EU backs Belarus pro-democracy rallies, rejects poll results

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FILE – In this Thursday, July 23, 2020 file photo European Council President Charles Michel addresses European lawmakers at the European Parliament in Brussels. European Union leaders are putting on a show of support Wednesday Aug. 19, 2020 for people protesting in Belarus. Emergency talks will aim to highlight their concern about the contested presidential election and ratchet up pressure on officials linked to the security crackdown that followed. The EU believes that the results of the Aug. 9 polls, which handed President Alexander Lukashenko his sixth term with 80% of the vote, “have been falsified,” and the 27-nation bloc is preparing a list of Belarus officials who could be blacklisted from Europe over their roles. (Francois Walschaerts, Pool Photo via AP, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders on Wednesday said they stand beside the people protesting for democratic rights in Belarus, rejecting election results that swept the country’s leader of 26 years back into power and warned they are preparing a long list of Belarusians who face sanctions over vote fraud and a brutal crackdown on protesters.

The message of support came as the leading opposition candidate urged the Europeans to support “the awakening of Belarus,” and as authorities there began again detaining protesters, who took to the streets of Minsk for an 11th day to demand that President Alexander Lukashenko resign. Lukashenko accused the EU of “fomenting unrest.”

“The European Union stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and we don’t accept impunity,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after chairing an emergency teleconference. “We don’t recognize the results presented by the Belarus authorities.”

Michel said the EU will impose sanctions on “a substantial number” of people linked to election fraud and violence. He declined to name any of those who might be listed. He also said that the 27-nation bloc fully supports mediating efforts between the Belarusian government and opposition overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU will “mobilize now an additional 53 million euros ($63 million) to support the Belarusian people in these challenging times.” Two million euros will help victims of the crackdown, while 1 million euros will support civil society and independent media. Most of it is coronavirus emergency assistance.

Belarus security forces detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs in the first four days of demonstrations. At least three protesters died.

Workers at state-controlled companies have joined strikes this week, as the unprecedented mass protests erode the authority of the man once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” The results of the Aug. 9 polls handed Lukashenko his sixth term with 80% of the vote, while the opposition candidate with the most support received 10%.

“The elections were neither fair nor free and therefore one cannot recognize the result of the elections,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin. She condemned the “brutal violence” against peaceful protesters and called on the regime to release all prisoners without conditions.

In a joint statement, the presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — countries known as the Visegrad Four — called on Belarus authorities to “open the way for a political solution, and to abide by the fundamental human rights and freedoms while refraining from the use of violence against the peaceful demonstrators.”

They urged unnamed “foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus‘ independence and sovereignty.”

In a video statement ahead of the summit, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the Europeans to support “the awakening of Belarus.”

“I call on you not to recognize these fraudulent elections. Mr. Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

On the eve of the meeting, Michel had a half-hour telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin to share EU concern about election irregularities and the scale of the security crackdown, and to impress upon the Russian leader the right of the Belarus people to determine their own future.

They discussed ways to encourage talks between Lukashenko and the opposition.

The relatively small EU nation of Lithuania is playing a major role as the protests unfold by giving refuge to Tsikhanouskaya. Its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, are also deeply involved in diplomatic efforts, as is Poland.

“We spoke as one voice today and agreed that these elections can’t be recognized. New ones must be held in Belarus to elect a new president,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told reporters.

Some in Europe are concerned that hitting Lukashenko and his associates too hard might drive Belarus into the arms of Russia, even though relations between Minsk and Moscow have been troubled in recent years and even more tense in the run up to the polls. Others fear Russian intervention.

But experts tend to play down those worries, and say the people of Belarus only want to secure independence, and aren’t interested in deeper relations with Russia, the European Union, or in joining Moscow’s nemesis, the NATO military alliance.

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Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Karel Janicek in Prague, contributed to this report.

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