EU Weighs Issuing Sanctions on Belarus' Most Profitable Industry — Potassium

European Union (EU) leaders met Thursday to discuss new sanctions against Belarus that will target important economic sectors after that country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, forced a plane to land to arrest an opposition journalist on board

The latest sanctions plan could impact Belarus' lucrative potassium industry. The state-run Belaruskali plant is the main cash earner for the government along with petrochemicals.

"The keyword, I think, is potassium," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told the Associated Press. "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 EU already advised its airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and barred Belarusian carriers from EU airports and airspace. It also previously levied sanctions after an election in August that opposition groups rejected as rigged.

Belarus Lukashenko Sanctions
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during his meeting with parliamentarians, members of Constitutional Commission and representatives of public administration bodies in Minsk on May 26, 2021. European Union leaders are weighing options for new sanctions against Belarus after the arrest of an opposition journalist on a diverted Ryanair commercial flight. Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

The latest round of sanctions 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.

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.

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.

European Union Leaders Belarus Sanctions
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, left, speaks with Slovakia's Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, center, and Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg during a round table meeting of EU foreign ministers in Lisbon, Thursday, May 27, 2021. European Union foreign ministers meet Thursday to discuss EU-Africa relations and Belarus. Armando Franca/AP Photo