BRUSSELS – European Union nations sketched out plans Thursday for new sanctions against Belarus, targeting economic sectors close to its authoritarian leader, as they sought to strike back at him for the diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.
Meeting in Lisbon, EU foreign ministers vowed to continue ramping up pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — whose disdain for democratic norms and human rights has made his country a pariah in the West.
The country's isolation has only deepened since Sunday, when Belarusian flight controllers told the crew of a Ryanair jet about a bomb threat and instructed it to land in Minsk, where journalist Raman Pratasevich was pulled off the plane.
A list of EU sanctions in place against senior members of the Belarus government, including Lukashenko, “isn’t having the dissuasive effect we need,” said Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva.
Amid the testy standoff, Belarus did get some help from its ally Russia, which refused to allow two Moscow-bound jetliners to change their flight paths in order to avoid Belarus' airspace.
As the EU works to hold Lukashenko to account, Pratasevich's parents appealed at a news conference in Poland for help from the international community to free their 26-year-old son.
“I want you to hear my cry, the cry of my soul. So that you understand how difficult it is for us now and how much we are experiencing this situation,” said his mother, Natalia Pratasevich. "I am begging you, help me free my son.”
The EU ministers said they kept the family in mind as they did their work.
“I’m thinking of this young blogger, this young journalist, his mother and his father," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said in the Portuguese capital. "These are bandit tricks that are being carried out here. That can’t be tolerated by the European Union.”
The latest plans for sanctions, which could target the country's lucrative potash industry among others, comes after the dramatic diversion of the Ryanair flight. EU leaders have denounced the move as a state-sponsored hijacking, while Lukashenko defended his actions and accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would not ease up on Belarus. “We need to move more swiftly on sanctions,” he said after the informal Lisbon gathering, which drew up guidance for EU leaders but was not meant to take concrete action.
The EU has already advised its airlines to avoid the ex-Soviet nation's airspace and barred Belarusian carriers from EU airports and airspace.
But in a sign of support for Belarus, Russian authorities refused to allow two EU-based carriers to change their routes to Moscow so they could skirt Belarusian airspace. An Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna and an Air France flight from Paris both had to be canceled, the companies said. It was unclear what would happen to Friday's schedule.
The French pilots’ union SNPL said in a statement it was "more than surprised” at the move.
“While normally the responses to this type of request for modification are accepted immediately, it’s been radio silence for two days” from the Russian authorities, it said.
The 27-nation bloc previously slammed Belarusian authorities with sanctions over the August election, which gave Lukashenko a sixth term and that opposition groups have rejected as rigged, along with his ensuing crackdown on protests.
If the next batch of sanctions does not ease the crackdown on the opposition and democratic values, German Foreign minister Heiko Maas said the EU “will continue to look at what effects this has in Belarus, whether Lukashenko relents. If that isn’t the case, we have to assume that this will be just the beginning of a big and long spiral of sanctions.”
Foreign ministers from the G-7 group of leading industrialized nations — which includes some EU countries — also promised to take action. They said in a statement: “We will enhance our efforts, including through further sanctions as appropriate, to promote accountability for the actions of the Belarusian authorities.”
The EU has tried on and off to encourage democratic reforms in Belarus — bring it closer to the bloc and distance it from Russia — but has not had much success. Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push it closer to Russia, reducing the influence of the EU and others.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg acknowledged it is a difficult balance.
“What we don't want to do is to drive the country in the arms of Russia,” he said.
Asselborn said the bloc was focused on the country's large potash industry, a major supplier for fertilizer, "and I think it would hurt Lukashenko a great deal if we accomplished something there.”
The giant Belaruskali plant, which is controlled by the state as are most economic assets in the country of 9.3 million, is the main cash earner for Lukashenko's government, along with petrochemicals.
Later in the day, the International Civil Aviation Organization was planning a closed-door meeting at its headquarters in Montreal to discuss Sunday's flight diversion. Western leaders have asked the organization to investigate.
Lukashenko on Wednesday defended the move, maintaining a bomb threat was made against the flight. He also insisted Belarusian authorities had a legitimate right to arrest Pratasevich, who has become one of his top foes, saying that the journalist was trying to foment a “bloody rebellion." Pratasevich's Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who also was on the flight, was arrested as well.
Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a popular messaging app that had a key role in helping organize huge demonstrations against Lukashenko after the August election. But he has only increased his crackdown, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands reported beaten.
Casert reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Geir Moulson and Dave Rising in Berlin, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Monika Scislowska and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.