Belarus’ authoritarian leader is heading to Russia to seek assistance amid a bruising showdown with the European Union following the arrest of a dissident journalist after his flight was diverted.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is set to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at his Black Sea residence in Sochi for talks on closer economic ties, according to the Kremlin.
Belarus provoked international outrage on Sunday when Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair jet flying from Greece to Lithuania there had been a bomb threat, and instructed it to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where 26-year-old journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.
The EU responded by barring Belarusian carriers from its airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus.
The bloc’s foreign ministers agreed on Thursday to ramp up sanctions to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other sectors of the Belarusian economy that are the main cash-earners for Mr Lukashenko’s government.
Mr Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter of a century, defended his actions and lashed out at the west for trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.
He said on Friday before departing to Moscow that he hopes to reach an agreement with Mr Putin on restoring the air link between Russia and Belarus that has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 66-year-old Belarusian ruler has faced months of protests following his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged.
He has responded with a wide-ranging crackdown, with more than 35,000 people arrested since the protests began and thousands of people beaten.
The west has responded by slapping sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the vote-rigging and repressions against protesters.
Amid western pressure, Mr Lukashenko has relied on political and financial support from his main ally, Russia.
The two ex-Soviet nations have a union agreement envisaging close economic, political and military ties, and Moscow has helped buttress Belarus’ Soviet-style economy with cheap energy supplies and loans.
The ties, however, often have been strained with Mr Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control over prized economic assets and eventually abandon Belarus’ independence.
In the past, the Belarusian leader has often tried to play the west against Moscow, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the US to wring more subsidies and concessions out of Moscow.
Such tactics no longer work after Mr Lukashenko’s crackdown on protest last fall made him a pariah in the west, and the flight’s diversion has now deepened his isolation.
Many observers warn that he has become easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use Mr Lukashenko’s weakness to push for closer integration.