Belarus opposition chief to meet EU ministers

Brussels (AFP) –


Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya holds talks with EU foreign ministers Monday as they prepare sanctions against the Minsk regime over election rigging and a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

The former Soviet republic has been convulsed by unprecedented demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko since he was returned to power in the disputed August 9 election.

The EU and other Western powers have rejected the result, 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.

Strongman Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for more than quarter of a century, has responded to the protests with a violent security clampdown and turned to his longstanding ally Russia for help.

Tikhanovskaya, who stood against Lukashenko and fled to Lithuania for her own safety after the election, will hold a breakfast meeting with the 27 EU foreign ministers and the bloc's diplomatic chief Josep Borrell.

She is expected to brief the ministers while hearing from them the EU's expectations of the Belarus opposition.

Afterwards the ministers will go into formal talks about Belarus -- including on sanctions -- and also debate the situation in Libya, plus tensions with Turkey.

The EU has rejected the result of the August 9 vote and a senior official said the ministers would discuss whether to call for new elections, 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.