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Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Monday urged the EU to show courage and step up its support for her movement, as the bloc’s internal squabbles about sanctions rolled on.
The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in a disputed August 9 election and launched a brutal crackdown.
Tikhanovskaya met EU foreign ministers in Brussels and urged them to sanction Lukashenko but, despite repeated statements condemning the veteran strongman and warning of measures, after 44 days the bloc has yet to act.
“Sanctions are very important in our fight, because sanctions is part of pressure that will force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us,” she told reporters.
“I think leaders have reasons not to push for these sanctions but at this meeting I asked just to be more brave in their decisions.”
Cyprus, which has good relations with Lukashenko’s key supporter Russia, has blocked EU agreement on measures against Belarus, insisting that sanctions against Turkey over a maritime gas drilling dispute must be agreed at the same time.
Nicosia’s position has support from some EU countries but the patience of others is wearing thin, with one diplomat on Friday saying Cyprus was effectively “shielding” Lukashenko.
As he arrived, Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides said the EU must maintain a coherent response to violations of sovereignty and human rights.
“Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles, cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent,” he said.
– ‘Sanction Lukashenko’ –
After the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters the ministers had been “really impressed by the courage and perseverance of the Belarusian people, especially Belarusian women who show a real sense of leadership”.
He said the EU would support an inclusive national dialogue in Belarus and reiterated that Brussels does not recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president.
The EU and other Western powers have rejected the result of the election, saying the poll was not free and fair, and Brussels has drawn up a list of around 40 members of Lukashenko’s regime to hit with asset freezes and travel bans.
But with ministers still deadlocked, the matter will be taken up by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, with diplomats hoping they will find a way to agree both sets of sanctions.
“We have to conclude that nothing has improved in the last weeks. The violence Lukashenko has used against peaceful demonstrators is totally unacceptable,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
“We must also address the question of whether Mr Lukashenko, who is the main responsible, should not also be sanctioned by the European Union,” he said.
The strongman, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century, has responded to the protests with a security clampdown and turned to his longstanding ally Russia for help.
Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania for her own safety after the election, backed sanctions on Lukashenko himself, saying “of course I think it is necessary”.
And she urged the EU to make a formal call for new elections — something it has so far held off from, despite rejecting the August 9 poll as illegitimate.
The ministers are also considering what finance could be given to civil society in Belarus, after Poland called for a billion-euro stabilisation fund to help the country.
But Tikhanovskaya warned care must be taken to ensure the money does not end up in Lukashenko’s coffers, effectively funding him to carry out further repression.
Tikhanovskaya’s meeting with EU ministers, followed by an appearance at the European Parliament, is part of her effort to maintain international pressure on Lukashenko as he clings to power.
On Friday she urged the international community to respond to abuses in Belarus “in the strongest terms” in a video appearance at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that was repeatedly interrupted by the Belarusian ambassador.