Posted on: May 25, 2021, 11:30h.
Last updated on: May 25, 2021, 11:40h.
Belarus casinos — yes, there is legal gambling in the highly controversial country — could be collateral damage of the country allegedly hijacking a Ryanair commercial airliner over the weekend in order to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” is accused of ordering the Belarusian government to escort Ryanair Flight 4978 down to Minsk National Airport under the pretense that there was a bomb on board. A Belarusian fighter jet accompanied the commercial aircraft to its landing.
Once grounded, Belarusian authorities arrested Protasevich and Sapega. Protasevich has long been an opponent of Lukashenko’s regime. He sought exile in Poland in 2019, but last fall was accused by Belarus of organizing mass riots. The Belarusian KGB labeled Protasevich a terrorist for causing “mass unrest.”
The forced landing of the Ryanair flight has been condemned by numerous countries, including the US, UK, and European Union.
Gaming Attitudes: Lukashenko and Putin
Lukashenko has stayed in power since the current Republic of Belarus was formed in 1994. His first election was considered legitimate, but since, international monitors such as the United Nations have claimed Belarus has not held free and open elections, and Lukashenko has become an authoritarian.
Lukashenko has been able to stay in power largely due to his support from Russia and President Vladimir Putin. While the two leaders are close, they have vastly different views on gambling.
Putin has restricted gambling to only four designated areas, Vladivostok and the Primorye Krai targeted to be Russia’s version of the Las Vegas Strip. But only two casinos are in operation in the Far East area.
Conversely, Lukashenko has embraced gambling, as he sees it as a way to generate economic activity in Belarus. The casinos predominantly market to foreigners.
It might come as a shock that Belarus has casinos.
This is a country where the smallest amount of any illegal substance can land you eight years in prison. Cursing in public can land you a fairly hefty fine, depending on the mood of the police officer. Drinking in public is also illegal,” explains Emerging Europe journalist Christian Mamo.
Belarus casinos actively target international travelers, including those arriving from countries where gambling is restricted. The Belarus gaming floors cater to people from Russia, China, Ukraine, Turkey, and elsewhere. During the pandemic, US sportsbooks briefly offered odds on Belarusian soccer, as it was one of the few pro sports still taking place around the world.
Minsk has 22 casinos, most of which are small gaming venues. In total, the capital city is home to about 100 table games, and 1,500 slot machines.
With criticism only escalating regarding the downing of the Ryanair plane, travel in and out of Belarus could become more difficult in the coming days, weeks, and months.
“I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda declared yesterday.
The Ryanair flight departed from Athens and was on its way to Vilnius Airport in Lithuania when it was intercepted. Lithuania has already barred all flights from flying across Belarusian airspace. Britain’s top transport secretary has also recommended to the UK Civil Aviation Authority that the country does the same.
Ukraine was next to follow Lithuania’s lead in preventing any airplane coming or arriving to its airports from flying above Belarus. And most consequential, the European Union has banned all Belarussian carriers from using EU airspace, and vice-versa.