Vladimir Putin and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko have ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi amid international uproar over the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to detain a dissident journalist.
The Russian President and Mr Lukashenko held a second day of talks – as well as a yacht tour – in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Saturday.
The former-Soviet superpower will move ahead with a second £352million loan to Belarus next month amid the latest standoff with the West.
Lukashenko ordered the hijacking of a Ryanair plane as it crossed Belarusian airspace so he could arrest dissident blogger Roman Protasevich and girlfriend Sofia Sapega this week.
Putin is the only world leader to defend Lukashenko over the hijacking.
Russia promised Belarus a £1.06billion loan last year as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour and longstanding ally. Minsk received a first installment of £352million in October.
Several Western countries accused Belarus of piracy this week after Belarusian air traffic control informed the pilot of the Ryanair passenger jet of a hoax bomb threat.
Vladimir Putin and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko ‘agreed a loan deal’ during a yacht tour in Sochi amid international uproar over the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to detain a dissident journalist
Minsk scrambled a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the jetliner down, and then arrested Protasevich, a blogger and critic of Lukashenko who was on board. Arrested with Protasevich was his girlfriend, a Russian citizen.
Putin on Saturday raised the topic of Sapega, the TASS news agency reported, citing Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
‘President Lukashenko informed his Russian colleague in detail about what happened with the Ryanair flight,’ TASS cited Peskov as saying.
‘On the initiative of the Russian president the topic of the Russian citizen, who was detained, was raised …. Naturally, we are not indifferent to her fate,’ Peskov was cited as saying.
He added the Kremlin would take note of the fact that Sapega also has a Belarusian residency permit.
Putin and Lukashenko completed the day of talks with a yacht tour in Sochi.
A video appeared to show the two leaders laughing and spotting dolphins off the Russian coast.
The Russian President and Mr Lukashenko held a second day of talks – as well as a yacht tour (pictured) – in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Saturday
The former-Soviet superpower will move ahead with a second £352million loan to Belarus (the leaders on the yacht tour, pictured) next month amid the latest standoff with the West
Most of Belarus’s neighbours and many other European nations have banned flights by Belarusian national airline Belavia following Sunday’s forced landing of the Ryanair jet, which was en route to Lithuania from Greece.
The issue of air travel for Belarusian citizens was raised during Saturday’s meeting, Peskov was cited by Interfax as saying, adding the transport ministries of Moscow and Minsk had been tasked with helping Belarusian citizens currently in Europe to return home.
Yesterday, the EU offered to give £2.8billion to Belarus if Lukashenko steps aside and the country peacefully transitions to democracy.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the ‘development funding’ is ready once ‘the democratic choice of the Belarusian people’ is respected – after elections last year which Lukashenko claimed to have won but is widely thought to have lost.
Von der Leyen said: ‘To the people of Belarus: We see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future.
‘And to the Belarusian authorities: No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.’
It comes after Lukashenko ordered a Ryanair flight to divert to Minsk so he could arrest a dissident journalist and his girlfriend who were on board (pictured)
Belarusian President Lukashenko and his son Nikolai on the boat trip with President Putin
The West had already slapped sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in the vote and crackdown against protesters and is now promising more.
Many observers warn that Lukashenko has become easy prey for the Kremlin, which may use his isolation to push for closer integration.
‘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 Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based analyst.
‘In this situation, it would be much more difficult for him to resist and bargain with Putin.’
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the top opposition candidate in Belarus’ last election who left the country under official pressure, charged that Lukashenko was acting out of a sense of impunity in diverting the flight.
‘The European Union has to be stronger, braver in its resolutions and decisions,’ she said after meeting Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague.
Moscow has helped buttress Belarus’ economy with cheap energy supplies and loans, but the ties have often been strained with Lukashenko scolding Moscow for trying to force him to relinquish control over prized economic assets and eventually abandon Belarus’ independence.
In the past, the 66-year-old Belarusian leader has tried to play the West against Russia, raising the prospect of a rapprochement with the EU and the United States to wring more aid out of Moscow.
Roman Protasevich (left), a journalist who reported on protests against Lukashenko, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (right) have been in jail in Minsk since Sunday
Such tactics no longer work after Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protests last fall in the wake of a vote that handed him a sixth term but opposition said was rigged.
More than 35,000 people were arrested amid the protests and thousands beaten – moves that made him a pariah in the West. The flight’s diversion has now cornered the Belarusian strongman even more.
Some in the West have alleged Russia was involved in the Ryanair flight’s diversion – something Moscow angrily denies – and warned that it could exploit the situation to draw Belarus ever closer and possibly even incorporate it.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis charged Thursday that ‘Lukashenko is playing with Putin, and trying and helping Putin to annex the country,’ adding that ‘we should send the signals to Russia as well that annexation wouldn’t go well with Europe.’
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the EU’s decision to ask European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace as ‘utterly irresponsible and threatening passengers’ safety.’
As European airlines seek to skirt Belarus, Russia has refused some requests to change the flight paths of service to Moscow over the past two days in an apparent gesture of support for Lukashenko but allowed some flights to proceed Friday.
Austrian Airlines, for instance, canceled a flight from Vienna on Thursday, though the carrier said it was given permission to avoid Belarus for flights on the route Friday, according to the Austria Press Agency.
It is still awaiting word on further flights. Air France canceled flights from Paris to Moscow on Thursday and Friday.