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The European Union and ambassadors of its member states in Belarus on Thursday condemned a crackdown on opposition leaders seeking new elections after a disputed vote this month. Russian President Putin reacted by saying his country had set up a ‘reserve police force’ to help Belarus’s leader if needed.
Allies of exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya formed the Coordination Council to oversee the peaceful transition of power after strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in August 9 elections that critics said were rigged.
The 65-year-old authoritarian leader ordered a criminal probe into the opposition’s attempts to “seize power” and several of the council presidium’s members have been detained or summoned for questioning.
“The European diplomats emphasised that prosecution of Coordination Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is unacceptable,” a joint statement said.
“Belarusians are asking for an open dialogue with their own authorities about the future of their country.”
Russia stepped in to offer its support to Lukashenko with Putin saying on Thursday the Kremlin had set up a “reserve police force” to assist Lukashenko, although it would not be deployed unless unrest there got out of control, Interfax news agency reported.
The remarks were the strongest signal the Kremlin has given yet that it is prepared to use force if needed in Belarus, its closest ally among former Soviet states. The comments triggered a response from Belarus’s NATO-member neighbour Poland, which demanded Moscow jettison any such plans to intervene.
“We have of course certain obligations towards Belarus, and the question Lukashenko raised was whether we would provide the necessary help,” Putin said.
“I told him Russia would fulfil all its obligations. Alexander Grigorivich (Lukashenko) asked me to create a reserve police force and I have done that. But we agreed this would not be used unless the situation got out of control.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded swiftly. Poland “urges Russia to immediately withdraw from plans of a military intervention in Belarus, under false excuse of ‘restoring control’ – a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate”, Morawiecki tweeted in English.
🇵🇱 government urges Russia to immediately withdraw from plans of a military intervention in Belarus, under false excuse of ‘restoring control’ – a hostile act, in breach of international law and human rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own fate.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) August 27, 2020
Poland also summoned the Belarusian ambassador to clarify what Warsaw called false accusations that it had designs on Belarusian territory.
The presidium’s most prominent member, Nobel Prize-winning author and outspoken government critic Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by investigators on Wednesday.
She told reporters she had refused to answer any questions and said the group’s activities were completely legal.
Maria Kolesnikova, a member of the Council and aide of Tikhanovskaya, was summoned by authorities for questioning on Thursday. Former culture minister and diplomat Pavel Latushko was also questioned this week.
Two of its members have been handed 10-day terms in police detention for organising unsanctioned rallies and disobeying law enforcement orders.
The EU has rejected the outcome of the vote, which Belarus election officials said Lukashenko had won with some 80 percent of the vote.
European leaders have promised to sanction more than a dozen people it said were responsible for falsifying the results and waging a lethal crackdown on post-vote protests.
On Thursday, the European diplomats said that “only a peaceful and democratic process, underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society, can provide sustainable solutions”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)