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Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko flew to Russia on Friday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, amid an uproar in Europe over the dramatic grounding of a passenger plane in Minsk and the arrest of a dissident blogger.
The talks were organized in the Black Sea city of Sochi prior to the plane crash, but come as the West accused Belarus of piracy over the way the plane landed.
Belarusian air traffic control notified the pilot of a bomb threat and Minsk rushed a MiG-29 fighter plane to escort the plane, then arrested Roman Protasevich, blogger and critic of Lukashenko, along with his girlfriend.
Both of them are now in prison. On charges of organizing mass riots, Protasevi can be imprisoned for up to 15 years.
Since then, many European countries have imposed a ban on flying in Belarus, and the European Union is considering imposing more sanctions.
Russia, a close ally that considers the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people a strategically important buffer zone to the west, has provided verbal support for Minsk, while rejecting speculation that it itself is complicit in the incident.
Moscow says that Belarus has shown its willingness to be transparent in the dispute and described the West’s reaction to the plane accident as “shocking”, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused it of “demonizing” the authorities in Minsk.
A spokesman for Putin said that the talks with Lukashenko would be a good opportunity to hear what happened from a major source
During the plane crash on Sunday.
Russia and Belarus, which are formally part of the “state of the union,” have been holding talks for years to increase integration between their countries, a process that has long raised concerns among the beleaguered opposition in Belarus that Lukashenko might barter parts of sovereignty for political policies. With the support of the Kremlin.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko faced the biggest protests during his term in office last summer over allegations of election fraud, which he denied. The protests lost momentum amid a violent crackdown, but his critics are planning new protests.
The Belarusian leader said this week that his talks with Putin would bring up the economy and various “joint ventures” as well as respond to what he described as external pressure on Belarus and the use of sanctions. The Belarusian state news agency said the leaders would also discuss the merger.
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