French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to help mediate Belarus after weeks of protests following a contested presidential vote.
He called for a “peaceful transition” in the country after meeting with exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania on Tuesday.
It comes after the European Union said it did not recognize Alexander Lukashenko as Belarusian president.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the “pressure” on Belarus.
Russia remains Lukashenko’s main ally and has pledged to provide security assistance if the political crisis worsens.
But many countries have criticized the crackdown on mass protests as well as the August 9 presidential election, which the opposition said was rigged in favor of Lukashenko.
And on Tuesday, the UK and Canada announced sanctions against Lukashenko and other senior Belarusian officials for a series of alleged human rights violations.
The EU has also threatened to impose sanctions.
What did the French president say?
“We will do our best as Europeans to help with the mediation,” Macron told reporters. “Our goal is for this mediation to begin in the next few days or weeks.”
He spoke at a meeting with Ms Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius which was seen as a major manifestation of support for the leading opposition figure.
“The goal is a peaceful transition, the release of people imprisoned for their political opinions and the holding of free elections under international observation,” Macron added.
He also said German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Charles Michel would “push” Belarus to agree to mediation.
Ms Tikhanovskaya is due to travel to Berlin next week and could meet Chancellor Merkel for talks, her spokeswoman told Reuters news agency.
« [Mr Macron] supports the idea of mediation because he understands that powerful countries must be involved in order to start negotiations with Lukashenko ”, declared Ms. Tikhanovskaya.
“I think he will speak with the Russian side of Belarus and do everything possible to involve Russia in these negotiations,” she added.
But Russia responded to Mr Macron’s latest comments by denouncing what it called “unprecedented external pressure” on Belarus.
In televised comments, President Putin said Belarus was in a “difficult situation” and stressed Moscow’s “timeless and timeless” ties with the country.
And, later Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesman played down the talks in Lithuania by describing them as a meeting between the “French president and a Belarusian citizen.”
Macron steps up foreign policy activism
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said she turned to President Macron because “he is one of the most powerful leaders in Europe” and because “he and France are known to have played the role of mediators in many other cases “.
It was a flattering reference to the French leader’s foreign policy activism, which currently appears to have increased a notch or two.
In addition to his Belarusian intervention, Mr Macron also hit heads of government in Lebanon while speaking harshly on behalf of Greece against Turkey. A few months ago, he sponsored peace talks for Ukraine.
Historically, this is what France does. Not getting involved in the major problems of the European periphery would be to admit that France is no longer the country it once was. Whereas, with the UK’s exit from the EU, the leadership of French foreign policy is – in the eyes of the French – more relevant than ever.
But on top of that, there’s the Macron factor. The president is still the man who came to power so unexpectedly three years ago; a man of immense confidence in himself who does not like being told that no mission exceeds him.
What else is going on?
The UK and Canada’s sanctions against Belarus, which include travel bans and the freezing of senior officials’ assets, were jointly announced on Tuesday.
“Today the UK and Canada sent a clear message by imposing sanctions against the violent and fraudulent regime of Alexander Lukashenko,” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said in a statement.
He added: “We do not accept the results of this rigged election. We will hold accountable those responsible for the brutality deployed against the Belarusian people and we will defend our values of democracy and human rights. “
« [We] will not stand idly by as Belarus continues to commit systematic human rights violations, ”said Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
“Canada stands in solidarity with the Belarusian people as they fight to restore human rights and achieve democracy,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian Information Ministry has announced that it will suspend independent online media Tut.by from October 1 to December 30.
The website is one of the country’s most popular news sources and has been a major source of updates during the recent unrest for Belarusians and foreign media.
Belarus has come under heavy criticism from rights groups in the past for cracking down on free speech and muzzling the press.
What is the context?
Mr Lukashenko, 66, claimed a sixth term as president in the widely controversial August 9 election. He insisted he won fairly with 80% of the vote and described the protests against him as a West-backed plot. Earlier this month, he secured a $ 1.5 billion (£ 1.2 billion) loan from Russia.
Ms Tikhanovskaya claims to have won 60-70% in places where the votes were correctly counted.
But Mr Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term in a secret ceremony last week, sparking mass demonstrations on the streets in Minsk and elsewhere. The United States and the 27 EU member states responded by saying they did not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president.
Many opposition figures are now in voluntary exile in neighboring countries amid a wave of arrests and detentions.
Despite the crackdown, anti-government protests show no sign of abating.