Belarus' leader seeks Russia's support amid showdown with EU

MOSCOW (AP) — Belarus’ authoritarian leader will discuss closer economic ties with Russia on Friday, as he seeks support from his main backer amid a bruising showdown with the European Union over the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land because there was a bomb threat against it. No bomb was found once the place was on the ground, but 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

EU leaders called it piracy and responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc’s airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus. The bloc’s foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions Thursday to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other sectors that are the main cash-earners for Lukashenko’s government.

The dispute has pushed Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter-century, even closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the two will meet Friday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks on closer economic ties, according to the Kremlin. Earlier in the day, the two countries’ prime ministers met in Minsk to pave the way for the presidents’ talks.

The two ex-Soviet nations have signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties, but that stops short of a full merger. Moscow has helped buttress Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but the ties have often been strained with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control over prized economic assets and eventually abandon Belarus’ independence.

In the past, the Belarusian leader has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the United States to wring more aid out of Moscow.

Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protests last fall in the wake of a vote that handed him a sixth term but that the opposition said was rigged. More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten – moves that made him a pariah in the West. The flight’s diversion has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.

The West had already slapped sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the vote and crackdown against protesters and is now promising more. Many observers warn that Lukashenko has become easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use his isolation to push for closer integration.

Lukashenko said Friday before departing for Russia that he hopes to reach an agreement with Putin on resuming regular flights between the two countries that have been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Moscow has already offered Lukashenko quick political support over the plane’s diversion, cautioning the EU against hasty action until the episode is properly investigated and arguing that Lukashenko’s actions were in line with international protocols in cases of bomb threats. The International Civil Aviation Organization said Thursday that it will investigate the diversion, as many Western countries have asked.

Some in the West have alleged Russia was involved in the Ryanair flight’s diversion — something Moscow angrily denies — and warned that it could exploit the situation to draw Belarus ever closer and possibly even incorporate it.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis charged Thursday that “Lukashenko is playing with Putin, and trying and helping Putin to annex the country,” adding that “we should send the signals to Russia as well that annexation wouldn’t go well with Europe.”

On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the EU’s decision to ask European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace as “utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers’ safety.”

As European airlines seek to skirt Belarus, Russia has refused some requests to change the flight paths of service to Moscow over the past two days in an apparent gesture of support for Lukashenko but allowed some flights to proceed Friday.

Austrian Airlines, for instance, canceled a flight from Vienna on Thursday, though the carrier said it was given permission to avoid Belarus for flights on the route Friday, according to the Austria Press Agency. It is still awaiting word on further flights. Air France canceled flights from Paris to Moscow on Thursday and Friday.


Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.