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Belarus leader visits Russia amid EU row

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has met with his counterpart from Belarus for talks on forging closer ties amid Minsk’s bruising showdown with the European Union over the diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has found himself increasingly isolated since flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on Sunday citing an alleged bomb threat.

No bomb was found but 26-year-old journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

EU leaders denounced it as air piracy and responded by barring Belarusian carriers from the bloc’s airspace and airports and advising European airlines to skirt Belarus.

EU foreign ministers sketched out tougher sanctions on Thursday to target the country’s lucrative potash industry and other cash-earning sectors.

At the start of his talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Putin, Lukashenko criticised the EU sanctions, describing them as an attempt to reignite the opposition protests that followed his re-election in August that was widely rejected as rigged.

“It’s an attempt to destabilise the situation like last August,” he said.

In an emotional tirade, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader bemoaned the EU sanctions against Belarusian flag carrier Belavia, pointing to its role in carrying “thousands and thousands” of travellers from EU countries and the US who were stranded at the start of the pandemic.

“They have punished the Belavia staff who have helped evacuate thousands of their people!” Lukashenko exclaimed.

“What an abomination!”

Putin nodded in sympathy, pointing to a 2013 incident in which a private plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales landed in Vienna after several European countries had refused to let it cross their airspace, purportedly over speculation that whistleblower Edward Snowden was on the plane.

Austrian and Bolivian officials disagreed over whether the plane was searched after landing before resuming its journey.

“The Bolivian president’s plane was forced to land, the president was taken off the plane, and it was OK, everyone kept silent,” Putin said with a chuckle.

Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed classified information about government surveillance programs, ended up in Russia, where he received asylum to avoid prosecution.

The showdown over the Ryanair diversion has pushed Lukashenko, who has relentlessly stifled dissent during his rule of more than a quarter-century, even closer to his main ally and sponsor Russia.

The two ex-Soviet countries have signed a union agreement that calls for close political, economic and military ties but stops short of a full merger.

Russia has buttressed Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans but the ties often have been strained with Lukashenko scolding Russia for trying to force him to relinquish control of prized economic assets and eventually abandon his country’s independence.

In his remarks at the start of Friday’s talks, Putin said the countries were moving to deepen their union “consistently, without rush, acting stage by stage”.

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