EU threatens sanctions, stands with pro-democracy protests in Belarus as Lukashenko warns of stoking ‘unrest’

European Union (EU) leaders on Wednesday spoke out in solidarity with Belarusians protesting for democratic rights and demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s leader of 26 years who was once referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.”

“The European Union stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and we don’t accept impunity,” European Council President Charles Michel said after EU officials held a virtual emergency summit. “We don’t recognize the results presented by the Belarus authorities.”

The 27-nation bloc also threatened sanctions on “a substantial number” of people linked to violence and election fraud, Michel said, while declining to name anyone.

Lukashenko, who has led the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million since 1994, claimed victory for a sixth term on Aug. 9, reportedly receiving 80% of the vote. The opposition candidate — 37-year-old Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who united fractured opposition groups and drew tens of thousands to rally in her support — garnered only 10% of votes in an election widely viewed as rigged.

Since the results, an “awakening of Belarus” has taken place on the streets of Minsk, the capital city, with unprecedented mass protests entering their 11th day on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of people have turned out to protest, and workers at state-controlled companies also joined strikes this week.

During the first four days of demonstrations, more than 7,000 people were detained and hundreds more injured with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and clubs. At least three protesters have died.

In an unverified video posted to Twitter — which had nearly 1 million views — a unique form of protest could be seen, with giant bouncing balls making their way down a street, one of which appears to have the president’s face on it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday said the elections “were neither fair nor free and therefore one cannot recognize the result,” while condemning the “brutal violence” against peaceful protesters and calling on the regime to release any prisoners.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The people of #Belarus want change. And they want it now. They demand the release of all unlawfully detained people and the prosecution of those responsible for police brutality. They want democracy and new presidential elections.”

“The EU stands with the people of Belarus,” she added.

Ahead of the virtual EU meeting on Wednesday, opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya released a video calling on the EU to support the “awakening” and not recognize the “fraudulent elections” that have sparked the mass protests.

“Mr. Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko blasted the EU ahead of the virtual meeting and said its support of the protests is “fomenting unrest.”

Lukashenko ordered his government to relay “the official point of view” on the post-election protests to the leaders of France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine and to “warn them — no need to be shy — about the responsibility for fomenting unrest.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also accused the EU of “attempts of direct interference” in Belarus’ internal affairs.

Some experts believe causing unrest with Lukashenko and his associates could drive Belarus into the hands of Russia — which has reportedly offered military help to Lukashenko if necessary; and others think Russia could end up intervening during the unrest. However, experts also tend to believe Belarusians want only to secure independence and aren’t seeking a relationship with the EU, Moscow or NATO.

On the eve of the meeting, Michel had a half-hour telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin to share the European bloc’s concern about election irregularities and the scale of the security crackdown and to impress upon him the right of the Belarusians to determine their own future, reportedly discussing ways to encourage talks between the opposition and Lukashenko.

The presidents of the Visegrad Four — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — also called on Belarusian authorities to “open the way for a political solution, and to abide by the fundamental human rights and freedoms while refraining from the use of violence against the peaceful demonstrators.”

In a joint statement, they urged unnamed “foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus‘ independence and sovereignty.”

On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the U.S. is discussing Belarus’ election results and subsequent protests with the EU. The efforts of reaching out were to “try to help as best we can the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom,” he said in Warsaw while on a tour of central Europe, Reuters reported.

And the relatively small EU nation of Lithuania is playing a major role as the protests unfold by giving refuge to Tsikhanouskaya. Its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, are also deeply involved in diplomatic efforts, as is Poland.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has called for new elections to be held, and that the results of the current election “can’t be recognized.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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