- August 2, 2020 3:23 AM
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Moscow, Russia | President Vladimir Putin praised Russia's close ties with Belarus on Friday as he hosted strongman Alexander Lukashenko amid a global outcry following the forced diversion of a European plane.
Observers closely watched the talks to see how far the Kremlin would go to support Lukashenko's regime after Belarus scrambled a military jet to divert a Ryanair plane and arrest an opposition journalist onboard last Sunday.
Following the Ryanair plane's forced diversion, the European Union urged EU-based carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and promised fresh sanctions against Lukashenko and regime officials.
During talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin warmly greeted Lukashenko and agreed with him that the Western outcry over the plane was an "outburst of emotion".
Putin said he was "very glad" to see Lukashenko and the two should go for a swim.
In carefully worded remarks in front of reporters, Putin also said that when then-Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane was grounded in 2013 there was little Western outcry.
"The president was led out of the plane, and nothing, silence," Putin said at the start of the talks.
A plane carrying Morales from Moscow was diverted and held up in Vienna for hours amid suspicions fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.
Lukashenko complained the West was seeking to stir unrest in Belarus.
"An attempt is under way to rock the boat to reach the level of last August," Lukashenko said, referring to the outbreak of protests against his regime following a disputed election.
"It's clear what these Western friends want from us."
The Belarus strongman, who arrived with a briefcase, said he wanted to show Putin "some documents" related to the Ryanair incident and thanked him for his support in the latest standoff with the West.
The talks lasted for more than five hours but their results were not announced.
The two leaders praised growing bilateral cooperation.
"We've been building the Union State," Putin told Lukashenko.
"We are confidently moving in that direction, that work is already bringing concrete results to our citizens."
Russia and Belarus have formed a "union state" that links their economies and militaries but the Kremlin has been pushing for a closer integration.
Over the past years Lukashenko has had a volatile relationship with Moscow, playing it off against the West and ruling out outright unification with Russia.
But after the Ryanair plane incident Lukashenko's options appear to be limited.
Putin and Lukashenko have met regularly since August, when historic protests broke out against Lukashenko's nearly three-decade rule following a disputed election.
The 66-year-old Belarus strongman waged a ruthless crackdown on his opponents and has leaned increasingly on Putin amid condemnation from the West.
Several people died during the unrest in Belarus, thousands were detained, and hundreds reported torture in prison.
Sunday's flight diversion was a dramatic escalation, with EU leaders accusing Minsk of essentially hijacking a European flight to arrest 26-year-old opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich.
- 'Technical reasons' -
The overflight ban has led to several cancellations of flights between Russia and Europe, after Russian authorities rejected flight plans that would have skipped Belarusian airspace.
Russia insists the cancellations are purely "technical", but they have raised concerns that Russia could be systematically refusing to let European airlines land if they avoid Belarus.
Moscow hit out at the flight ban as politically motivated and dangerous.
"What the West has done... for political reasons is completely irresponsible and endangers the safety of passengers," said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was monitoring whether this was a broader policy from Russia, but the Kremlin insisted the disruptions were in no way political.
Belarus authorities claimed to have received a bomb threat against the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident.
Minsk said it demanded the flight land in Minsk based on the message it said was sent from a ProtonMail address by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
- 'Have to be braver' -
The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council announced Thursday it was launching an investigation.
Protasevich, who helped organise the demonstrations against Lukashenko's rule last year, was arrested along with Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the plane landed in Minsk.
Borrell has said proposals are "on the table" to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy including its oil products and potash sectors.
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Friday urged the EU to be "braver" and impose more sanctions against the Minsk regime.
After meeting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague, Tikhanovskaya said measures being discussed by EU countries to target Belarusian economic sectors did not go far enough.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday warned Lukashenko that "it is time to change course."
"No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime," she said.
The European Commission president also wrote to the opposition offering a three-billion-euro package to support "a democratic Belarus" if Lukashenko steps down.
Lukashenko has retained his grip on power in ex-Soviet Belarus since 1994 by hounding opponents, jailing and allegedly torturing dissidents, and muzzling independent media.
© Agence France-Presse