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EU meets over Belarus: What's at stake?

August 17, 2020

As Belarus sees continued mass anti-government protests, EU leaders will hold an emergency meeting to discuss their response to the crisis, which could include sanctions. DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Belarusian anti-government protesters gather in Gomel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Drachev

The European Union does not usually convene emergency summits to discuss foreign policy. But on Monday, European Council President Charles Michel called for an extraordinary Wednesday meeting by video conference amid ongoing mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his government.

"The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader," Michel wrote on Twitter. "Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed."

His invitation came after pressure from Poland and the Czech Republic. The two member states had called for an emergency summit when EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus last week.

Read moreIn Belarus, privacy apps help resist internet shutdown

'Do not resort to violence'

On Monday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French President Emmanuel Macron both criticized the Belarusian government's heavy-handed response to protests that began in the wake of a contested election on August 9 which saw Lukashenko win a sixth consecutive term. Steinmeier said that he admired the courage of those who had gone out onto the street to protest peacefully. "I appeal to President Lukashenko to follow the path of dialogue — not to resort to violence," he said in Berlin, adding the Belarusian army should not "sin against its own people through violence."

From his vacation on the Mediterranean coast, French President Macron tweeted that the EU had had to stand up for "hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protesting peacefully for the respect of their rights, liberty and sovereignty."

Disputed election

The EU has not recognized the official election results, which claim Lukashenko won 80% of the vote. Opposition candidates and protesters argue the election was rigged. Lukashenko's main rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the vote, has said that she is ready "to take responsibility and act as a national leader."

Some EU member states have called for new elections. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could play a role in reviewing the vote. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, which has sent election observers to the country since 2001, but the organization said Minsk did not invite any of its representatives to monitor the August 9 vote.

Read moreDW's Belarus correspondent released after 10-day arrest

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Searching for consensus

Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of European Union, is playing the role of mediator in the current crisis. Government spokesman Seibert said that Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken with her European partners about the situation over the weekend.

However, the EU thus far has not explicitly called for Lukashenko to step down. Whether this happens on Wednesday will hinge on consensus being reached at the emergency summit. The Hungarian government, which maintains good relations with Lukashenko, could put a spanner in the works. Last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called for better dialogue with Minsk. EU diplomats in Brussels said that they hoped that the summit would send a strong signal of solidarity to the opposition in Belarus.

Read moreBelarus: Arrested protesters talk of brutality

Diplomats draw up sanctions list

EU foreign ministers agreed to draw up sanctions proposals against Belarus after meeting on Friday. The list is expected to be presented at the end of next week but first it has to be determined who exactly is responsible for electoral fraud and for ordering violence against protesters and detainees. It is not yet clear whether Lukashenko himself will be on the list. "Of course we are looking at the option of expanding the sanctions to other leading figures," German government spokesman Seibert said.

After the last Belarusian presidential election in 2016, the EU decided to lift most sanctions targeting Minsk, including asset freezes and travel bans against 170 individuals and three companies. A slight rapprochement took place between the EU and Belarus, just as ties seemed to be souring between Minsk and traditional close ally Moscow. Belarus participated in various European Neighborhood Policy programs, including Erasmus student exchanges and a dialogue on the rule of law. Despite its close military ties with Russia, Minsk even cooperated to a limited extent with NATO.

Read moreOpinion: For Belarus it's now or never

Avoiding a 'second Ukraine'

Now, however, Lukashenko accuses Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Ukraine of orchestrating the protests in Belarus.

"We have to avoid anything that might give Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse to intervene in the conflict militarily," an EU diplomat who preferred not to be named said. "We do not need a second Ukraine."

On Monday, Belarus began military maneuvers on its western border. Lukashenko has accused NATO of building up troops in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to threaten Belarus. NATO has rejected the accusation: "NATO does not pose a threat to Belarus and has no military buildup in the region," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday. "We remain vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against NATO allies."

DW Belarus freelance journalist released from prison

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union