The EU has said it will provide Belarus with €3bn (£2.6bn) through grants and loans if the country “changes course”, as the bloc seeks to ramp up internal pressure on the president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, came close to an all-out call for regime change as she made the pledge of funds in return for a “transition” to democracy.
“Our messages are twofold. To the people of Belarus: we see and hear your desire for change, for democracy, and for a bright future,” she said. “And to the Belarusian authorities: no amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.
“So far, you have blatantly ignored the democratic choice of the Belarusian people. It is time to change course. When – and we believe it is a case of when, not if – Belarus starts its peaceful democratic transition, the EU will be there to accompany it.”
The offer is part of a carrot and stick approach to force a change of approach or leadership in Belarus. This week EU leaders agreed on a raft of new economic sanctions in response to the arrest and holding in Belarus of the opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Pratasevich and Sapega were arrested after Ryanair flight FR4978, on which they were travelling from Athens to Vilnius, was forced to land in Minsk due to false claims of a bomb being onboard.
The sanctions, the details of which are yet to be announced, are in addition to asset freezes and visa bans imposed on more than 80 Belarus officials, including Lukashenko and his son Victor, relating to the crackdown on peaceful protests against last August’s rigged presidential election result. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.
A commission spokeswoman said Von der Leyen had also written to Belarus’s opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and other opposition figures “expressing her respect and admiration for the courage and strength of the people of Belarus”.
“The president conveyed the EU stands ready to engage in all possible ways to accompany a peaceful democratic transition in Belarus, and outlined in her letter the EU’s comprehensive plan of economic support to a democratic Belarus of up to €3bn,” the spokesperson said.
The Kremlin has announced that Lukashenko will meet the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday for talks on closer economic ties. Earlier in the day, the countries’ prime ministers met in Minsk to pave the way for the presidents’ talks.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said the offer of funding from the EU “should be a genuine incentive for the regime to change its course”.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry on Friday said it was expelling two Belarusian diplomats for “activities incompatible with the status of a diplomat”.
“Two [Belarus] intelligence officers working under the diplomatic cover were asked to leave Lithuania. No thank you and goodbye,” the foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said on Twitter.
Landsbergis said the move was in solidarity with Lithuania’s Baltic neighbour Latvia, which had its entire embassy staff expelled from Belarus.