Belarus’ authoritarian president lashed out Wednesday at Europe for trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions over the diversion of a passenger jet, and he accused a dissident journalist arrested after the flight landed in Minsk of working to foment a “bloody rebellion.”
Speaking before lawmakers and top officials, President Alexander Lukashenko defended his decision to tell the Ryanair flight to land in his country, maintaining his contention that there was a bomb threat against it. He called it an “absolute lie” that a fighter jet he scrambled forced the plane to land.
European Union leaders have denounced the move to divert the plane as an act of piracy. The carrier has said its crew was instructed to land. The plane was searched once on the ground, and no bomb was found — but Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old journalist and activist, and his Russian girlfriend were detained.
“I acted in a lawful way, protecting people in line with international rules,” said 66-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relentlessly stifling dissent.
He doubled down on the idea that there was a grave security risk, saying the plane was flying not far away from the Astravets nuclear power plant and adding that he ordered air defense systems on high alert.
But he also alleged that Pratasevich and his associates were working in cahoots with foreign spy agencies to “organize a massacre and a bloody rebellion in Belarus.”
Lukashenko has faced unprecedented pressure at home with months of protests triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. But he has only doubled down on repression, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.
Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, has become a top foe of Lukashenko with a popular messaging app he ran playing a key role in helping organize the huge protests.
Pratasevich’s parents have said they’re worried about their son’s welfare and issued an emotional plea for help.
“World, please stand up and help. I urge you very much because they will kill him, they will kill him,” Natalia Pratasevich said through tears during an interview in Poland.
She said that her son’s nose appeared broken and makeup appeared to be covering up bruises in a video released of him in custody in which he says he has confessed to some of the charges against him. The journalist’s father, Dmitry Pratasevich, said his son must have been forced to make the confessions.
Ivan Tertel, the chief of the Belarusian state security agency that still goes under its Soviet-era acronym KGB, said that Pratasevich told investigators about “the sponsors of subversive activities against Belarus, its mechanisms and special services and politicians behind it” and promised to release details soon.
Pratasevich had been charged in absentia with staging mass riots and fanning social hatred. Those carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years, and some fear Pratasevich could face more serious charges, including some that carry the death penalty.
In response to Pratasevich’s arrest and the diversion of the flight, which was traveling between two EU countries, leaders quickly agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc and urged European airlines to avoid Belarus’ airspace. They agreed to draft more sanctions on officials linked to the diversion and ones targeting businesses that are the main cash earners for Lukashenko’s regime.
Lukashenko derided that response.
“Our ill-wishers outside and inside the country have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said. “That’s why they switched from organizing riots to trying to strangle us.”
He added: “It’s no longer just an information war, it’s a modern hybrid war and we need to do everything to prevent it from spilling into a hot conflict.”
Lukashenko threatened that Belarus would retaliate against the EU by weakening its border controls halting Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.
“We were stopping migrants and drugs — now you will catch them and eat them yourself,” he said.
Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said that the country could halt Western cargo shipments via Belarus.
“Our measures would be quite painful for the countries that have taken an openly hostile stance — from import bans to restrictions on transit,” he said.
“Still, we hope that those who rush to pass the point of no return to sober up and think twice before entering a slippery path of economic war in which there will be no winners.”
Foreign minister Vladimir Makei also warned that Belarus could opt out of the EU’s Eastern Partnership in view of the new sanctions. The program is part of the EU’s efforts to help Belarus and other ex-Soviet nations distance themselves from Moscow’s influence and integrate into the West.