The meeting in Vilnius on Tuesday was the first between a leader of a Group of Seven country and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled across the border with Lithuania after the post-election protests sparked a backlash from the police. During their conversation, she asked Macron for help.
“We had a very good discussion,” Macron told reporters afterwards. “Now we have to be pragmatic and support the Belarusian people, and we will do our best.”
Macron is on a three-day visit to the Baltic Sea region amid growing friction between the EU and Russia, which is helping President Alexander Lukashenko retain power in Minsk and has been asked to explain the use of a military-grade toxin in an attack on its most opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. The trip, planned before the latest tensions, will now focus on these issues.
Russia remains a concern for Lithuania, which, like the other two Baltic countries, was once a reluctant member of the Soviet Union. All three countries have watched with concern the Kremlin’s growing assertiveness, and Macron’s seemingly soft stance on Moscow in recent months has been viewed with unease.
His advisers described a strategy “to keep political channels open” with Russia, although he caused even more nervousness last year by calling NATO, the key to the security of the Baltic region, as “Dead brain”.
Baltic Sea concerns swirl as Belarus pushes open door to Russia
Addressing a joint press conference in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Monday, Macron said he understood “the sensitivity on the subject”, but that “we must renew this dialogue to avoid the worst again”.
He also said he supported sanctions against officials in Belarus for the contested elections and violent crackdown on protests, as well as mediation with Russia.
The EU will hold a summit on October 1-2 to discuss potential sanctions. So far, the bloc has not acted on Belarus due to disagreements over how to deal with Turkey’s energy claims in the eastern Mediterranean.
‘Clarifications’ in Russian
Moved Nauseda expressed sadness that the EU was the last to impose sanctions, with the US, Canada and UK preparing to do so on Tuesday. “How will the EU be left behind in this context, unable to make a decision?” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far taken the harshest line with the Kremlin – also meeting with Navalny while he was recovering in a Berlin hospital. Signs of a change at the Elysee Palace appeared on Sunday when Macron called on Lukashenko to step down.
Macron carefully chose his words on Monday and Tuesday, describing Tsikhanouskaya as an opposition leader. Yet the Vilnius meeting is the closest a G-7 leader has come to approval.
“She has been an important figure in recent weeks, she has been very courageous,” Macron said on Monday of Tsikhanouskaya. “I want to recognize her role, her courage and the courage of other Belarusian women.”
Asking Putin for help in pushing Lukashenko to leave has so far proved unsuccessful. Macron called what happened to Navalny “clearly an assassination attempt” and said “it is up to Russia to provide clarification.”
Defending his approach with Putin, Macron said: “if we want to build lasting peace, we have to work with Russia”, while insisting that France was not “naive”. “We cannot act as if Europe is an island isolated from Russia.”
Macron is the first French president to visit Lithuania on an official trip in nearly two decades. He will travel to Latvia later, having traveled to Estonia in 2017.
(Updates after Macron met his Belarusian opponent in the first, second, third and 12th paragraphs)