On May 24th, Belarus expelled all Latvian diplomats and staff, including the ambassador, from the country.
This took place in response to actions of Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics and Martins Stakis, the mayor of Riga. They replaced the Belarusian state flag with a historical Belarusian red and white flag – currently the symbol of the Belarus opposition – in the center of the Latvian capital, which is hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship.
Minsk had originally been supposed to co-host the tournament with Riga but was stripped of the right to do so because of political unrest following a contested presidential election last August and the coronavirus pandemic.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said Riga’s move amounted to “practically an act of international vandalism” and called on Latvia to apologize and return his country’s green, red and white flag to its original place.
“For us, such actions directed against a sovereign state and nation are absolutely unacceptable,” the Belta news agency quoted Makei as saying. “We cannot leave such provocative actions unanswered.”
Makei said Belarus was allowing only one Latvian administrative and technical staff member to remain in order to look after the embassy building.
In response, Latvia did the same and expelled all Belarusian diplomatic staff and the ambassador.
The change of flags came as Belarus came under fire from European leaders for allegedly forcing a Ryanair civil aircraft flying from Greece to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, to land in Minsk.
Belarusian officials then arrested a blogger, journalist and opposition activist Roman Pratasevich, who was on board. He is one of the two main figures of the Nexta opposition channel, a network entirely ran from Poland.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels decided for Belarusian airlines to be banned from the 27-nation bloc’s airspace and urged EU-based carriers to avoid flying over the former Soviet republic, according to a joint statement.
These sanctions will cover:
• Individuals involved in this hijacking
• Businesses that finance the regime
• The aviation sector
We will keep pressure on the regime until it respects the freedom of opinion and of the media.
Roman Pratasevich must be released immediately
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 24, 2021
They also agreed to widen the list of Belarusian individuals they already sanction and called on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to urgently investigate Belarus forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk on a Greece-Lithuania flight.
Britain said it was instructing British airlines to cease flights over Belarus and that it would suspend the air permit for Belarus’s national carrier, Belavia, with immediate effect. KLM, the Dutch arm of carrier Air France KLM, will temporarily halt flights.
Austrian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, one of the largest Japanese air companies All Nippon Airways, ad others suspended flights over Belarus or will avoid flying over the country’s territory.
Ukraine cancelled all flights to and from Belarus, and will not use air routes over its territory. Lithuania banned the use of the country’s airports for flights over Belarus.