Don't Shoot, the War Is Over

September 16, 1995

For years after World War II, tales spread of Japanese soldiers holed up on remote islands, unwilling to concede the war was over. In that tradition, someone forgot to tell the anti-air command controllers of Belarus that the Cold War was over and that a giant balloon drifting near a military base was strictly non-belligerent.

The balloon, manned by two Americans, was one of 17 competing in a famous balloon race launched three days earlier in Switzerland. Whoever goes farthest in any direction wins. The helicopter gunship that shot it down was following orders and training.

At most, the Belarus air force should have ordered the balloon to descend. Two others did. Now the world's airwaves crackle with recriminations. The International Aeronautical Federation said the race organizers had obtained all necessary permissions including Belarus'. Belarus officials said they had not been informed sufficiently. The balloonists had the proper radios and transponders. Belarus said they acted deaf.

The U.S. denounced Belarus for delaying 24 hours in notification, as if it wasn't the actual shooting that was wrong. Unusually for an embarrassed government, Belarus accepted "a certain measure of guilt," though by no means all of it.

Belarus, formerly the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, formerly White Russia, is a large and potentially wealthy country of 10 million people not easily distinguishable from Russians whose economy is shot and whose leadership is nostalgic for communism. This is one former Soviet republic that regrets independence and slices it away. Where Chechnya is trying desperately to break out of Russia, Belarus is sneaking back in.

Belarus and Russia share the ruble and a customs union. President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the last Soviet missile launchers that were to have been withdrawn to remain on the ground that Russia and Belarus might soon unify, putting those missiles on Russian soil.

What all this has to do with the balloon incident is unknown, but probably something. No one in Minsk seems to have asked whether a balloon that cannot maneuver can spy. The incident was compared to the destruction 12 years ago of a Korean airliner near a secret Soviet base the airliner crew knew nothing about. Belarus is a country without enemies. But no one told the gunship pilot.

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