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Macron to meet Belarus opposition leader Tuesday

Laurence BENHAMOU, with Anna Maria JAKUBEK in Warsaw
·3-min read
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called for EU sanctions against businesses that support Lukashenko's government
Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called for EU sanctions against businesses that support Lukashenko's government

French President Emmanuel Macron will on Tuesday meet with Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya during his visit to Lithuania in what is seen as a major show of support for the activist.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Vilnius after claiming victory in a disputed election, told AFP on Monday she had requested a meeting and called on Macron to help mediate in the crisis.

"The protests are not going to stop," the 38-year-old said in an interview, adding that Belarus "badly needs" a dialogue between government and opposition in order to ensure there is "no more blood".

Macron confirmed he would meet Tikhanovskaya on Tuesday morning during his three-day visit to Lithuania and Latvia, marking a fresh initiative from the French leader in addition to recent efforts to resolve a political crisis in Lebanon. 

He called for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to handle mediation on Belarus and vowed that Paris "will do everything it can to ensure this mediation comes into being." 

"The OSCE will conduct this mediation as firmly as possible. (Russian President) Vladimir Putin has expressed his agreement and support for this initiative. He must help us to convince Lukashenko about this direction," Macron said.

The French leader also insisted that dialogue with Moscow was necessary, speaking at a joint press conference with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda. 

"We can't pretend that Europe is an island, far from Russia," he said, adding that this proximity "calls for strategic work to build a security architecture" that "avoids escalations."

- Lukashenko 'has to go' -

The talks on Tuesday with Macron will be Tikhanovskaya's most high-profile meeting with an international leader since the elections on August 9 and the protests which she has helped inspire.

In her interview, Tikhanovskaya said Macron could encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Belarusian strongman president Alexander Lukashenko, to take part in the dialogue.

Ahead of his arrival in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Macron said it was clear that Lukashenko "has to go" after 26 years in power in the former Soviet republic.

Lukashenko shot back saying that Macron himself "should have resigned" during the Yellow Vest protests that have rocked France, the Belarus state Belta news agency reported.

Macron added he was impressed with the courage of protesters, who on Sunday staged their 50th day of demonstrations against Lukashenko since his disputed election win last month.

Belarusian police on Sunday detained around 200 people as tens of thousands took to the streets days after Lukashenko staged a secret inauguration.

Tikhanovskaya, whose blogger husband remains in a Belarus prison, also on Monday called for EU sanctions against businesses that support Lukashenko's government.

But she emphasised that the EU should stop short of general economic sanctions as "ordinary people will suffer most" from them.

- EU sanctions? -

She has previously met with leaders in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania, which have taken a lead in European diplomacy on Belarus, and with EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

The EU is considering personal sanctions against Lukashenko and other high-profile figures seen as responsible for the violent crackdown.

Lukashenko has also jailed or forced out most of the country's prominent opposition activists.

On Monday, Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich -- a Nobel Literature Prize winner who has faced official pressure for supporting the opposition -- left the country for planned treatment in Germany.

"She will return to Belarus in a month. She is not dropping her (opposition) activities," her friend Mariya Voiteshonok told AFP. 

In addition to the talks with Tikhanovskaya and a meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nauseda, Macron will also visit French troops stationed in the Baltic state as part of a NATO move to reinforce its eastern flank.

leb-amj/mas/spm