example, to journalist Glenn Greenwald or to Gregor Gysi, the foreign policy speaker of Germany’s far-left Die Linke party. “Then, too, international law was turned into a travesty,” Gysi tweeted. “So there is no moral authority anymore that can effectively defend international law.” Neither Greenwald nor Gysi is defending Lukashenko’s right to grab Pratasevich, but both are using the occasion to point out that because of the Morales incident, no Western leader can protest it without being a hypocrite.
That’s a shaky argument, and not merely on the basis of aviation rules (to wit, a diplomatic plane like Morales’s must apply for overflight clearance before every flight, unlike a commercial carrier like Ryanair that gets such permissions wholesale). There’s a world of difference between a dissident such as Pratasevich, who has opposed the Lukashenko regime since high school and whose “crime” was to help run an anti-Lukashenko Telegram channel, and a fugitive intelligence service employee with government secrets such as Snowden. It’s true that Snowden’s revelations shed light on highly questionable U.S. practices and there’s no proof that he’s given anything of value directly to Russia aside from a propaganda bonus. But leakers of highly classified information, not to mention those seeking asylum in another country, will almost always be chased by their government, whatever country it runs, a democracy, a tyranny or something in between. That’s just the way the spy game is played.
One can try to ignore the abyss of difference that separates Pratasevich and Snowden, between helping fan protest on a social network and stealing gigabytes of classified information — but erasing it while still being honest with oneself should be an exercise well beyond a reasonable person’s mental powers. To put it simply, pilfering secrets, even for a noble reason, will get one in hot water everywhere, but running an anti-government media outlet is only a crime in repressive societies, in which few proponents of the double standards argument would like to live. (Snowden, too, isn’t in Russia by choice.)
Zakharova’s other examples haven’t resonated as widely because they’re even more problematic. In 2004, the private plane of Russian legislator Andrei Vavilov was forced to land in the U.S. on orders of a California prosecutor so Vavilov could at long last be questioned in a money laundering case. Vavilov was interrogated and allowed to continue on his way. That’s not what awaits Pratasevich in Belarus. He has been forced to record a confessional video that was shown on Belarussian and Russian TV, and a long prison sentence for inciting riots is in the cards for him unless international pressure forces Lukashenko to release him.
In another case Zakharova cited, the Ukrainian authorities in 2012 ordered a regular flight to return to Kiev so they could search and question a passenger, pro-Russian activist Armen Martirosyan — but, like Vavilov, he was allowed to go after a few hours.
The only thing all the “precedents” have in common is that they involved forced landings. But making the Ryanair flight detour to Minsk was not the worst part of Lukashenko’s move; the reason he did it was: to kidnap a dissident whose only weapon had been a computer keyboard. Governments will sometimes divert a plane, and on occasion even scramble jets to do so — an exceptional situation, and potentially a diplomatic scandal. But the threat to the life and liberty of 26-year-old journalist Pratasevich, a major figure in last year’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s stealing of an election, is what makes the incident stand out.
Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on the protests appears to have pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin down the same road of suppression that rules out any dialogue with opponents. Russia’s support for Pratasevich’s arrest and its juggling of “precedents” that few will bother to scrutinize amount to a warning: What Lukashenko has done, Putin may do in the near future. “Whataboutism” can be justified in some cases, and Western politicians cannot always claim a moral high ground — but in this particular case, the double standards narrative is a transparent rhetorical device used to dress up a threat. Any Belarussian or Russian who has dared to fight the regime — if only with a pen, not a sword — can be subject to what befell Pratasevich. Adjust travel plans accordingly.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell’s “1984.”