EU leaders to support Belarus’s protesters, but caution Russia

MINSK / BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders holding a state of emergency were expected to face sanctions on Belarusian officials on Wednesday, but signaled a reluctance to take steps that could be seen as a bid to drive the country out of the Moscow lane.

Belarussian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks in a video message at an unknown location in Lithuania, in this still image taken from handout video released on August 19, 2020. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Headquarters / Handout via REUTERS

President Alexander Lukashenko has been facing mass street demonstrations since officials announced he was re-elected on August 9 in a vote his opponents say was rigged. Authorities have cracked down on his opponents with his thousands of arrests.

It is the biggest crisis in a former Soviet state since a popular uprising killed a pro-Moscow leader in Ukraine six years ago, leading to Russian military intervention and Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict.

‘Violence must stop and a peaceful and inclusive dialogue must be launched. The leadership of #Belarus must reflect the will of the people, ”wrote Charles Michel, the EU’s president, in a tweet announcing the start of the video conference.

European leaders are expected to impose financial constraints on Belarus officials who hold them accountable for electoral fraud and the collapse of Protestants.

But EU officials made it clear that they did not have much appetite for a strong stance in support of the opposition, which might prompt Moscow to intervene.

“Belarus is not Europe,” said EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, comparing it to pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia, both targets of Russian military operations. “Belarus is really strongly associated with Russia and the majority of the population is in favor of concluding ties with Russia.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who stood as the main challenger to Lukashenko in the elections after better-known opposition figures were imprisoned or banned from standing, had urged EU leaders to deny Lukashenko’s victory.

“I urge you not to acknowledge these fraudulent elections,” Tsikhanouskaya said in English in a video address from the exile in neighboring Lithuania, where she fled to the polls telling her followers that she won. “Mr. Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world. ”

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who has run Belarus for 26 years, seems to be underestimating the public anger in the country after official results gave him victory with 80 percent of the vote. Large state-owned factories have gone on strike in sympathy with Protestants, and authorities have acknowledged that some police officers are closing their posts.

Speaking to his security council on Wednesday, Lukashenko repeatedly accused the protesters of being funded from abroad.


Attention is firmly focused on how Russia will respond to the crisis. Of all the former Soviet republics, Belarus has by far the closest economic, cultural, and political ties to Russia, and its territory is central to Russia’s self-defense. Since the 1990s, the two countries have proclaimed themselves part of a ‘union state’, complete with a Soviet-style red flag.

Flight tracking data showed that a Russian government plane used in the past to carry senior government officials, including the head of the FSB security service, had made a fast flight to Belarus and back. Officials from Russia and Belarus have not commented publicly on the flight.

Despite her close ties, Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained a strained personal relationship with Lukashenko. The Kremlin now has to deal with the choice of staying with him because his authority seems to be disappearing, or trying to manage a transition to a new leader who would keep Minsk in Moscow’s job.

Opposition figures called for a change in talks on Tuesday. Lukashenko dismissed it as an attempt to seize power, saying he would take appropriate action.

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Putin has offered Lukashenko military aid as needed. During phone calls on Tuesday, Russian leaders warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron against mediation in Belarus.

The protests have spread to some of the country’s most important industrial plants supporting Lukashenko’s economic model. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Wednesday, removing two people from the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ).

Police also took control of the state theater in Minsk. The theater became a hotbed of protests when its director, a former Belarusian diplomat, was fired after speaking out in favor of the protests.

Report by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Maria Kiselyova and Rinat Sagdiev in Moscow, Yoruk Isik in Istanbul, Geert De Clercq in Paris and Simon Johnson in Stockholm; Written by Matthias Williams and Peter Graff; Edited by Andrew Osborn and Philippa Fletcher

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