EU leaders to hold emergency talks on Belarus crisis

European Council President Charles Michel at the European Council, Brussels, Belgium, 17 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

EU leaders will hold an emergency video summit on Wednesday (19 August) to discuss the crisis in Belarus, where protests are swelling against the disputed re-election of longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.

“The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader. Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed,” EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted, saying the meeting would begin at noon.

According to an EU source, the “situation is evolving rapidly” and would justify an extraordinary meeting “to send an important message of solidarity to the people of Belarus”.

The EU leaders will discuss what other support they can extend to Belarus.

Initial ideas include starting a fund for victims of repression there, funding projects to support media pluralism, advising on police reform, enhancing student exchanges with the EU as well as granting easier access to the bloc’s labour market for Belarusian workers.

Germany said Monday it was prepared to back an expansion of EU sanctions against leading figures in Belarus over its bloody crackdown on demonstrators.

The move comes after EU foreign affairs ministers agreed on Friday (14 August) to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to strongman Lukashenko’s post-election crackdown.

Ahead of the meeting, there had been calls for action from several EU members, especially Belarus’ neighbours Poland and Lithuania, which is now hosting exiled opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Poland, Latvia and Lithuania say they are ready to act as mediators to try to resolve the post-election crisis, after a poll that Brussels has already said was “neither free nor fair”.

Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said in a call on Friday with his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis that Minsk is ready “for a constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners”.

Since the start of the crisis, Russia has implicitly criticised the EU response, denouncing what its foreign ministry spokeswoman called “clear attempts at outside interference… aimed at causing a split in society and destabilising the situation”.

On Monday (17 August), Moscow directly criticised EU support for the Belarusian protests, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron’s 16 August statement that the EU must continue to be mobilized in support of participants in peaceful protests taking part in the Belarusian capital of Minsk and other cities of the country.

“When will he call on the EU to be mobilized in support of hundreds of thousands of ‘Yellow Vests’ demonstrators who peacefully seek to ensure respect for their rights, freedoms and sovereignty? When will the EU stop waiting for calls from presidents of its member states and start to mobilize proactively in support of protests held on its own territory?” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote on Facebook.

“This is what hypocrisy is,” she added.

Belarus, Turkey on agenda as Macron and Merkel meet

French President Emmanuel Macron will host German Chancellor Angela Merkel next week at his Mediterranean holiday retreat to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, the post-election protests in Belarus and growing tensions with Turkey, the presidency said Friday (14 August).

Earlier on Sunday, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenko that Moscow was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary and that external pressure was being applied to the country.

Wary Eastern Europeans

Over the weekend Russia’s RIA news agency reported that the Belarusian army plans to hold drills over 17-20 August near the country’s nuclear plant and in the Grodno region, while Lukashenko said that an air assault brigade would move to Belarus’ Western border.

Poland said it is monitoring the situation on its border with Belarus, Deputy Defence Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said on Monday.

Lukashenko said earlier that he was concerned with the NATO military exercises being conducted in Poland and Lithuania, which he sees as an arms build-up.

NATO dismissed the allegations by Lukashenko but said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are members of NATO, and the alliance sent four battlegroups to these countries and Estonia to deter potential Russian incursions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“Neither Poland nor other Western European countries will get caught up in the intrigue Lukashenko is trying to plot,” Skurkiewicz told public radio.

“We are looking at what is happening in Belarus, just like all NATO countries, and we will also look at what happens at our borders. We will not be passive in this observation,” Skurkiewicz also said.

Polish officials have been discussing the situation in Belarus with the EU and the United States.

Asked whether an extraordinary meeting of NATO ambassadors could be organised in coming days to discuss the situation in Belarus, Lithuania’s ambassador to the Brussels-based alliance said there was no such a plan at the moment.

“If the situation deteriorates, then of course everything is possible,” Deividas Matulionis told Reuters on Sunday.

He said discussions on the matter had already taken place at NATO, but no decisions were expected at this stage.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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