European Union leaders have put on a show of support for people protesting in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko.
At an emergency video conference on Wednesday, they underlined their concern about the contested presidential election and ratcheted up pressure on officials linked to the security crackdown that followed.
The EU believes the results of the August 9 polls, which handed Lukashenko his sixth term with 80 percent of the vote, “have been falsified”, and the 27-nation bloc is preparing a list of Belarusian officials who could be blacklisted from Europe over their roles.
“Our message is clear. Violence has to stop and a peaceful and inclusive dialogue has to be launched. The leadership of Belarus must reflect the will of the people,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted, minutes after the summit he was chairing got under way.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, also tweeted: “The people of Belarus have the right to a result that accurately reflects their vote. The EU, including the Netherlands, can’t accept the results of these elections.”
The police crackdown
Belarus security forces arrested almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs in the first four days of demonstrations. At least two protesters died.
Workers at state-controlled companies joined strikes this week, as the unprecedented mass protests entered their 11th day, eroding the authority of the man once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”.
It is not entirely clear what the Europeans can do right now, but they appear determined to help maintain the momentum that began in the streets of Minsk with a show of political support, and to revive a sanctions programme on Belarus that was eased four years ago as relations with Lukashenko improved.
In a joint statement, the presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – countries known as the Visegrad Four – called on authorities in Belarus to “open the way for a political solution, and to abide by the fundamental human rights and freedoms while refraining from the use of violence against the peaceful demonstrators”.
They urged unnamed “foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus’ independence and sovereignty”.
Before the virtual EU summit, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on Europe to support “the awakening of Belarus”.
“I call on you not to recognise these fraudulent elections. Mr Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” she said in a video statement.
On the eve of the meeting, Michel had a half-hour telephone conversation with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to share the EU’s concern about election irregularities and the scale of the security crackdown, and to impress upon the Russian leader the right of the Belarusian people to determine their own future.
They discussed ways to encourage talks between Lukashenko and the opposition, possibly by supporting a dialogue process fostered by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.