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EU ministers welcome Belarus opposition leader

The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in a disputed 9 August election - and those protests have been brutally repressed.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya addresses media representatives during a press conference at The Lithuanian Permanent Representation in Brussels on 21 September 2020. Picture: AFP

BRUSSELS - European foreign ministers welcomed Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to Brussels on Monday as they prepare EU sanctions to support her battle against the Minsk regime.

The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in a disputed 9 August election - and those protests have been brutally repressed.

"She gave us an account of the events in Belarus," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters, after a breakfast meeting with Tikhanovskaya and the ministers.

"We are really impressed by the courage and perseverance of the Russian people, especially Belarusian women who show a real sense of leadership.

"Let me stress that we will support an inclusive national dialogue on the rights of the Belarusian people to free and fair elections," he said, reiterating that Brussels does not recognise Lukashenko as legitimate president of Belarus.

The EU and other Western powers have rejected the result of the election, saying the poll was not free and fair, and Brussels is set to hit members of Lukashenko's regime with asset freezes and travel bans.

"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 quarter of a century, has responded to the protests with a security clampdown and turned to his longstanding ally Russia for help.

Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania for her own safety after the election.

After the breakfast get-together, ministers went into formal talks about Belarus. They will also debate the situation in Libya, plus tensions with Turkey.

Officials said the ministers would discuss whether to call for new elections in Belarus, warning that matters were rapidly getting worse.

"What we're seeing now is a clear deterioration of the situation -- we have more repression, more people arrested, more forced into exile," the official said.

The ministers will also consider what finance could be given to civil society in Belarus, after Poland called for a billion-euro stabilisation fund to help the country.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's call came after Russian President Vladimir Putin backed Lukashenko and promised a $1.5 billion loan.

SANCTIONS

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.

The EU has a list of around 40 Belarusian officials it holds responsible for rigging the vote or the subsequent protest crackdown, who are to be sanctioned.

Final approval has been held up, partly by horse-trading among EU member states -- diplomats say Cyprus in particular has been holding out while seeking sanctions on Turkey in a separate dispute.

But the EU is seeking to calibrate its response, wary of taking too strong a line and thereby driving Lukashenko further into the arms of the Kremlin.

The sanctions look set to be passed up to EU heads of state and government who meet for a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

The summit will also address relations with Turkey after a summer of high tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where drilling rights and maritime border disputes between Ankara and EU members Greece and Cyprus have teetered on the brink of conflict.

Cyprus has held up discussions of sanctions against Belarus, insisting Brussels must also act against Turkey.

As he arrived, Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides said: "The reaction of the European Union to human rights violations; our reaction to violations of the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of our member states, of EU member states; our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles, cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent."

But he said he would implement the decision of the council.

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