MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed his counterpart from Belarus for talks Friday on forging closer ties amid Minsk’s bruising showdown with the European Union over the diversion of a passenger jet 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 an alleged bomb threat. No bomb was found, but 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
EU leaders denounced it as air piracy and responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc's airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus. EU foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions Thursday to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other cash-earning sectors.
At the start of his talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Putin, Lukashenko ranted about the EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to reignite the opposition protests that followed his reelection in August that was widely rejected as rigged.
“It's an attempt to destabilize the situation like last August,” he said.
Putin appeared relaxed and invited Lukashenko for a swim, while the Belarusian leader looked tense as he launched a long rant accusing the West of being perfidious and hypocritical.
In an emotional tirade, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader bemoaned the EU sanctions against the Belarusian flag carrier, Belavia, pointing to its role in carrying “thousands and thousands” of travelers from EU nations and the U.S. who were stranded at the start of the pandemic.
“They have punished the Belavia staff who have helped evacuate thousands of their 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 nations had refused to let it cross their airspace, purportedly over speculation that Edward Snowden, who leaked classified U.S. 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 was taken off the plane, and it was OK, everyone kept silent,” Putin said with a chuckle.
Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed classified information about government surveillance programs, ended up in Russia, where he received asylum to avoid prosecution.
The showdown over the Ryanair diversion has pushed Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter-century, even closer to his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
The two ex-Soviet nations have signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties but stops short of a full merger. Russia has buttressed Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but the ties often have been strained with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control of prized economic assets and eventually abandon his country's independence.
In his remarks at the start of Friday's talks, Putin said the countries were moving to deepen their union "consistently, without rush, acting stage by stage.”
In the past, Lukashenko has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the U.S. to wring more aid out of Moscow.
Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown last year. 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.
Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm director, ended the leaders' appearance before cameras in Sochi by exclaiming, “There are no heights the Bolsheviks wouldn’t 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 may use his isolation to push for closer integration. Some in the West have even alleged Russia was involved in the Ryanair diversion — something Moscow angrily denies — and will seek to exploit the fallout.
“Lukashenko is scared, and the Kremlin may 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 Minsk-based political analyst. “In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and bargain with Putin."
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko's main opponent in the election who left the country under official pressure, also acknowledged the danger that Russia may try to use his weakness to its advantage. She urged the EU to use whatever influence it has to help prevent any deals with Moscow that would hurt Belarus.
At the same time, Tsikhanouskaya also urged the EU to be "stronger, braver in its resolutions and decisions,” saying Lukashenko acted out of a sense of impunity in diverting the flight.
The European Commission on Friday presented a 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) aid plan to support “a future democratic Belarus” that could be activated if the country moves toward a “democratic transition.”
But in a further sign of Belarus’ isolation, the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union moved Friday to suspend the Belarusian state broadcaster, BTRC, saying it has been particularly worried by its showing of interviews apparently obtained under duress. BTRC has two weeks to respond before the suspension takes effect. The move would bar Belarus from taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest, among other things.
Moscow has offered Lukashenko quick political support over the 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.
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.”
Dmitry Polyansky, Russia's deputy envoy at the United Nations, criticized the West on Friday for what he called a rash response and defended Belarus' narrative, arguing its flight controllers only “recommended” the plane land in Minsk because of the purported threat, and the pilot could have continued if he wanted.
“To say from the outset that this is a forced landing, to condemn it and to introduce sanctions without any investigation — this kind of behavior is absolutely irresponsible," he said at a news conference.
The International Civil Aviation Organization has said it will investigate the diversion, as many Western countries have asked.
As European airlines began skirting Belarus, Russia has refused some of their requests to change the flight paths of service to Moscow in the past two days but allowed some flights to proceed Friday. The Kremlin said the denial of quick permissions to use the bypass routes was technical, but Lukashenko hailed it as a show of support for Belarus.
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Jenn Peltz at the United Nations, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.