Macron Pledges Belarus Mediation After Meeting Opposition Leader

Emmanuel Macron met the leader of the opposition in Belarus and promised to help mediate an end to the country’s political crisis, as he seeks to persuade European Union chiefs he’s serious about confronting Russia.

The meeting in Vilnius on Tuesday was the first between a leader of a Group of Seven nation and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled across the border to Lithuania after post-election protests were met with a violent police response. During their conversation, she asked Macron for help.

“We had a very good discussion,” Macron told reporters afterward. “Now we need to be pragmatic and support the Belarus people, and we will do our best.”

Macron’s on a three-day visit to the Baltic region amid increasing friction between the EU and Russia. Moscow is helping President Alexander Lukashenko retain power and has been asked to explain the use of a military-grade toxin in an attack on its most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. The French president’s trip, planned before the latest tensions, will focus on those issues.

Russia remains a concern for Lithuania, which like the other two Baltic nations was an unwilling member of the Soviet Union. The three countries have been watching the Kremlin’s increasing assertiveness with alarm, and Macron’s apparently soft stance toward Moscow in recent months had been viewed with discomfort.

His advisers have described a strategy “to maintain open policy channels” with Russia, and he caused further nervousness last year by calling NATO, the key to the security of the Baltic region, “brain dead.”

Addressing a joint news conference in Vilnius with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Monday, Macron said he understood “the sensitiveness on the topic,” but that “we need to re-engage this dialog to avoid the worst again.”

He said that he backed sanctions against officials in Belarus over the contested election and violent suppression of protests, as well as mediation with Russia.

The EU will hold a summit on Thursday and Friday to discuss potential sanctions. So far, the bloc has failed to act on Belarus because of disagreements over how to deal with Turkey’s energy claims in the eastern Mediterranean.

Russian ‘Clarifications’

“We have called on Lukashenko time and again to support a national dialog, mediated by the OSCE, however, he has rejected all offers and is continuing to tread the path of violence and suppression,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said a speech Tuesday at the UN General Assembly.

“This must also have consequences if we are serious about our values and our international agreements,” Maas added.

An emotional Nauseda expressed sadness as he stood alongside Macron that the EU might be last to impose penalties, with the U.S., Canada and the U.K. preparing to do so Tuesday. “How is it the EU will stay behind in this context, unable to reach a decision?” he asked.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far taken the harshest line with the Kremlin -- also meeting with Navalny as he recovered in a Berlin hospital. Signs of a shift in the Elysee emerged Sunday when Macron called on Lukashenko to resign.

‘Important Figure’

Macron chose his words carefully on both Monday and Tuesday, describing Tsikhanouskaya as an opposition leader. Yet, the meeting in Vilnius is the closest a G-7 leader has come to an endorsement.

“She’s been an important figure in the last few weeks, she was very brave,” Macron said Monday of Tsikhanouskaya. “I want to recognize her role and her courage and the courage of other women in Belarus.”

Seeking Putin’s help in pushing Lukashenko to leave has so far proved unsuccessful. Macron called what happened to Navalny “clearly an assassination attempt” and said “it’s for Russia to come up with clarifications.”

Defending his approach with Putin, Macron said, “if we want to build sustainable peace we must work with Russia,” while insisting France was not “naive.” “We can’t act as if Europe was an island isolated from Russia.”

Macron is the first French president to visit Lithuania on an official trip in almost two decades. He’ll later head to Latvia, having traveled to Estonia in 2017.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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