| 18 June 2021, Friday | النسخة العربية

Putin to meet Lukashenko in display of support after Belarus plane diversion

In an attempt to strengthen ties with his closest ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will meet his Russian counterpart on Friday.

The meeting comes as Belarus faces widespread condemnation for intercepting a civilian jetliner flying over its airspace to arrest an opposition journalist on board.

The summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi will be a critical show of support by Moscow for Mr Lukashenko’s regime a day after the UN civil aviation agency announced it would investigate Sunday’s interception of the Ryanair airplane by a MiG-29 fighter jet.

On a flight from Athens in Greece to Lithuania, prominent dissident Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested upon landing in Belarus. Protasevich, 26, faces a 15-year prison sentence.

The Sochi meeting will be particularly symbolic as Mr Lukashenko has become increasingly dependent on President Vladimir Putin’s backing to maintain his grip on power. The Belarus president will want to demonstrate that he can ride out the international opprobrium that includes potentially harsh European Union sanctions and a demand from the G7 for the immediate release of Protasevich.

Mr Lukashenko, who has resisted several challenges during his 27-year rule, is increasingly dependent on Moscow’s support.

This is in contrast to before presidential elections last August, which Mr Lukashenko claimed he won, when Belarus expelled the Russian ambassador, seized a state-owned Moscow bank and arrested 32 Russian mercenaries. The country had also tried to reduce its reliance on Russian oil.

But since last summer Mr Putin has loaned Belarus billions of dollars and defended the Ryanair interception, because he is keen to avoid his immediate neighbour falling under the influence of western countries.

The Russian leader is also seeking further integration between the two economies.

Mr Lukashenko, 66, has yet to identify a potential successor who would prove a loyal Moscow ally and he continues to play off Russia against other partners such as India and China.

Despite the Sochi meeting, there is still a possibility that after the Ryanair interception Mr Lukashenko might be an increasingly problematic ally who has lost international respect.

The UN civil aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation Council, announced on Thursday that it had “decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation of this event”.

The subsequent report is unlikely to put Belarus in a good light.