The European Union has offered Belarus €3 billion in support if it moves peacefully to democracy, while threatening to impose more sanctions over the country’s crackdown on critics of its autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Mr Lukashenko flew to Russia on Friday for talks with its president Vladimir Putin, his chief ally, amid continuing fallout from Belarus’s diversion of a Ryanair plane to Minsk airport, where police arrested journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
In response to Sunday’s incident, the EU barred Belarusian airlines from its airports and urged the bloc’s carriers to avoid airspace over the country, and discussed possible further sanctions on key sectors of its economy.
The European Commission on Friday outlined an assistance plan, worth up to €3 billion, which “reflects the European Union’s commitment to support the Belarusian people’s wishes for a peaceful democratic transition in the country”.
“Our messages are twofold. 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 amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime,” said commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
“So far, you have blatantly ignored the democratic choice of the Belarusian people. It is time to change course. When . . . Belarus starts its peaceful democratic transition, the EU will be there to accompany it.”
The West rejects Mr Lukashenko’s claim to have won last August’s deeply flawed presidential election, and has denounced police violence against protesters in which several people died, hundreds were hurt and more than 30,000 detained.
The EU has demanded that Mr Lukashenko – ruler of his country for 27 years – free more than 400 political prisoners who are still behind bars, including Mr Protasevich and Ms Sapega, who made “confessions” on state television this week that friends and relatives say were clearly scripted and forced.
Mr Lukashenko claims Belarus received an emailed bomb threat against the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania, and acted properly in scrambling a fighter jet to escort it to Minsk airport. He also insists that police were right to arrest Mr Protasevich, whom he accuses of plotting “bloody unrest” in Belarus.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary wrote to the Belarus transport ministry this week to complain that the airliner had been “unlawfully diverted under false pretences”, Reuters reported on Friday.
“The pilot in command was left with no alternative but to divert to Minsk, when he was advised by Minsk ATC [air traffic control] that there was a credible bomb threat to the aircraft, yet Minsk ATC refused to contact Ryanair, falsely claimed that Ryanair Ops would not answer the phone,” the letter said.