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20th Aug 2022

EU looks on as Belarus protests turn lethal

  • Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko claimed to have won by over 80 percent (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Poland and Lithuania, Belarus' neighbours, have tried to lead the EU reaction to ongoing violence in Minsk.

The Polish government called for an emergency EU summit on the situation on Monday (10 August), while Polish MEPs urged new sanctions on the Belarus regime.

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And Lithuania gave shelter to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarus opposition leader.

"Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is safe. She is in Lithuania," the Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, tweeted on Monday evening.

Meanwhile, the lethal security crackdown continued in a second night of violence in Minsk, following elections on Sunday.

Riot police beat protesters and fired rubber bullets and stun grenades, while some demonstrators threw molotov cocktails and fireworks.

Military units, equipped with live ammunition, also sealed off parts of the city on Monday, opposition sources said.

Two people have reportedly been killed so far.

One man died after an explosive device went off in his hand, Belarusian authorities said.

Another man died when police drove a mini-bus into a crowd, according to human rights groups.

Some 2,000 people have also been arrested, the Belarusian interior ministry said.

The arrests come on top of 2,000 people who were detained in the run-up to the election.

Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko unleashed his forces after claiming to have won Sunday's vote by over 80 percent.

Tikhanovskaya rejected that, saying the figures "completely contradict common sense".

But Lukashenko showed no sign of listening to domestic or international appeals for restraint.

"So, Lukashenko, who is at the top of the power structure and the head of state, after getting 80 percent of the vote, must voluntarily hand over power to them [the opposition]? The orders are coming from over there [abroad]," he said on Monday.

"Our response will be robust," he added.

For their part, China, Russia, and a handful of former Soviet republics congratulated him on his victory.

The UN, the US, and the EU voiced concern.

"We urge the Belarusian government to respect the right to peaceably assemble and to refrain from the use of force," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday.

"We condemn the violence and call for the immediate release of all detained during last night," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, also spoke of reviewing EU sanctions on Belarus.

"EU needs to double-check if lifting of sanctions is still appropriate in the face of excessive force, intimidation, and detentions," he said, after the EU dropped its Belarus blacklists in 2016.

Those feelings were echoed by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia.

"Statements of 'deep concern' will do nothing. Time to ... sanction all decision-makers in the Lukashenko regime," he said.

They were also echoed by Andrei Sannikov, a former Belarusian opposition candidate, who was jailed for 16 months in 2010 and who now lives in Poland.

The lifting of EU sanctions in 2016 "was encouragement for Lukashenko to continue with his policy to use violence against peaceful demonstrations. It meant impunity," he said.

"I expect more people in the streets. I expect more violence," he added.

Dovish tone

For his part, Borrell noted he would "assess how to further shape the EU's response and relations with Belarus in view of the developing situation".

But the EU foreign affairs chief stopped short of mentioning sanctions.

And for her part, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, also took a more dovish approach.

"I spoke with Mr Morawiecki about the situation in Belarus. We are following the developments closely," she said, referring to Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

She did not mention Poland's summit proposal, in a snub.

And she spoke of a future EU "partnership" with Belarus, despite the crisis.

"The EU will be vigilant and ready to support the process of de-escalation and dialogue that would lead to democratisation and a closer, more intense EU-Belarus partnership," von der Leyen said.

Minsk violence prompts talk of EU sanctions

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EU states have voiced fear of violence during Belarus elections on Sunday, as president Aleksander Lukashenko seeks to maintain his third decade in power.

Belarus leader's power creeps as opposition swells

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko is feeling the heat of an opposition backed by public support ahead of the presidential election on 9 August. His bungling of the pandemic and the high profiles of rivals have led to widespread repression.

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