The EU has said it will provide Belarus with €3bn (£2.6bn) through grants and loans if the country “changes course” in an attempt to ramp up internal pressure on president Alexander Lukashenko as he met Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, came close to an all-out call for regime change as she issued the pledge of funds in return for a “transition” to democracy.
“Our messages are twofold. To the people of Belarus: we see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future,” she said. “And to the Belarusian authorities: no amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.
“So far, you have blatantly ignored the democratic choice of the Belarusian people. It is time to change course. When – and we believe it is a case of when, not if – Belarus starts its peaceful democratic transition, the EU will be there to accompany it.”
The offer was made shortly before Lukashenko had arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday for a summit with the Russian president, whose government has sought to distance itself from Sunday’s arrest of opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Pratasevich and Sapega were taken into custody in Minsk after Ryanair flight FR4978, on which they were travelling from Athens to Vilnius, was forced to land in the Belarus capital due to false claims of a bomb being onboard. A MiG-29 fighter jet had also been sent to escort the civilian airliner, which had been minutes from leaving Belarusian airspace.
“Today, President Putin will have an opportunity to receive what is called first-hand information about the event,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said ahead of the meeting of the two leaders.
For some years, the EU had hoped to wrestle Belarus out of Russia’s sphere of influence but it appears that all hope has been lost with the current regime. The EU offer of cash has the hallmarks of a carrot and stick approach designed to force a change of leadership.
As well as targeting Belarus’s national airline with a ban on EU airspace, and urging European carriers to avoid overflying the country, the bloc’s leaders had agreed on Monday on a raft of new economic sanctions.
The sanctions, the details of which are yet to be announced, are in addition to asset freezes and visa bans imposed on more than 80 Belarus officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, relating to the crackdown on peaceful protests against last August’s rigged presidential election result. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.
A commission spokeswoman said Von der Leyen had also written to Belarus’s opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and other opposition figures “expressing her respect and admiration for the courage and strength of the people of Belarus”.
“The president conveyed the EU stands ready to engage in all possible ways to accompany a peaceful democratic transition in Belarus, and outlined in her letter the EU’s comprehensive plan of economic support to a democratic Belarus of up to €3bn,” the spokesperson said.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said the offer of funding from the EU “should be a genuine incentive for the regime to change its course”.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry on Friday said it was expelling two Belarusian diplomats for “activities incompatible with the status of a diplomat”.
“Two [Belarus] intelligence officers working under the diplomatic cover were asked to leave Lithuania. No thank you and goodbye,” the foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said on Twitter.
Landsbergis said the move was in solidarity with Lithuania’s Baltic neighbour Latvia, which had its entire embassy staff expelled from Belarus.
In Moscow, the Kremlin denied it had begun blocking European flights to Russia after it appeared that its aviation authorities had forced Austrian Airlines to cancel its flight from Vienna to the Russian capital. Air France also cancelled its Paris-Moscow flight for the second day in a row, after it was denied permission on Wednesday to land.
The Kremlin spokesman called the disruption of flights from France and Austria to Moscow the result of “technical issues”.
“I have no doubt that the aviation authorities will give the necessary explanations, but these are technical issues,” he said. “A plane cannot enter a country wherever it wants,” Peskov said, adding that the situation was “extraordinary” and that “technical delays are unavoidable”.
He did not give a timeline for when flights from France or Austria would be allowed to resume flights to Moscow, but he denied the cause of the problem was political.
“This is not a reason for additional problems,” said Peskov. “We have enough of our own.”
Peskov said Russia welcomed the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s plans to launch an investigation into the grounding of the flight but indicated Russia would oppose other inquiries, saying that the “conclusions have already been drawn without holding any inquiry”.