By Tom Balmforth and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW -Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday offered his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko support in his standoff with the West over his handling of the grounding of a passenger jet and the arrest of a dissident blogger.
The West has accused Belarus of piracy after Belarusian air traffic control on Sunday informed the Ryanair pilot of a hoax bomb threat and Minsk scrambled a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the jetliner down, and then arrested Roman Protasevich, a blogger and critic of Lukashenko, along with his girlfriend.
Both are now languishing in jail. Accused of orchestrating mass riots, Protasevich could be jailed for up to 15 years.
But Putin, a close ally of Lukashenko, gave his support to Lukashenko, warmly welcoming him for talks in the southern Russian city of Sochi and agreeing with Lukashenko that the West’s reaction to the incident was “an outburst of emotion”.
“At one time they forced the Bolivian president’s plane to land and took him out of the plane and nothing, silence,” said Putin, referring to a 2013 incident in which Evo Morales’ plane was forced to land in Austria at a time when the United States was trying to intercept whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The talks in the Black Sea city of Sochi were organised before the plane incident, but come after many European nations have imposed flight bans on Belarusian aviation and the EU is weighing further sanctions.
Lukashenko told Putin he would show him some confidential documents about the Ryanair incident that would help the Russian leader understand what really happened.
“There is always someone who causes problems for us. You know about them, I’ll inform you,” Lukashenko told Putin.
“I brought some documents so that you understand what is happening.”
Looking relaxed and smiling, Putin had earlier suggested the two men take a sea dip, something Lukashenko agreed to.
Russia, a close ally which sees the ex-Soviet republic of 9.5 million as a strategically important buffer to its west, had offered verbal support to Minsk before the Putin meeting, while dismissing speculation it was itself complicit in the incident.
Moscow says Belarus has shown a readiness for transparency in the row and has described the West’s reaction to the plane incident as “shocking,” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accusing it of “demonising” the authorities in Minsk.
Russia and Belarus, which are formally part of a “union state”, have been in talks for years to further integrate their nations, a process that has long spurred fears among Belarus’s beleaguered opposition that Lukashenko might trade off chunks of sovereignty in return for political backing from the Kremlin.
Putin told Lukashenko the two men were continuing to build the union state, but were doing so steadily, without haste, and in a low key way.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko with Russia’s help faced down the biggest protests of his rule last summer over election rigging, allegations that he denied. The protests lost momentum amid a violent crackdown, but his critics plan to stage new ones.