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EU rejects Belarus election, stops short of calling for new vote

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 19, 2020

Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights and wave an old Belarusian national flags during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.   (Associated Press)
Belarusian opposition supporters light phones lights and wave an old Belarusian national flags during a protest rally in front of the government building at Independent Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.  (Associated Press)
By Ian Wishart and Milda Seputyte Bloomberg News

The European Union held back from asking for fresh elections in Belarus as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she tried and failed to get hold of President Alexander Lukashenko by phone.

Despite many of the EU’s 27 leaders backing a new vote during a private conference call on Wednesday, the bloc managed only to call for “dialog” between the two sides in the disputed election, and for a peaceful transition of power. It said that previously announced sanctions on people responsible for violence and vote-rigging would be introduced as soon as possible.

The EU is treading a fine line in trying to move more aggressively in assuring its geopolitical stability in the region without inciting a strong reaction from the Kremlin, which has warned the bloc not to interfere. The bloc wanted to make clear its disapproval without being seen to be forcing Belarus to choose between Europe and Russia, officials said.

“The elections were neither free nor fair and we cannot therefore recognize the results of these elections,” Merkel told reporters after the talks. “President Lukashenko has denied every phone call, which I regret. You can only mediate when you’re in contact with all sides.”

Protesters have taken to the streets in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, since Lukashenko, authoritarian president for 26 years, claimed a landslide victory in the disputed poll 10 days ago. Riot police violently cracked down on demonstrators. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has called for a second vote, fled to Lithuania, an EU member state.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen spoke with Tikhanovskaya after the video conference, a call where the head of the EU’s executive arm was primarily in listening mode, according to a commission spokesperson.

Before the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded that other countries refrain from meddling in Belarus’ domestic affairs. EU officials with knowledge of the call said that the bloc was wary of being seen as an interfering foreign power and acknowledged that the Kremlin would have to play a role in any transition of power, something that leaders underscored during the discussions.

Nevertheless, Merkel’s attempts to reach out to Lukashenko signaled the bloc’s ambition to try to find a solution with mediation, as well as a carrot-and-stick approach.

The EU will channel 53 million euros ($63 million) into Belarus, the majority of which will be spent on providing emergency support for its health service to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, according to the European Commission.

At the same time, leaders reinforced their commitment to introducing sanctions, announced last week, as soon as possible.

The EU will “shortly” blacklist a “substantial number” of Belarusian officials responsible for violence, repression and election fraud, European Council President Charles Michel said.

Officials said that while all leaders acknowledged that the election was rigged, the conversation showed they were divided between those wanting to explicitly demand a new vote, and those who felt it would be less provocative for the EU as a bloc to hold back.

Some governments did call for fresh elections. Earlier in the day, the leaders of four eastern EU countries known as the Visegrad group — Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia — said in a joint statement they supported a new poll. The three Baltic states and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz joined them.

There should be a new election “in a few months,” Kurz said. He added that “Russia should be part of those efforts.” In a news conference after the call, von der Leyen evoked the possibility of fresh elections in Belarus without going so far as to demand them.

“The people of Belarus want change and they want it now,” she told reporters. “They want freedom of speech and assembly and they want democracy and new presidential elections as these elections were neither fair nor free.”

In a video released on Wednesday morning from Lithuania, Tikhanovskaya called on EU leaders not to recognize the “fraudulent” elections. “Honorable leaders of Europe, I call on you to support the awakening of Belarus,” she said.

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