EU Takes Russia to Task Over Belarus Amid Sanctions Talk

European Union foreign ministers pointed a finger at Russia’s ties to Belarus as they moved toward implementing harsher sanctions against Minsk after it forced down a commercial airliner and arrested a journalist.

Diplomacy chiefs discussed in Lisbon how to implement measures against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko after the diversion of a Ryanair Holdings Plc flight crossing Belarusian airspace en route from Greece to Lithuania.

The EU is working on new sanctions that could target potash, a soil nutrient that’s one of Belarus’s biggest exports, after the Ryanair incident. Leaders earlier this week asked ministers to come up with broader measures to target businesses and entire sectors of the country’s economy, including the financial industry.

Shifting the focus from the immediate aftermath of the incident, diplomats also increasingly focused on Russia’s relationship with its fellow former Soviet neighbor.

“Everyone knows that without Russia and without Russian support Lukashenko wouldn’t have any future in Belarus,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters on arrival at the Thursday gathering. “That’s why it’s important to remain in talks with Russia but also with the clear expectation we have of Belarus and that we are making clear with the sanctions.”

Putin’s Backing

Russia has backed the Belarusian leader over the past quarter century, including during a brutal crackdown on the opposition last year, even as he resisted Moscow’s push for closer economic and political union.

A troublesome ally for the Kremlin who’s often played Russia and the West against each other, Lukashenko’s ultimately been a reliable bulwark against the steady eastward advance of Western interests. With President Vladimir Putin seeing the West’s hand in the ouster of allies in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia offered Lukashenko loans, energy supplies and, if needed, police support to weather protests.

And after the incident with the airliner, Lukashenko will find it harder to gain leverage over Putin by cozying up to the EU.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters after Thursday’s talks that the bloc “needs to move more swiftly with sanctions,” adding that measures against individuals were almost ready. Ministers put forward ideas for sanctions but nothing has yet been decided, Borrell added.

Maas said the EU won’t be satisfied with “small sanctions steps” and will target “economic structures and payments traffic” in Belarus and make sure they have a substantial effect. Sectoral sanctions should be in place by June 21 when foreign ministers meet again, Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn said.

Belarus’s bonds sold off for the fourth straight day, taking the yield on the country’s 6.378% dollar notes due 2031 to 7.9%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s roughly 20 basis points away from a high reached in August, when investors were spooked by a crackdown on protests against Lukashenko’s claim to a landslide election victory.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the international community to recognize Lukashenko’s government as a terrorist regime and cut it off from financial support.

“We should isolate the regime financially,” she said at a news conference. “The EU should consider every possibility to achieve this.”

Several EU ministers expressed concern at Putin’s backing for Lukashenko, who he’ll meet on Friday in Sochi, Russia.“The EU should address the root causes of these conflicts, Russia is behind these conflicts, Russia is using these conflicts to create its own sphere of influence,” said Romania’s Bogdan Aurescu.

Although Russia and Belarus have shared what they call a “union state” for more than two decades, their integration has stalled as Lukashenko insisted on more economic benefits while refusing to cede any political power. Even as he continues to proclaim full support for Russia, the Belarusian leader has been keen to emphasize the independence of his country from a neighbor with more than 15 times the population.

‘We Know’

“We know what’s going on in Belarus,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in Lisbon. “Actually Lukashenko is playing with Putin and helping Putin to annex the country. So we should send the signals to Russia as well, that annexation wouldn’t go well with Europe.”

In an emotional appeal from the Polish capital, the parents of the detained journalist, Raman Pratasevich, called on the West to boost pressure on Lukashenko to free their son and his girlfriend. They said a video of their son in detention showed that he had been beaten and expressed fear for their own lives after leaving Belarus.

“We don’t know what state he’s in or where he is, and we are very worried about his life,” Dzmitry Pratasevich told reporters. “We are getting more and more threats. Anonymous threats tell us that what happened to Raman was lucky, and that we will be shot dead here in Warsaw.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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