The US is to join the European Union in imposing sanctions on Belarus over its campaign to crush critics of president Alexander Lukashenko and its diversion of a Ryanair aircraft so that an anti-government activist could be arrested.
Belarus scrambled a fighter jet on May 23rd to escort a Ryanair plane en route from Greece to Lithuania to Minsk airport, where police arrested journalist and campaigner Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.
Protasevich worked for an online news outlet that covered and then co-ordinated huge opposition protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August, which were crushed by a brutal police crackdown in which several people died, hundreds were injured and more than 30,000 detained.
“Belarus’s forced diversion of a commercial Ryanair flight under false pretences...and the subsequent removal and arrest of Roman Protasevich... are a direct affront to international norms,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“On June 3rd, 2021, the United States will reimpose full blocking sanctions against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises,” she added.
“The United States, in co-ordination with the EU and other partners and allies, is developing a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the Lukashenko regime associated with ongoing abuses of human rights and corruption, the falsification of the 2020 election, and the events of May 23rd.”
The EU last week barred Belarusian airlines from its airports, urged the bloc’s carriers not to fly over Belarus and called on Mr Lukashenko to free more than 400 jailed opponents, including Protasevich (26) and Ms Sapega (23).
“We call on Lukashenko to allow a credible international investigation into the events of May 23rd, immediately release all political prisoners, and enter into a comprehensive and genuine political dialogue with the leaders of the democratic opposition and civil society groups that leads to the conduct of free and fair presidential elections,” Psaki added.
Mr Lukashenko held talks in Russia on Friday and Saturday with its president, Vladimir Putin, who has given him financial and security support, and echoed his claim that western powers are fomenting violent unrest in Belarus to topple its leader of 27 years.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two presidents discussed closer integration of their countries in a so-called union state, and agreed that Moscow would soon send Belarus another $500 million (€410m) tranche of $1.5 billion in loans agreed last autumn.
After Mr Putin described the West’s response to the Ryanair incident as an “emotional outburst”, Mr Peskov explained that Russia favoured “a thoughtful and constructive investigation” into the matter – which the airline’s boss Michael O’Leary has called a “state-sponsored hijacking”.
“The cascade of hasty conclusions drawn by European capitals... rather suggests that this approach is not based on an attempt to really clarify the circumstances, but is based solely on emotions,” he added.