(CN) --- Tensions over Belarus escalated on Tuesday with the European Union banning air travel to and from Belarus and the exiled Belarusian opposition leader calling on the United States and European capitals to take stronger actions against Minsk.
Meeting in Brussels, EU leaders also said they were preparing a new package of sanctions against Belarus and demanded the release of Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was arrested Sunday in Minsk after the Ryanair flight he was on was rerouted to the Belarusian capital in an alleged Belarusian KGB secret service operation.
EU diplomats are decrying Minsk's actions as “aviation piracy” and the latest abhorrent act by a dictatorial and repressive regime at their back door that cannot be tolerated. The EU, often seen as ineffective and largely toothless vis-à-vis authoritarian powers such as Russia and Turkey, was praised Tuesday for its hardening stance against Belarus.
“Until Protasevich’s kidnapping, the EU’s reaction to what was taking place in Belarus was tepid,” wrote Judy Dempsey, the editor-in-chief for Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
Dempsey said that the limited sanctions the EU imposed last year against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and a few other officials and entities “reinforced the perception that the EU was powerless.” But the arrest of Protasevich has “finally forced the EU’s hand," she wrote.
Like many commentators in Europe, Dempsey supported the EU's tougher actions, but she said much more needs be done, such as giving Belarusians facing persecution visas and providing more financial support to the Belarusian opposition. On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had a 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) investment package waiting to be spent on Belarus once “it becomes democratic.”
In Lithuania, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the EU and the U.S. to put even more pressure on Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya has declared herself the winner of the disputed August elections. She fled to Lithuania after the election and has tried to build international support against Lukashenko's regime from her base in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
In Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, the official Belarusian flag was replaced with the red-and-white Belarusian flag used by the opposition outside an ice hockey arena where Belarus is participating in an international hockey tournament.
This show of solidarity by Riga Mayor Martins Stakis for Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian opposition was fiercely condemned by Belarus and prompted Minsk to expel Latvia's ambassador in Belarus, Einars Semanis, and the embassy staff.
“We cannot leave such provocative actions unanswered,” said Belarusian Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Makei, according to Belta, the Belarusian state news agency. He equated the flag snub to an “act of state vandalism” and called it “a cynical violation of all and any norms of international law.”
The red-and-white flag used by the opposition was previously adopted by a republican and democratic pre-Soviet Belarusian state. But its use today is seen by the pro-government side as a highly provocative symbol and akin to showing support for fascism, a suggestion rejected by the opposition. The mass protests against Lukashenko became a sea of people displaying red and white.
On Tuesday, Minsk presented its version of events that led to the arrest of Protasevich and said it had behaved properly by escorting the airplane to Minsk after it received an alleged bomb threat from Hamas, the militant group fighting Israel, that warned the Ryanair plane was going to be blown up over Vilnius. Minsk said it was investigating the bogus bomb threat and welcomed an international probe. It claimed the pilot of the Ryanair plane took the decision to fly to Minsk.