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Belarus seeks Russian support amid EU row

May 28, 2021

The European Commission has offered Belarus a €3 billion aid package if it moves towards ″a democratic transition." Alexander Lukashenko has told Vladimir Putin the West is trying to rock the boat in Belarus.

Lukashenko and Putin sit down in Sochi
Lukashenko (l) is moving closer to Russia in response to pressure from the EUImage: Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday for talks on closer economic ties.

At the meeting in the Black Sea resort Sochi, Lukashenko said that Belarusian economy was "moving along normally."

"Well, there are always those who want to cause us trouble," Lukashenko added, apparently referring to Western governments.

Hailing his "trusting relationship" with Putin, Lukashenko said he brought documents to show to the Russian president "so you understand what kind of people they are."

He also said there was "an attempt to devolve the situation to the level of August last year," referring to mass protests against his rule. The protests were sparked by an election his political opponents and Western nations decried as stolen.

"It is just clear what our Western friends want from us," Lukashenko told Putin.

The meeting between the two leaders comes as the European Commission said Belarus could have access to a €3 billion aid package if the country moved to "a democratic transition."

What did Putin say about the grounding of the Ryanair jet?

Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land in the capital Minsk on Sunday. They arrested dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich who was on board the flight from Greece to Lithuania, which are both EU member states. The EU is weighing fresh sanctions on Belarus in response.

Commenting on the crisis, Russia's President Vladimir Putin pointed to a 2013 incident when a plane carrying Bolivian then-President Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna after several EU countries apparently refused it entry into their airspace. At the time, reports circulated that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was onboard the presidential plane. This turned out to be untrue.

Talking to Lukashenko, Putin noted there was no reaction from the EU over Morales.

"The president was taken out of the plane and.. nothing. Silence," Putin said. 

The Kremlin chief also said he and Lukashenko were continuing to integrate their two countries closer together, but were doing so "consistently, without rush, acting stage by stage."

The two leaders also said they would go swimming in the Black Sea after the meeting.

The Ryanair plane forced to land in Minsk
Belarus security forces searched the luggage of the Ryanair passengers using sniffer dog teamsImage: picture alliance/dpa/ONLINER.BY/AP

What is Russia's relationship with Belarus?

Russia is Belarus's closest ally. They have signed an agreement that calls for closer political, economic and military ties.

So far,the Russian aid has taken the shape of cheap energy supplies and loans.

The Belarus economy is in freefall after the EU froze assets and slapped visa bans on Lukashenko and 87 of the regime′s leaders.

"The events of the last days show a growing Western pressure on Belarus,'' Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said. "The EU has made a political decision to introduce sectoral sanctions in an apparent attempt to ruin our economy and create conditions for the repeat of coup attempts.

"In this situation, we count on the support of our closest ally, the Russian Federation."

Belarus opposition members are now calling for more nationwide strikes to add to Lukashenko′s woes.

A map with flight routes
Airliners have been avoiding Belarusian airspace

What is the Belarus-EU spat?

Tensions between Belarus and the EU increased after the forced grounding of a Ryanair plane in Minsk on Sunday. EU leaders called it a "hijacking." 

The International Civil Aviation Authority Organisation is looking into an investigation of the international incident amid claims Russia was involved.

The EU barred Belarusian carriers from its airspace and advised European airlines to avoid flying over Belarus.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the move as "utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers' safety," further heightening tensions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called for total regime change in Belarus.

"No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your [Lukashenko's] authoritarian regime," she said.

A map showing the route of Ryanair flight 4978
The Ryanair flight was nearing the Lithuanian border when it was intercepted by a Belarus fighter jet

How is the crisis influencing Belarus between the EU and Russia?

Talking to DW, Joanna Hosa from the European Council on Foreign Relations said that Lukashenko would only be getting support "as long as he does what Vladimir Putin wants him to do."

Lukashenko is facing unrest but Putin wants him to keep Belarus "quiet" in order to avert a possible domino effect in Russia.

The Russian regime "is afraid that such protest might one day shake Russia."

Commenting on the new sanctions from the EU, Hosa said they would only impact Belarus if they are very significant. This would only make "the upkeep" of Belarus more expensive for Russia, she added.

She urged the EU to do more to help people in Belarus immediately, including making it easier for Belarus nationals to get asylum, and support civil society and journalists.

Analysts fear that a further escalation in EU sanctions might push Lukashenko even closer to Putin. 

"Lukashenko is scared, and the Kremlin may demand payment for its political support by pushing for the introduction of a single currency, the deployment of  military bases and more," said Minsk-based political analyst Valery Karbalevich,. "In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and bargain with Putin."

On Friday, Belarus declared two Lithuanian diplomats "persona non grata", mirroring the move taken by Vilnius earlier in the day.

What is the relationship between Lukashenko and Putin?

DW's Emily Sherwin said that Lukashenko and Putin were "portraying themselves as kind of close friends" despite their increasingly frayed relationship.

"For Putin, in the last few years, Lukashenko has been a really difficult ally in many ways. First of all, he was playing the EU and Russia against each other and acting — or at least pretending to act — as a mediator between the two," Sherwin said.

Also, Lukashenko's recent actions and the protests against him at home have also affected his standing with Moscow, according to our correspondent.

However, Russia "want to avoid at all cost legitimizing the kind of street protests that could topple a long-time leader, that's just too close to home," she added.

dj,jc/rt (AFP, Reuters, AP, Interfax)