WTF just happened in Belarus? | Five crowdsourced predictions

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Observe modern Shakespeare:

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This week:

  1. ✈ A Ryanair plane-jacking in Belarus: another glimpse of a more chaotic future?

  2. 🎱 Five big questions: test your predictions against the wisdom of the crowd, and us.

And if you know someone who likes global affairs news and analysis, consider sharing this issue with them!

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✈ A Ryanair plane-jacking in Belarus

By Helen

…is not a title I ever thought I’d write. But here we are.

Frequent flyers of budget (pronounced boo-jay) airline Ryanair usually know what they’re signing up for when they hit ‘buy’ on that 30-quid ticket to [insert European city]:

  • ✅ A mad stampede to board the flight

  • ✅ Non-reclining seats made for Helen-sized adults

  • ✅ Inflight ‘service’ from a bolshie Bruno

  • ✅ Passenger applause when the Soviet-era plane skids to a halt at the WWII-era airport that’s a three hour bus ride from [insert European city]

What passengers on Ryanair’s recent flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania did not sign up for:

  • 🚫 Sharing the flight with four KGB agents (Belarusian secret service) on a mission

  • 🚫 A mid-air interception by a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet

  • 🚫 A forced detour to Minsk, Belarus, due to an alleged bomb threat onboard (early sources cited Hamas, which has denied involvement)

  • 🚫 Watching Belarusian authorities arrest fellow passenger and dissident journalist Roman Protasevich at the behest of Belarusian President Lukashenko

The plane was actually closer to its destination in Vilnius than to Minsk when it was told to ‘chuck a uey’:

I mean, I guess Ryanair’s bog-standard pathetic apology for ‘regrettable delays’ due to ‘events outside of its control’ is finally true… 🤷🏻‍♀️

An act of state-sanctioned hijacking?

The incident broke many laws according to the UN International Civil Aviation Organization. Laws that:

  1. Prohibit false communications that might endanger a flight

    eg. making jokes about bombs, or, you know, a sovereign nation calling in a fake bomb threat.

  2. Ban unlawful acts to civil aviation

    eg. hijacking a civilian flight in order to arrest a political opponent.

You get it, it was very illegal. But the fact that the heist was ordered by the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is truly remarkable.

So, who is he?

President Alexander Lukashenko: ‘Europe’s last dictator’

Early readers of Intrigue might recall we featured Belarusian politics in our first ever edition back in late 2020 (when we accidentally called the country ‘Bulgaria’. Cool).

Back then, some 250,000+ Belarusians were protesting against the Moscow-backed Lukashenko amidst allegations that he rigged the Presidential elections. Spoiler alert: he did.

While those protests dissolved into a stalemate, Lukashenko has since used his power to take out his political enemies and to generally exert tighter control over Belarus. 

High on the hit list was Roman Protasevich, a critic of Lukashenko living in exile in Lithuania. The Belarusian government has accused Protasevich of ‘inciting extremism and hate’ (aka organising a civic protest) through his popular Telegram news group, NEXTA.

Since his arrest on Sunday, Protasevich has appeared on video to confess his alleged crimes (definitely no duress vibes there), but could still face a lengthy jail term at best – and a death sentence at worst.

💡 Did you know: Belarus is the only country in Europe that continues to carry out the death penalty.

Zoom out: key takeaways

  • Geopolitics: The chutzpah of this heist reflects Belarus’ gradual slide back into the orbit of Russia (if it ever really left). Russia is pushing back hard against Western influence in former Soviet countries.

    Much as Russian President Putin's been flexing his country’s muscles in eastern Ukraine, he's also been upping support to Belarus. Putin really does view former USSR countries as belonging to Russia.

  • Sanctions: A chorus of international criticism has followed this hijacking. But Lukashenko knows he has Russia’s economic and political protection from global backlash - meaning that international sanctions against Lukashenko’s government are unlikely to change Belarusian behaviour (or get Protasevich released).  

  • Precedent: Might this set a dangerous global precedent for other repressive regimes hoping to arrest dissidents exiled abroad? The UK has already told airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

    Consider the enormous airspaces of countries like Russia, China, and Iran - the possibility of a copycat stunt might lead major airlines to rethink their routes. The cost to commercial aviation, not to mention the impact on global trade and the economy, could be extensive.

  • Hypocrisy: Defenders of Lukashenko’s mile-high heist point to the hypocrisy of Western indignation. Russia recently highlighted an incident in 2013 when Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane was forced to land in Vienna, Austria after a tip-off that Edward Snowden was on board.

    President Morales’ plane was reportedly searched before completing its journey. If Snowden had been on board, there's little doubt he would have been removed and arrested. After all, one country's terrorist is another country's freedom fighter.

In this case, President Lukashenko was likely emboldened by a weakening of global norms and implicit Russian support. Or perhaps he thought the Europeans would be too busy watching Eurovision to notice. 

Ultimately, I think this is a peek through the keyhole into the future: regional politics will increasingly trump the global rules we're used to. Smaller nations will look to curry favour with their bigger benefactors, international condemnation be damned. Governments, businesses, and people will all need to adapt accordingly.


🎱 Five big questions

By John

I've become obsessed with superforecasting. Not only are crowd forecasts surprisingly accurate, but I’ve found that simply thinking about the questions has revealed blind spots in my understanding of the world.

So I’ve dug up five big questions from various forecasting projects around the world including CSET Foretell, the UK joint Intelligence Organisation, and Good Judgement Inc.

Why bother?

Our qualitative thinking habits are essentially in the dark ages. Making use of consistent and repeatable qualitative analysis frameworks will be a huge competitive advantage for nations and businesses alike.

Just think of the possible improvements in productivity, innovation, and standards of living if we are able to more accurately understand our world and where it's going.

[When people in] 2515 look back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials.

- Professor Philip Tetlock

So let’s set out five questions and test your ability to predict the geopolitical future!

1. Will Vladimir Putin still be the President of Russia on May 27, 2022?

Aka: Can Europe come out from under the table yet?

From involvement in the 2016 US election to threatening an invasion last month in Ukraine, a recalcitrant/resurgent (delete according to your politics) Russia is flexing its might on the global stage. 

Some believe Putin simply senses weakness in the US, UK, and other Western allies. Others speculate that the reason Putin has been so aggressive internationally is because he has advanced Parkinson’s disease. And like the ringleader in every bank heist movie, Putin wants to do ‘just one last job’ before riding off into the sunset.

Further reading:

Your prediction:

  • [% likelihood that Putin will still be the President of Russia on May 27, 2022]

Respondents at Good Judgments Inc say:

  • 82% likelihood.

Possible interpretation: Putin isn't going anywhere, but there's a small chance he's very sick. 

My prediction: 93% likelihood. Dictators don’t trust anyone else to solve big problems and as of right now, Putin has no obvious successor. He’ll also want to find a ‘permanent solution’ to the Alexei Navalny problem before he relinquishes power.

The only way Putin isn’t in power this time next year is if he physically cannot do the job - and even then, the Russians have experience pretending their leaders aren’t dead.

2. What percentage of software engineer job postings between July 1 and September 30, 2021 will allow for remote work?

Aka: Am I going to have to stop wearing ‘athleisure’?

Covid-19 has proven that remote can work. The tech industry has traditionally led the way in remote work and what happens in the tech industry will be an early sign of things to come. A more remote workforce has huge implications for the global macroeconomy, domestic businesses, and how we all live our lives.

Further reading:

NB: remote is defined as ‘allows the employee to work either fully or partially remotely’. Data is from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.

Your prediction: [Choose one]

  • Between 5.5% and 7%

  • Between 7% and 9.5%

  • Between 9.5% and 12%

  • More than 12%

Respondents at CSET Foretell say:

Possible interpretation: Remote work is here to stay, but it will be a slow revolution.

My prediction: Between 9.5% and 12% of software job postings will be remote. I would have predicted something in the 60% range before I looked at the statistics, because apparently I have absolutely no idea how people live.

Even a relatively small move toward a more remote workforce still means considerable cost savings for businesses and happier employees, since many workers prefer hybrid work arrangements. There’s no going back in the short term.

3. What percentage of global light vehicle sales in 2021 will be electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles?

Aka: should I short Tesla?

Some experts say that electric vehicles aren’t the answer to climate change because electric vehicles alone can’t reduce emissions enough to meet global targets.

On the other hand, electric vehicles could ‘go viral’ as maximum range increases, recharging stations become more convenient, and more brands and models become available.

Further reading:

Your prediction: [Choose one]

  • Less than 4%

  • Between 4% and 5%

  • Between 5% and 6%

  • Between 6% and 7%

  • More than 7%

Respondents at Good Judgments Inc say:

Possible interpretation: Electric cars are only going to get more popular.

My prediction: More than 7%. I really have no idea (which is the point of crowd forecasting). I’m very bullish based simply on the fact that Teslas are pretty cool, other companies will make cheaper equivalents, and those who can afford them will want to 'treat themselves' this year.

4. Will China sign an official agreement to establish a future military base in the Pacific Ocean before December 31, 2021?

Aka: I’ve always wanted to visit Fiji, but I don’t want to join the military. How long have I got?

China wants a military base in the Pacific and is willing to pay. Pacific countries always need money and some have flirted with hosting a Chinese military base before.

On the other hand, the US, Australia, and New Zealand will be pressuring Pacific nations to refuse a deal with China (although, who really knows what NZ thinks these days).

The Pacific Islands Forum has to be the most pleasant international meeting ever. Here the leaders of the Pacific nations gather in Tuvalu in 2019.

Further reading:

Your prediction:

  • [% likelihood that China will sign an official agreement before December 31, 2021]

Respondents at CSET Foretell say:

  • 15% likelihood.

Possible interpretation: There are a lot of complex interests that would need to align for China to sign an official agreement for a military base in the Pacific, meaning the status quo is more likely for now.

My prediction: 5% likelihood. I’m lower than the crowd forecast because six months is a very short time frame to conclude an agreement of this nature. I also think it’s unlikely there will be ‘an official agreement’.

It’s far more likely that China will find a politically palatable compromise, like investing in civil projects in the Pacific that allow it to get a bigger foothold in the region’s economic and political landscape.

💡 I want to try to run an Intrigue crowd forecast on the following question (that I made up). We’ll let you know the reader results and our prediction next week!

5. Will there be a major cyber attack on critical infrastructure in a G7 country before December 31, 2021?

Aka: How much toilet paper should I buy for the underground bunker that I must get around to building?

The US famously cyber-attacked the Iranian nuclear program in 2010. And the recent accidental hack of the Colonial Pipeline in the US demonstrates two things:

  • Hackers still want to fly under the radar - if hackers get too big for their boots, they’ll attract the attention of the government.

  • These attacks are all about the cash money.

NB: critical infrastructure might include water supplies, aviation, energy supply, metro areas, food supply chains, etc. The G7 countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Further reading:

Your prediction:

Make your prediction here! ⚡ (only takes five seconds).

Next week we’ll compare the crowd forecast with my forecast. I’ve already told Helen my forecast, and you can trust her to keep me honest. Nothing would delight her more than me being wildly wrong 😂.


➕ Extra intrigue


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

💁🏻‍♀️ Helen: Summer's just around the corner 🎉, which means the Tokyo Summer Olympics is *finally* almost here (fingers crossed). In the meantime, check out the official 'virtual' Olympics that's already kicked off, and brush up on your Olympics trivia with this quiz.

👴  JohnCheck out Tuareg singer Mdou Moctar. His song Afrique Victime is an incredible blend of electric guitar and traditional Tuareg music. It slaps. He recently signed with Matador Records which isn’t bad for a guy from a town of 10,000 people, with an average temperature of 41c in the middle of the Sahara Desert.


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