EU leaders to back Belarus protesters but tread carefully on Russia


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“Belarus is not Europe,” EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton said, comparing it to pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia, both targets of Russian military operations. “Belarus is really strongly connected with Russia and the majority of the population is favorable to close links with Russia.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who stood as the main challenger to Lukashenko in the election after better-known opposition figures were jailed or banned from standing, had urged EU leaders to reject Lukashenko’s victory.

“I call on you not to recognize these fraudulent elections,” Tsikhanouskaya said, speaking in English in a video address from exile in neighboring Lithuania, where she fled after the vote her followers say she won. “Mr. Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world.”

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who has run Belarus for 26 years, appears to have underestimated the public anger in the country after official results gave him victory with 80 percent of the vote. Large state-owned factories have gone on strike in sympathy with protesters, and the authorities have acknowledged some police officers have quit their posts.

Speaking to his security council on Wednesday, Lukashenko repeated accusations that the protesters are funded from abroad.

MOSCOW’S RESPONSE

Attention is firmly focused on how Russia will respond to the crisis. Of all the former Soviet republics, Belarus has by far the closest economic, cultural and political ties to Russia, and its territory is central to Russia’s self defense. Since the 1990s, the two countries have proclaimed themselves part of a “union state,” complete with a Soviet-style red flag.

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