Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko ‘agreed a loan agreement’ on a yacht tour in Sochi amid international uproar over the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to detain a dissident journalist.
The Russian President and Mr Lukashenko held a second day of talks – and a hunting tour – in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Saturday.
The former Soviet superpower will continue next month with a second £ 352 million loan to Belarus amid the latest standoff with the West.
Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane while it was crossing Belarusian airspace so he could arrest dissident blogger Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega this week.
Putin is the only world leader to defend Lukashenko against the hijacking.
Russia last year promised Belarus a £ 1.06 billion loan as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilize its neighbor and long-term ally. Minsk received a first tranche of £ 352 million in October.
Several Western countries accused Belarus of piracy this week after Belarusian air traffic control informed the pilot of the Ryanair passenger plane of a hoax bomb threat.
Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko ‘agreed loan agreement’ on yacht tour in Sochi amid international uproar over Ryanair flight hijacking to detain dissident journalist
Minsk scrambled a MiG-29 fighter to guide the jet down and then arrested Protasevich, a blogger and critic of Lukashenko who was on board. His girlfriend, a Russian citizen, was arrested along with Protasevich.
Putin raised the subject of Sapega on Saturday, TASS news agency reported, citing Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
“President Lukashenko has extensively informed his Russian colleague about what happened to the Ryanair flight,” Peskov quoted.
“At the initiative of the Russian president, the subject of the Russian citizen being detained was raised … Obviously, we are not indifferent to her fate,” said Peskov.
He added that the Kremlin would take note that Sapega also has a Belarusian residence permit.
Putin and Lukashenko closed the day with a yacht tour in Sochi.
A video appeared in which the two leaders laughed and spotted dolphins off the Russian coast.
The Russian President and Mr Lukashenko held a second day of talks – as well as a hunting tour (photo) – in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Saturday.
The former Soviet superpower will continue next month with a second £ 352 million loan to Belarus (the yacht tour leaders, pictured) amid the latest standoff with the West.
Most of Belarus’s neighbors and many other European countries have banned flights operated by Belavia’s national carrier Belavia following the emergency landing on Sunday of the Ryanair jet bound for Lithuania from Greece.
The issue of air travel for Belarusian citizens was raised at Saturday’s meeting, Peskov was cited by Interfax, adding that the transport ministries of Moscow and Minsk had been ordered to remove Belarusian citizens currently in Europe. help to return home.
Yesterday, the EU offered to give £ 2.8 billion to Belarus if Lukashenko steps aside and the country peacefully transitions to democracy.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the ‘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.
Von der Leyen said: ‘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.”
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)
Belarusian President Lukashenko and his son Nikolai on the boat trip with President Putin
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.
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.
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
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.