Moscow (AFP) -
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Friday was in Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin that are seen as a support for the increasingly isolated regime following the forced diversion of a European plane.
The high-profile talks began Friday evening and come as the authoritarian Belarusian leader faces a global outcry for forcing a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk last Sunday and arresting an opposition journalist onboard.
Observers will watch the negotiations in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi to see how far Russia goes to support Lukashenko's regime.
Lukashenko's office said the two leaders would 'compare notes over the most pressing issues' on the agenda and discuss further steps to bring their two ex-Soviet countries closer.
Following the Ryanair plane's forced diversion, the European Union urged EU-based carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace and promised fresh sanctions against Lukashenko and regime officials.
The overflight ban has led to several cancellations of flights between Russia and Europe, after Russian authorities rejected flight plans that would have skipped Belarusian airspace.
Air France for the second time this week had to cancel a flight from Paris to Moscow on Friday, after Austrian Airlines did the same for a Vienna-to-Moscow flight on Thursday.
Russia insists the cancellations are purely 'technical', but they have raised concerns that Russia could be systematically refusing to let European airlines land if they avoid Belarus.
- Regular meetings with Putin -
Moscow hit out at the flight ban as politically motivated and dangerous.
'What the West has done... for political reasons is completely irresponsible and endangers the safety of passengers,' said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
'It is time for Brussels to learn how to take effective measures to protect citizens against real, not imaginary, threats.'
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was monitoring whether this was a broader policy from Russia, but the Kremlin insisted the disruptions were in no way political.
'Aviation authorities will give the necessary explanations, but these are technical reasons,' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency said changes of previously approved routes could result in delays in obtaining arrival, departure or transit permits.
Putin and Lukashenko have met regularly since August, when historic protests broke out against Lukashenko's nearly three-decade rule following a disputed election.
The meetings are often held behind closed doors and without comments to journalists.
Lukashenko, 66, waged a ruthless crackdown on his opponents and has leaned increasingly on Putin amid condemnation from the West.
Several people died during the unrest in Belarus, thousands were detained, and hundreds reported torture in prison.
Sunday's flight diversion was a dramatic escalation, with EU leaders accusing Minsk of essentially hijacking a European flight to arrest 26-year-old opposition journalist and activist Roman Protasevich.
Belarus authorities claimed to have received a bomb threat against the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying the dissident.
Minsk said it scambled a combat jet and demanded the flight land in Minsk based on the message it said was sent from a ProtonMail address by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
- 'Have to be braver' -
But Proton Technologies, which is based in Geneva, said the message was sent after the plane had already been diverted.
'We can see the sent time and can confirm it was after the plane was redirected,' it said on Twitter.
The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council announced Thursday it was launching an investigation, amid calls for Belarus to be banned from international air agencies.
Protasevich, who helped organise historic demonstrations against Lukashenko's rule last year, was arrested along with Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the plane landed in Minsk.
Both Protasevich and Sapega have since appeared in confession videos that their supporters said were recorded under duress and are a common tactic of the regime to pressure critics.
Borrell has said proposals are 'on the table' to target key sectors of the Belarusian economy including its oil products and potash sectors.
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the EU to be 'braver' and impose more sanctions against the Minsk regime.
After meeting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague, Tikhanovskaya said measures being discussed by EU countries to target Belarusian economic sectors did not go far enough.
'Now we have to be stronger, braver, and the European Union has to be stronger, braver in its resolutions and its decisions,' the exiled Belarusian opposition chief told reporters.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday warned Lukashenko that 'it is time to change course', saying: 'No amount of repression, brutality or coercion will bring any legitimacy to your authoritarian regime.'
The European Commission president also wrote to the opposition offering a three-billion-euro package to support 'a democratic Belarus' if Lukashenko steps down.
Estonia called meanwhile for stopping the 'flow of money' to Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has retained his grip on power in ex-Soviet Belarus since 1994 by hounding opponents, jailing and allegedly torturing dissidents, and muzzling independent media.