Home ยป Belarus plane diversion: Putin plays down crisis at talks with Lukashenko

Belarus plane diversion: Putin plays down crisis at talks with Lukashenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed Western outrage over the diversion of a Ryanair jet to the Belarus capital from where a dissident and his girlfriend were seized.

During talks in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Mr Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko spoke of “an outpouring of emotion”.

The EU has since urged Europe-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace.

They have demanded the release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega.

The pair had been flying from Athens to Vilnius, two EU capitals, last Sunday, when a fighter jet was scrambled over Belarus to escort their plane to land at Minsk airport over a bomb threat which turned out to be fake.

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The UN’s civil aviation agency has said it will launch a “fact-finding” investigation into Belarus’s actions, asking whether there was any breach of international aviation law.

After the EU called on airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, Russia refused access for several Moscow-bound Air France and Austrian Airlines flights.
What do Putin and Lukashenko accuse the West of?

Russia is the Belarusian leader’s strongest political ally, even though personal relations between the two long-time presidents are at times said to be strained.

Mr Putin suggested that the EU had applied double standards – and referred to an incident in 2013 when a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales from Moscow was denied entry to several surrounding countries as the US hunted for fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, who had sought sanctuary in Russia.

Mr Putin said that in 2013 “there was silence” from the EU as the Bolivian plane was forced to divert to Vienna airport.
media captionLithuanian PM says it’s hard to believe Lukashenko

The Belarusian president told Mr Putin that the West was seeking to stir new unrest in his country.

“An attempt is under way to rock the boat to reach the level of last August,” he said, referring to mass protests against his rule after a disputed election.

Mr Putin praised closer ties between Russia and Belarus, which are formally two parts of a Union State.
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Belarus: The basics

Where is Belarus? It has its ally Russia to the east and Ukraine to the south. To the north and west lie EU and Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Why does it matter? Like Ukraine, this nation of 9.5 million is caught in rivalry between the West and Russia. President Lukashenko has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” – he has been in power for 27 years.

What’s going on there? There is a huge opposition movement demanding new, democratic leadership and economic reform. The opposition movement and Western governments say Mr Lukashenko rigged the 9 August election. Officially he won by a landslide. A huge police crackdown has curbed street protests and sent opposition leaders to prison or into exile.
What caused the latest crisis?

On Sunday, Ryanair Flight 4978 was travelling from Athens to Vilnius, when it was forcibly diverted to Minsk.

Belarusian authorities said they had received a bomb threat – via Switzerland – but according to Swiss secure email provider Proton Mail the emailed message was sent after the plane was diverted.
Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapegaimage copyrightReuters
image captionOpposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were detained when the plane’s 126 passengers disembarked in Minsk

Aboard were Mr Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, Ms Sapega, 23, an international law student and Russian national. They were arrested as passengers disembarked the plane.

Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, a dissident media operation with a popular Telegram messenger channel. He left Belarus in 2019 and now lives in exile in Lithuania. Nexta became a significant channel for protesters challenging the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus, widely condemned as rigged.

Mr Protasevich was put on the Belarusian terrorist list last year, and faces serious charges.

Who is Roman Protasevich?
Who is Sofia Sapega?

On Thursday, Mr Protasevich was able to see his lawyer, Inesa Alenskaya, for the first time. “All is well, he is vigorous, positive and cheerful, there is nothing to worry about,” she was quoted as saying.

Russia’s foreign ministry says Ms Sapega is accused of breaking Belarusian law in August and September of 2020.

Videos were released showing the pair confessing to crimes, but it is likely they were speaking under duress.

Their arrests and the forced landing of the plane have prompted international outrage.

“We must have measures to ensure that can’t happen again,” the head of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, told Reuters news agency.

Zaraki Kenpachi