Belarusian leader seeks Russian support in clash with EU –

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Belarusian leader seeks Russian support in clash with EU – fr


MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed his Belarusian counterpart for talks on Friday on the rapprochement between Minsk and the European Union for the hijacking of a passenger plane to arrest a dissident journalist.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated since flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Sunday, citing a suspected bomb threat. No bomb was found, but journalist Raman Pratasevich, 26, was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

EU leaders denounced it as air piracy and responded by banning Belarusian carriers from EU airspace and airports and advising European airlines to bypass Belarus. EU foreign ministers on Thursday outlined tougher sanctions to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other lucrative sectors.

At the start of his talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Putin, Lukashenko denounced the EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to revive the opposition protests that followed his re-election in August, which have been widely dismissed as rigged.

“It’s an attempt to destabilize the situation like last August,” he said.

Putin seemed relaxed and invited Lukashenko to swim, while the Belarusian leader looked tense as he launched a long diatribe accusing the West of being treacherous and hypocritical.

In a moving tirade, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader deplored the EU’s sanctions against Belarusian flag bearer Belavia, highlighting his role in transporting “thousands and thousands” of travelers from EU countries and countries. United States stuck at the start. of the pandemic.

“They punished Belavia staff who helped evacuate thousands of people!” Lukashenko exclaimed. “What an abomination!

Putin nodded in sympathy, pointing to a 2013 incident in which a private plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales landed in Vienna after several European countries refused to let it pass through their airspace, allegedly over speculation that ‘Edward Snowden, who leaked confidential US government information, was on the plane. Austrian and Bolivian officials disagreed over whether the plane was searched after landing before resuming its journey.

“The Bolivian president’s plane was forced to land, the president got off the plane, and everything went well, everyone remained silent,” Putin said with a chuckle.

Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information about government surveillance programs, ended up in Russia, where he was granted asylum to avoid prosecution.

The confrontation over the Ryanair hijack has pushed Lukashenko, which has continually stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter of a century, even closer to his main ally and sponsor, Russia.

The two former Soviet countries signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties, but ends before a full merger. Russia has supported Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but ties have often been strained, with Lukashenko berating Moscow for trying to force it to relinquish control of valuable economic assets and ultimately relinquish the independence of his country.

In his remarks at the start of the talks on Friday, Putin said the countries were preparing to deepen their union “in a coherent, unhurried manner, taking step by step”.

In the past, Lukashenko has tried to play the West against Russia, citing the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the United States to extract more aid from Moscow.

Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown last year. More than 35,000 people were arrested amid protests and thousands beaten – measures that made him an outcast in the West. The hijacking of the flight has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.

Lukashenko, a former director of a Soviet state farm, ended the leaders’ appearance before the cameras in Sochi by exclaiming: “There are no heights that the Bolsheviks would not storm!” – a line apparently from a Soviet era movie. The remark drew a wry laugh from Putin.

Many observers warn that the new, tougher EU sanctions would make Lukashenko easy prey for the Kremlin, which could use its isolation to push for closer integration. Some in the West have even alleged that Russia was involved in the Ryanair hijack – something Moscow angrily denies – and is seeking to exploit the fallout.

“Lukashenko is afraid, and the Kremlin could demand payment for its political support by pushing for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of military bases and more,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political analyst based in Minsk. . “In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and negotiate with Putin.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election who left the country under official pressure, also acknowledged the danger of Russia trying to use its weakness to its advantage. She urged the EU to use all its influence to help prevent any deal with Moscow that would harm Belarus.

At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya also urged the EU to be “stronger, more courageous in its resolutions and decisions”, claiming that Lukashenko had acted with impunity by hijacking the theft.

The European Commission presented on Friday an aid plan of 3 billion euros (3.7 billion dollars) to support “a future democratic Belarus” which could be activated if the country moves towards a “democratic transition”.

But a further sign of Belarus’ isolation, the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union decided on Friday to suspend Belarusian public broadcaster BTRC, saying it was particularly worried about the airing of interviews apparently obtained under duress. BTRC has two weeks to respond before the suspension takes effect. The move would prevent Belarus from participating in the Eurovision Song Contest, among others.

Moscow offered Lukashenko swift political support over the hijacking, warning the EU against rushed action until the episode is properly investigated and arguing that Lukashenko’s actions were in accordance with international protocols in the event of a bomb threat.

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

Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy envoy to the United Nations, criticized the West on Friday for what he called a rash response and defended Belarus’ narrative, arguing that its flight controllers had “recommended That the plane landed in Minsk due to the alleged threat, and the pilot could have continued if he wanted.

“To say from the outset that this is a forced landing, condemn it and introduce sanctions without any investigation – this kind of behavior is absolutely irresponsible,” he told a press conference.

The International Civil Aviation Organization has said it will investigate the hijacking, as many Western countries have requested.

As European airlines began to bypass Belarus, Russia denied some of their requests to change flight paths to Moscow in the past two days, but allowed some flights to take place on Friday. The Kremlin said the denial of quick clearances to use the bypass roads was technical, but Lukashenko hailed it as a show of support for Belarus.

Associated Press editors Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, Mike Corder in The Hague, the Netherlands, Jenn Peltz at the United Nations, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.

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