On Belarus, EU leaders were more bark than bite.
After a videoconference on Wednesday to discuss the crisis in their eastern neighbor, the blocs heads of state and government condemned the August 9 presidential election as “neither free nor fair.” They declared that they did not recognize the official result, which awarded 80 percent of the vote to longtime authoritarian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko.
The leaders also condemned “disproportionate and unacceptable violence” against protesters and endorsed plans to impose sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown and for electoral fraud. European Council President Charles Michel said the sanctions would target “a substantial number” of people.
But, in a statement issued by Michel after the meeting, the EU stopped short of explicitly calling for Lukashenko to step down or demanding a new election. Michel sidestepped a question over whether Lukashenko himself would face sanctions and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he should be part of a national dialogue to resolve the crisis.
“The elections were not fair, they were not free,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin after the meeting. “But despite that, Mr. Lukashenko is still there. When I call for a national dialogue, that should naturally include the people in power there.”
The crackdown so far has resulted in some 7,000 arrests and the deaths of at least three people.
Ahead of the videoconference, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had called on the leaders not to recognize the election result and declared Lukashenko has “lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world.”
EU diplomats described the blocs approach as flexible and pragmatic, saying the next steps would be determined by events on the ground.
In not demanding Lukashenkos immediate departure or declaring he would definitely face sanctions, EU leaders appeared to be sending a message to the strongman that he has an interest in avoiding an escalation of the crisis.
But that message did not appear to have hit home with Lukashenko, who issued a defiant statement on Wednesday and sent his security forces out into the streets in large numbers.
The crackdown so far has resulted in some 7,000 arrests and the deaths of at least three people; a demonstrator died on Wednesday morning from gunshot wounds inflicted by police in the western city of Brest.
Aware that it has limited leverage in Belarus and anxious to avoid a confrontation with Moscow over the crisis, EU leaders did not suggest the bloc itself should lead mediation efforts. Instead, they expressed support for proposals for dialogue put forward by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which both Belarus and Russia are members.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was now important to direct EU money away from the authorities in Berlarus and towards civil society and vulnerable groups.
She said the Commission would “mobilize” €53 million “to support the Belarusian people in these challenging times.” The vast bulk of the money, €50 million, would be in the form of coronavirus emergency support. Some €2 million would go to help the victims of state violence and repression while €1 million would be used to support civil society and independent media, von der Leyen said.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša told POLITICO that the EUs next steps should be to develop a long-term strategy, help the opposition to organize itself, work through the OSCE toward new elections, start negotiations with Lukashenko, develop an economic package for Belarus and try to prevent direct involvement from Russia.
If violence against protesters continues, there should then be “total isolation of the regime,” Janša said.
Maidan in mind
Front of mind for many EU officials as they approach Belarus is a desire to avoid a repeat of the Ukraine crisis of 2014, which led to Russian military intervention and a dramatic deterioration of relations with Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a direct comparison between the twRead More – Source