The EU has offered to give £ 2.8 billion to Belarus should Alexander Lukashenko step aside and the country peacefully transition to democracy.
It comes after he ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane while it was crossing its airspace so he could arrest dissident blogger Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said today that ‘development finance’ will be ready once ‘the democratic choice of the Belarusian people’ is respected – after last year’s elections that Lukashenko claimed to have won, but is widely believed to have lost.
But even as the EU tries to pressure Lukashenko – and sanctions are also being prepared – he goes to Moscow in an attempt to strengthen ties with President Putin, who has so far been the only world leader to defend him against the hijacking.
Ursula von der Leyen (right) has offered £ 2.8 billion in development finance to Belarus if Alexander Lukashenko (left) steps aside and the country moves to democracy
It comes after Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk so he could arrest a dissident journalist and his girlfriend who were on board (photo)
The two will meet Friday evening in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks to deepen economic ties, the Kremlin said, with experts saying he could demand the introduction of a single currency or military bases in Belarus. station.
Von der Leyen said today: ‘To the people of Belarus: we see and hear your desire for change, for democracy and for a bright future.
“And to the Belarusian authorities, no form of oppression, cruelty or coercion will give legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.”
The West had already imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the vote and crackdown on protesters and is now promising more.
Many observers warn that Lukashenko has become easy prey for the Kremlin, which can use its isolation to push for closer integration.
“Lukashenko is afraid and the Kremlin can 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 analyst from Minsk.
“In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and negotiate with Putin.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in Belarus’ latest elections who left the country under official pressure, accused Lukashenko of feeling impunity by diverting the flight.
“The European Union must be stronger and more courageous in its resolutions and decisions,” she said after a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague.
Lukashenko will meet with Putin in Sochi tonight to discuss closer ties, which experts say could include hosting Russian military bases in Belarus.
While calling for stronger pressure on Lukashenko, she recognized the danger that Russia might try to use its weakness to its advantage and urged the EU to use whatever leverage it has to defuse any deals with Moscow that Belarus. Would harm Russia, help prevent it.
Lukashenko became increasingly isolated after Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land because of a bomb threat.
No bomb was found once the site was on the ground, but 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
The EU leaders denounced it as hijacking and piracy and responded by banning Belarusian airlines from the bloc’s airspace and airports and advising European airlines to bypass Belarus.
The bloc’s foreign ministers on Thursday outlined tougher sanctions against the country’s lucrative potash industry and other sectors that are the main source of income for Lukashenko’s government.
The dispute has pushed Lukashenko, who has continuously repressed dissent during his reign for over a quarter of a century, even closer to President Putin.
Earlier in the day, Belarusian and Russian prime ministers met in Minsk to pave the way for the presidents’ talks.
“The events of the past few days show an increasing Western pressure on Belarus,” Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said at the meeting.
The EU has taken a political decision to introduce sectoral sanctions in an apparent effort to ruin our economy and create conditions for repeated coup attempts. In this situation, we count on the support of our closest ally, the Russian Federation. ‘
The two ex-Soviet nations have signed a union agreement calling for close political, economic and military ties, but it will end with a full-blown merger.
Roman Protasevich (left), a journalist who reported on protests against Lukashenko, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (right) have been in prison in Minsk since Sunday
Moscow has helped the Belarusian economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but ties are often strained with Lukashenko berating Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control of valuable economic assets and eventually give up Belarusian independence. to give.
In the past, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of rapprochement with the EU and the United States to squeeze more aid out of Moscow.
Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protests last fall after a vote that won him a sixth term, but the opposition said it was manipulation.
More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten – movements that turned him into a pariah in the West. The distraction from the flight has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.
Some in the West have claimed that Russia was involved in the rerouting of the Ryanair flight – something Moscow angrily denies – and warned it could exploit the situation to bring Belarus ever closer and possibly even build it in.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis charged Thursday that “ Lukashenko is playing with Putin and trying to help Putin annex the country, ” adding that “ we should also send the signals to Russia that annexation would not go well with Europe. ”
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the EU’s decision to ask European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace as ‘completely irresponsible and threatening to passenger safety’.
As European airlines try to bypass Belarus, Russia has turned down some requests to change the flight routes of flights to Moscow in the past two days in a clear gesture of support for Lukashenko, but has let some flights go ahead on Friday.
For example, Austrian Airlines canceled a flight from Vienna on Thursday, although the airline said it had been allowed to avoid Belarus for flights on Friday’s route, Austria’s news agency said.
It is still waiting for news of further flights. Air France canceled flights from Paris to Moscow on Thursday and Friday.