EU eyes Belarus sanctions targeting sectors close to leader

BRUSSELS — European Union nations sketched out plans for new sanctions Thursday against Belarus that will target economic sectors close to its authoritarian president, as they sought to strike back at him for the forced diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Lisbon vowed to continue to ramp up the pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — whose disdain for democratic norms and human rights has made his country a pariah in the West.

The latest plans for sanctions, which could target the country’s lucrative potassium industry among others, comes after Belarusian flight controllers instructed a Ryanair jetliner’s crew to land in the capital of Minsk on Sunday, citing a bomb threat. No bomb was found, but 26-year-old journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich was pulled off the plane and detained. EU leaders have denounced the move as a state-sponsored hijacking, while Lukashenko has defended his actions and accused the West of trying to “strangle” his country with sanctions.

The EU has already advised its airlines to avoid the ex-Soviet nation’s airspace and barred Belarusian carriers from EU airports and airspace. The 27-nation bloc has previously slammed Belarusian authorities with sanctions over the August election that handed Lukashenko a sixth term and that opposition groups have rejected as rigged as well as 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.”

The EU has tried on and off to encourage democratic reforms in Belarus, bring it closer to the bloc — and distance it from its main backer, Russia — but has not had much success. Some say more sanctions will do little to alleviate the situation and will only push Belarus even closer to Russia, and reduce the influence of the EU and others.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg acknowledged that it is a difficult balance.

“What we don’t want to do is to drive the country in the arms of Russia,” he said.

Luxembourg Jean Asselborn said the bloc was focused on the country’s large potassium industry. The mineral is mainly used in the fertilizing industry.

“The key word, I think, is potassium,” he said. “Belarus produces a great deal of potassium, is one of the world’s biggest suppliers. And I think it would hurt Lukashenko a great deal if we accomplished something there.”

The giant Belaruskali plant, 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.

The EU foreign ministers will prepare proposals for the sanctions but will not make final decisions on Thursday.

Lukashenko has defended the move 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, saying it was merely.

He also insisted that Belarusian authorities had a legitimate right to arrest Pratasevich, who has become a top foe of Lukashenko, saying that the journalist was working to foment a “bloody rebellion.” Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also arrested.

Pratasevich, who left Belarus in 2019, ran a popular messaging app that had a key role in helping organize huge protests in recent months that have put Lukashenko under unprecedented pressure at home in the wake of the August vote. But the strongman has only increased his crackdown, and more than 35,000 people have been arrested since the protests began, with thousands beaten.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.