The European Union reportedly has Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national flag carrier, in its crosshairs due to the airline’s alleged role in trafficking migrants to Belarus. If Brussels goes forward with sanctions against the airline, they would constitute the European Union’s first concrete pushback against Ankara’s ongoing protection of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko from accountability for human rights violations.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Monday that the European Union is exploring “how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking” by flying migrants to Belarus. Since June, the Lukashenko regime, apparently with Moscow’s blessing, has weaponized migrants against the European Union by luring them from Africa and the Middle East, then forcing them at gunpoint to cross into EU member states Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
Lukashenko manufactured this migrant crisis in retaliation for a range of EU economic and financial sanctions imposed over what Brussels referred to as Lukashenko’s “serious human rights violations.” Brussels imposed the harshest sanctions after a Belarusian jet last May forced down a commercial plane carrying 126 passengers from Greece to Lithuania, in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist on board.
Over the spring and summer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed to the aid of fellow strongman Lukashenko. The Washington Post reported that Turkey used its veto power within NATO to water down an official condemnation of Lukashenko in May. According to Reuters, Ankara blocked unspecified punitive steps that Baltic allies and Poland had advocated, while also rejecting calls by other NATO members for additional Western sanctions on Belarus and the release of political prisoners there. Turkey’s obstruction was in line with the spoiler role Erdogan has systematically played within the transatlantic alliance.
Although the European Union in June prohibited EU airlines from flying over Belarus and banned Belarusian airlines from flying over EU territory or landing in EU airports, Turkish Airlines has continued to operate regular flights to Minsk, alongside Syria’s Cham Wings and the Emirati budget airline FlyDubai. Politico Europe reported that Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are “among the countries believed to be the main points of origin for flights landing in Minsk.” In response to that allegation, Turkish Airlines today issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.
On Monday, von der Leyen described the Lukashenko regime’s “cynical instrumentalization of migrants” as a “hybrid attack,” a form of irregular warfare that blends military and non-military methods. The same day, Polish government spokesperson Piotr Mueller told reporters that 3,000 to 4,000 migrants were near the Belarusian border, and warned of an “escalation … of an armed nature.” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson tweeted, “Our urgent priority is to turn off the supply coming into Minsk airport.”
Any punitive action the European Union could take against Turkish Airlines to prevent its carrying of African and Middle Eastern migrants to Belarus would strengthen the measures against Minsk that the European Commission proposed on September 29 and the Council of the European Union issued today. These measures include a partial suspension of the EU-Belarus Visa Facilitation Agreement to target officials of the Lukashenko regime. Given that Erdogan started — and continues to perpetrate — the weaponization of migrants against the European Union long before Lukashenko did, the European Union should also consider sanctions against not only the airlines complicit in human trafficking but also the Turkish officials responsible for weaponizing migrants.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.