European Union too slow to help Belarus, Lithuania says

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The crisis in Belarus, which erupted after President Alexander Lukashenko won an August 9 election and brutally cracked down on subsequent protests, has divided the EU.

Some member countries, especially Belarus’ immediate neighbors Lithuania and Poland, are pushing for a more vigorous response from Brussels, backing Belarusian opposition calls for a new election and the release of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, German statements have appeared more cautious and France’s European commissioner, Thierry Breton, even said Belarus isn’t part of Europe.

The divisions have heightened the sense that the crisis has put the EU in a tight spot.

Analysts say that if the bloc remains too passive, its commitment to upholding a raft of values — such as the right to vote in a fair election and to live free from arbitrary state violence — could be called into question.

Meanwhile, a more proactive EU response could risk triggering a destabilizing intervention by Russia, if Moscow were to feel its interests were being challenged in a country where it has long held considerable political and economic sway.

“Europeans must walk a tightrope on Belarus,” wrote Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali (and a POLITICO columnist).

The EU must signal clearly that if President Vladimir Putin were to move militarily in defense of Lukashenko, the bloc would be prepared to impose meaningful sanctions in the case of any violation of international law, she said. “Yet it must do so without turning this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So far, Europe has trodden carefully.

After a videoconference on August 19, the European Council issued a statement rejecting the outcome of the election but stopping short of demanding a new vote.

The Council said it would “shortly” impose sanctions against a “substantial number” of individuals responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results — but this may not happen until September.

Lithuania, meanwhile, has moved more quickly, offering refuge to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the disputed election before being forced to flee her country.

Lithuania has also voted through its own set of sanctions on Belarusian leaders.

“We have to issue sanctions, we have to state clearly that there is no other way, just new elections,” Foreign Minister Linkevičius said.

Linkevičius said he has also pushed for payments from the EU previously earmarked for Belarus to be put on hold.

“Any assistance to the government, or via the government now, is not possible, in my view,” he said.

Lithuania and Belarus share a great deal of historical experience as constituent territories of bigger political units, from the 13th century Kingdom of Lithuania to the 20th century Soviet Union.

Since the USSR’s collapse, the two countries have been on differing trajectories with Lithuania, a country of around 2.8 million, developing a tradition of free and fair elections and respect for human rights, while Belarus, a country of 9.5 million, has moved closer to an outright dictatorship under Lukashenko.

During this divergence, Lithuania has sought to support its bigger neighbor’s civil society, offering refuge to its dissidents and a new home to its banned institutions.

When the Minsk-based European Humanities University was shut down by Lukashenko’s government in 2004, it relocated to Vilnius, 180 kilometers to the northwest, where it continues to offer students from Belarus a liberal education.

As the August 9 election neared, Lithuania warned of the repression that might follow and its people have sought to offer moral support since the election, forming a human chain from Vilnius to the border with Belarus on Sunday and waving protest flags.

Protest balloons, which floated over Belarus from Lithuania, were shot down by the Belarusian air force.

Linkevičius said Belarusians, like all people, deserve a decent life and to be consulted by their leaders, something which their current president appears unable to do.

“Definitely we cannot tell them what they have to do, but they deserve to be at least respected and listened to,” he said.

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