EU rejects Belarus election, without demanding a new one
By Steven Erlanger
European Union leaders said Wednesday that they would not recognize the results of the recent Belarus election and would shortly impose sanctions on those who were involved in electoral fraud and the repression of protests.
While urging peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition, the Europeans did not call explicitly for a rerun of the vote, as the opposition has demanded, but did offer to “accompany a peaceful transition of power in Belarus.”
“The EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud,” said Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which represents the leaders of the EU countries, at the end of a meeting called to discuss the Aug. 9 elections in Belarus, widely regarded as fraudulent.
While stating that Europe “stands by the people of Belarus” Michel said that any resolution of the crisis “must be found in Belarus, not in Brussels or in Moscow,” in a dialogue that might be initiated under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to which both Russia and Belarus belong.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said, “We support the Belarusian people in the path they choose to go down.” She said that the commission would “repurpose” $63 million in assistance away from the Belarusian government, with $2.4 million going to victims of the violence, $1.2 million to “civil society and independent media” and the rest to the fight against the coronavirus.
Speaking afterward in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that she did not see an immediate possibility for mediation to resolve the situation in Belarus. She telephoned the embattled Belarusian leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, but he refused to speak to her, she said.
“Mediation can only take place when all parties are in contact with one another,” Merkel told reporters.
Germany currently holds the revolving presidency of the European Union, and Merkel had been instrumental in talks about Ukraine following the Russian intervention there in 2014. Unlike in Ukraine then, protesters in Belarus are not displaying the EU’s starred blue flag, but the red-and-white banner that Belarus used before Lukashenko changed it.
The chancellor also said that, in a conversation on Tuesday, she had “made very clear” to President Vladimir Putin of Russia that military intervention would further complicate the situation. “Belarus must be able to determine its own path,” Merkel said.
As the European leaders conferred by teleconference, riot police were reappearing on the streets of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In a meeting with his security council, Lukashenko ordered his police commanders to put down protests, signaling a possible escalation after a week and a half of mass demonstrations against his rule.
“There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind,” Lukashenko said in remarks reported by the official Belarusian news agency Belta. “People are tired,” he added. “People demand peace and quiet.”
The police had been virtually absent from the streets of Minsk for several days after a violent crackdown on protesters last week provoked a popular backlash against Lukashenko. But by evening on Wednesday, police vans had rolled onto Minsk’s main avenue, which was blocked to prevent the protesters from approaching the main security service, still called the KGB in Belarus, and the Interior Ministry.
There were no reports of police violence against the protesters, but the new show of force appeared to scare some people off the streets. Police officers in full gear dispersed a crowd of protesters who came to support workers at the Minsk Tractor Works factory. At least two people were detained.
In a video message to the European Council before the meeting, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now in Lithuania, called on Europe to support “the awakening of Belarus” and “not to recognize these fraudulent elections.” She said the opposition had named a “national coordination council” to press for new elections and a transfer of power, both of which have been rejected by Lukashenko.
But Europe’s ability to enforce its demands is thin. No European country is going to go to war over Belarus, and there are already relatively harsh sanctions in place against both Belarus and Russia, especially since its annexation of Crimea.
While eager to defend democratic values, fair elections and the rule of law, European leaders are also being careful not to imply that they intend to intervene militarily or provide overt support for the Belarusian opposition. That could give Russia a pretext to intervene with force.
In Moscow, officials signaled displeasure with the Western attention to Belarus, but their support for Lukashenko was muted. The Belarusian leader, an authoritarian who has ruled the country of 9.5 million people for 26 years, has long annoyed the Kremlin with his on-and-off flirtation with the West.
Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told journalists that the Kremlin currently saw no need for Russian military help in Belarus, a longtime ally. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said Western countries were meddling in Belarus as part of their “fight for the post-Soviet space.”
“I am not saying that the elections were ideal — of course not,” Lavrov said in a television interview Wednesday. “I would like to recommend to everyone not to use the difficult situation in Belarus to derail a normal, mutually respectful dialogue between the authorities and society.”
The West should be particularly careful not to offer the opposition any kind of security guarantee, said Ian Lesser, director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. “The region is acutely aware of the West being unable to deliver on implicit and sometimes explicit commitments of support going back to World War II,” he said, including the Russia-Georgia war of 2008. “They are aware of this mixed history of Western reliability.”
At the same time, Lesser said, the West can provide financial and practical support to opposition actors themselves, many of whom have already left or been forced to leave Belarus. As the role of social media has become more obvious, “that kind of support can be extremely meaningful,” he said.