Belarus: EU sanctions set to target companies ‘close to’ Lukashenko

‘Companies close to the Belarusian regime’ will be targeted, minister says

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 27 May 2021 16:58 BST
Alexander Lukashenko has faced fierce criticism over the diversion of a plane and arrest of dissident journalist
Alexander Lukashenko has faced fierce criticism over the diversion of a plane and arrest of dissident journalist (BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)

The European Union plans on placing sanctions on Belarus that hit companies close to the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko, according to Estonia’s foreign minister.

Officials have been hinting at what will - or they think should be - targeted in fresh sanctions after Belarusian authorities diverted an airplane to land on its soil and arrested a dissident journalist who was onboard.

Eva-Maria Liimets, Estonia’s foreign minister, said “companies close to the Belarusian regime” will face sanctions as she arrived for a meeting with her EU counterparts in Lisbon on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s foreign minister suggested possible sanctions could affect the fertiliser component potash, which is a key export of the country.

“I think it would hurt Lukashenko very much if we managed something in this area," Jean Asselborn said.

Other foreign ministers from the bloc said the EU should consider hitting the oil sector with sanctions and the country’s financial transactions could also be under threat.

Belarus has faced intense criticism over the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained after the plane he was travelling on was forced to land in Minsk, along with a young Russian woman, Sofia Sapega, said to be his girlfriend.

The Ryanair plane was diverted by fighter jets on its journey between two EU countries, Greece and Lithuania, on Sunday.

The 26-year-old - who co-founded the main opposition platform during protests following a disputed election last year - has since appeared in a video, saying he was “confessing to having organised mass unrest”.

But his father has said said he believes his son was forced to admit guilt and that his nose looked broken in the footage.

EU leaders have already banned Belarusian airlines from the bloc’s airspace and airports, as well as imposing sanctions on officials linked to the diversion in response to Sunday’s events.

Ahead of the informal meeting, the EU’s foreign policy chief said: "The hijacking of the plane and the detention of the two passengers is completely unacceptable.”

He added: “We will start discussing implementation of the sectorial and economic sanctions.”

The EU - along with the US, UK and Canada - had already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on scores of Belarusian officials, including the country’s president following last year’s disputed election.

Meanwhile, privacy-focused email provider Proton Technologies AG said that the bomb threat cited by Belarus as the reason for diverting the Ryanair jet was only sent after the plane was diverted.

“We haven’t seen credible evidence that the Belarusian claims are true,” the Swiss company said in a statement. “We will support European authorities in their investigations upon receiving a legal request.”

Also on Thursday, Ireland said it would call on the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization to conduct an impartial probe into the “forced landing” of the Ryanair jet in Minsk.

And it was reported that an Austrian Airlines plane had been denied permission to fly to Russia after it requested changing its route to avoid Belarus. The plane was travelling from Vienna to Moscow.

Belarus was rocked by a wave of demonstrations and a crackdown on protesters after the vote won officially by Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power for more than 25 years.

However, the opposition claimed the vote was riddled with fraud. Mr Lukashenko has denied vote-rigging allegations.

Mr Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a popular messaging app that had a key role in help to organise the huge protests in the months after the election.

Mr Lukashenko has lashed out at Europe for trying to “strangle” his country.

In a long, rambling speech on Wednesday, he defended his decision to tell the Ryanair flight to land in his country, maintaining his contention that there was a bomb threat against it, and called it an “absolute lie” that a fighter jet he scrambled forced the plane to land.

Additional reporting by agencies

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