Following arrests, free elections are ‘key’ for EU-Belarus relations, Commission says

Opposition supporters wearing protective face masks shout slogans during a rally in Minsk, Belarus, 31 May 2020. The presidential campaign has kicked off in Belarus, with the election scheduled for 09 August 2020. [EPA-EFE/TATYANA ZENKOVICH]

The EU has called for the release of a vlogger arrested in Belarus in May, as the challenges to the more than 25 year-long rule of the country’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko mount in the run-up to the presidential election in August.

Belarusian authorities confirmed on Tuesday (9 June) that vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky and seven other activists face up to three years in prison and will be charged for actions “grossly disrupting public order” following their arrest during a picket in Grodno last month.

Tikhanovsky was collecting signatures for the presidential bid of his wife, Svetlana, who is running in her husband’s stead.

The vlogger had initially planned to run himself but was unable to submit his candidature within the legally mandated timeframe due to being in detention for having previously participated in an unauthorised mass event.

“In light of the arbitrary nature of Mr Tikhanovsky’s detention and prosecution, the EU continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release and for all charges against him and other activists to be dropped,” EU spokesperson Peter Stano told reporters on Tuesday.

Pointing out that last year’s parliamentary elections were a missed opportunity, Stano said that  “Belarusian authorities are facing an important choice.”

No opposition candidate had won a seat in parliamentary elections last autumn.

Opposition wins no seats in Belarus election

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko maintained his hold on power after results published early on Monday (18 November) showed not a single opposition candidate had won a seat in parliamentary elections over the weekend.

“We [previously] stated very clearly that the conduct of these presidential elections will be key for further development of the relations between Belarus and the European Union,” Stano said.

On 3 June, Brussels, Washington and London issued a joint statement calling for free and fair elections, emphasising “that no politically motivated restrictive measures should prevent potential candidates from fulfilling the registration procedure.”

“Media freedom and the right of peaceful assembly are essential to legitimate elections,” the diplomatic missions said the same week that a visa facilitation agreement entered into force between the post-Soviet country and the EU.

“This is why we are also concerned regarding the recent detentions of peaceful protesters and imprisonments of journalists.”

Just a year after the launch of his channel, “A Country for Life”, Tikhanovsky has galvanised a new movement ahead of this summer’s polls, which have often been a formality in the country of 9.5 million people.

Showing clips about corruption, courts and police abuse on his channel, Tikhanovsky has amassed an audience of 230,000, which added another 58,000 subscribers in the last month alone, according to social media tracking website Social Blade.

He also coined a new insult for President Lukashenko, in power since 1994, calling him a “cockroach”.

Lukashenko met with national security chiefs on Tuesday and pointed out the “impermissibility of turning the signature collection into unauthorised meetings and mass events with violation of all imaginable and unimaginable laws and norms of morality.”

“Let democracy be democracy, but there should be no lawlessness. And there will not be,” he told security bosses.

“You have seen in the United States, Western Europe, how super-democratic states — which, by the way, have lectured us about democracy — treated the protesters.”

“The main task of state agencies of the national security system is to preserve stability in the country and to ensure law and order.”

Frosty relations between Minsk and the West have been thawing recently, with the resumption of bilateral relationships and high-level political visits.

During his visit to the country, wedged between the EU and Russia, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán urged the EU to drop sanctions against Belarus, which include an arms embargo as well as targeted asset freezes and travel bans.

Neither of the leaders were seen wearing masks during the talks.

Orbán urges end to EU sanctions on Belarus

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán urged the European Union to drop sanctions against Belarus as he met the ex-Soviet state’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Friday (5 June).

Last week Poland sent 300 tonnes of equipment to help fight the coronavirus in Belarus, garnering commendation from EU crisis management chief Janez Lenarčič.

Others in the EU, however, have criticised the country’s coronavirus response. Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis said in early April that the neighbouring country could be “an uncontrolled hotspot” of the disease, while Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda said the situation may be worse than the official data suggests.

On Tuesday (9 June), Belarus surpassed the 50,000 threshold of registered coronavirus-cases, though the official number of deaths remains around 300.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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