Belarusian ruling Alexander Lukashenko has accused the West of trying to destabilize its country when it met with Vladimir Putin after a tumultuous week that prompted the EU to prepare sanctions on Minsk for forcing a Ryanair flight to land arrested a dissident on board.
Speaking to Russia’s president on Friday, Lukashenko said the EU was “looking for problematic causes” and said he would show Putin “who these people are” from a cache of secret documents he said he had carrying a suitcase.
“They are trying to destabilize the situation at the level of last August,” Lukashenko said, referring to the mass protests he brutally repressed following the last eruption following his highly dubious election victory.
Lukashenko was in Sochi, seeking Russian support after the Ryanair incident, and the subsequent detention of opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his friend Sofia Sapega, left him a pariah in Europe.
In what has been taken as a tacit sign of Russian support, two European airlines have canceled flights Thursday in Moscow after Russian authorities did not accept new routes that would bypass Belarus airspace. EU governments had asked for their airlines moving away from Belarus and banned its state airline Belavia from EU airports.
The Russian aviation agency on Friday said it needed more time to approve the new routes “because of the increased volume of requests.” He added that European airlines have flown from Russia to Belarus 113 times in the last 24 hours, and have used alternative routes 53 times.
“What was Belavia going to do about this?” They really went into town. What is it for? Lukashenko told Putin. “If it hadn’t been for you at that moment.” . . I have seen Moscow refuse to accept planes if they fly around Belarus. They received the message immediately. “
The two leaders can often seem awkward allies. So their meeting is seen as a crucial test for Lukashenko who wants to show the West and national opponents that his country can get out of a growing international isolation.
“If Russia does not support them politically, there is no way for Belarus to do so – not just to abandon the plane, but… Repression in the country,” said Dzianis Melyantsou, an expert on the Council on Dialogue. Minsk for International Relations.
“Even when Belarus behaves strangely, and it seems that there is not much for Russia to support Belarus, Russia also shows that it is the main ally. So, Lukashenko is much more confident that he would be without this,” he said. adds Melyantsou.
The meeting in Sochi was the fourth between Putin and Lukashenko since protests in Belarus erupted last year, strengthening their hitherto strained relationship.
Belarus had tried to reduce its dependence on Russian oil, explored the restoration of American ties, expelled the ambassador from Moscow, took a Russian state-owned bank and arrested 32 Russian mercenaries.
Since last summer, however, Moscow has offered Minsk billions of dollars in loans; defended the right of Belarus to intercept aircraft; she did not demand Sapega’s release, even though she is a Russian citizen; and stood by while Belarusian security services harassed dissidents.
Meanwhile, the Belarussian president has insisted that exiled bloggers like Protasevich be part of a general US-funded trial for attempts to overthrow Putin.
“Lukashenko has an important argument: Russia and Belarus have a common enemy in the West. So, either you support me or you will eventually lose Belarus to the west, ”said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Even so, the Ryanair incident could make Belarus a problematic ally for Russia, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik.
“It’s one thing to do an integration project with a country that everyone else respects. It’s another thing where you’re embracing a state that no one else recognizes as legitimate. ”
In a possible portrayal of this misguided legitimacy, the UN International Civil Aviation Organization agreed late Thursday to investigate Ryanair’s forced Minsk grounding, with an interim report scheduled for June 26.
Lithuania also expelled two Belarusian diplomats on Friday, saying its activities were “incompatible with diplomatic status.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs he tweeted that this ”also shows solidarity w / # Latvia afterwards [Belarus] expelled employees. . . in Minsk “.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has stated that it will ban any aircraft registered in Belarus from flying over domestic airspace as of this weekend.
More information from Roman Olearchyk in Kiev, Richard Milne in Oslo