Russia has agreed to release a second $500m loan to Belarus as Moscow stepped up its support for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko amid outrage in the West about the grounding of a European passenger plane and the arrest of a dissident journalist.
The financial support was announced after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a second day of talks with Lukashenko, and treated his guest to a yacht tour in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday.
The money is part of a $1.5bn loan that Russia promised Belarus as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour after mass protests broke out against Lukashenko’s nearly three-decade rule last year.
Minsk received a first instalment of $500m in October and will receive the second tranche before the end of June, the RIA news agency reported.
Putin and Lukashenko’s two-day summit came as the European Union and the United States denounced Belarus for using a hoax bomb threat to force a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk. Belarusian authorities sent a fighter jet to escort the plane down, before arresting journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen.
Both are in jail accused of orchestrating mass riots. Protasevich could be jailed for up to 15 years.
Several European nations have imposed flight bans on Belarusian aviation, while the US said that “full blocking sanctions” on nine state-owned Belarusian companies will come into effect on June 3. Washington also said it was working with the EU in drawing up a list of targeted sanctions against key members of Lukashenko’s government.
Putin has criticised the West’s response, agreeing with Lukashenko on Friday that the reaction was “an outburst of emotion”.
Russia also pledged to consider increasing flights with Belarus to offset the effect of the EU’s flight bans, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Putin and Lukashenko “discussed the organisation of air traffic, taking into account the decision of European authorities and many airlines that have cancelled flights through [Belarusian] airspace, and taking into account that Belavia is no longer welcome in European cities,” Peskov said. “The transport ministries of the two countries – Russia and Belarus – are instructed to organise all aspects of air communication … with regard to the fact a large number of Belarusians have to somehow return to their homeland.”
Putin also raised the topic of Sapega, Protasevich’s partner, Peskov said.
“On the initiative of the Russian president, the topic of the Russian citizen, who was detained, was raised … Naturally, we are not indifferent to her fate,” Peskov was cited as saying.
He added the Kremlin would take note of the fact that Sapega also has a Belarusian residency permit.
“Therefore, we proceed from the fact that everything should be done within the law. The president has instructed the Russian Foreign Ministry to follow the Russian citizen case with the utmost attention,” Peskov added.