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Belarus crisis: EU calls on Moscow to refrain from intervening

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Putin, right, and Lukashenko during the opening of a monument in their honour in the Russian village of Khoroshevo, June 30, 2020
Putin, right, and Lukashenko during the opening of a monument in their honour in the Russian village of Khoroshevo, June 30, 2020   -   Copyright  Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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The European Union urged Russia on Friday not to intervene in Belarus after President Vladimir Putin said he would send in the military if protesters attempt to subvert the current political order.

EU foreign ministers are meeting in Berlin to discuss the crisis, which spiralled after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko extended his 26-year rule in an election on August 9. Nationwide protests have swelled since then calling for his resignation.

The EU has rejected the results of the poll, which saw Lukashesko claim 80% of the vote.

The bloc is preparing sanctions against his regime for ballot fraud and a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.

The Belarusian autocratic leader has accused the West of trying to topple him to weaken Moscow.

Putin on Thursday vowed to send the military to Belarus if protesters attempt to subvert the current political order.

He revealed that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko asked him to prepare, if necessary, a law enforcement contingent to deploy to Belarus, with which Russia has a union agreement envisaging close political, economic and military ties.

But the Russian president, who recently secured the possibility to rule until 2036, added that “there is no such need now. And I hope there won't be.”

He also accused unidentified foreign forces of trying to win political advantage from the political turmoil that followed a highly controversial and contested presidential election.

But the EU's Josep Borrell on Friday called on Moscow to refrain from intervening in Belarus and to "respect the democratic choices" of the people of Belarus.

"If Russia respects the independence and sovereignty of a nation, it must respect the wishes and democratic choices of the Belarusian people," Borrell told reporters after Vladimir Putin said he was ready to deploy forces in this neighbouring country.

Lukashenko said last week that Lithuania and Poland were "seriously stirring" at the border with the Grodno region, prompting the deployment of additional Belarusian troops to the frontier.

Both Poland and Lithuania firmly denied the accusations.

Lithuania, however, said it has prepared a list of Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, that it intends to sanction over vote-rigging and violence allegations, while the EU is currently discussing other sanctions against the country.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday to discuss the most pressing diplomatic issues requiring cooperation between allied nations.

Stoltenberg said NATO was "watching developments in Belarus closely," following weeks of demonstrations challenging the re-election of the country’s authoritarian ruler, and insisted that NATO supported "a sovereign and independent Belarus".

The Secretary-General also warned Minsk that to use NATO as an "excuse to crackdown on peaceful protesters" was "absolutely unjustified" as the allied forces do not have a military presence in the region.

Yesterday, answering questions ahead of his meeting with Merkel, Stoltenberg insisted Belarus must be allowed to decide its future without interference from Russia.

"It’s absolutely clear from all NATO Allies that the people in Belarus, they have the right to decide their own future without interference from abroad, interference from Russia," he said. "And, of course, have the right to have free and fair elections."

Police in Belarus detained another 50 people across the country on Wednesday as protests demanding the resignation of the authoritarian leader entered their third week.

The renewed crackdown on protesters, who have been taking to the streets for more than two weeks, comes as authorities crank up the pressure on the opposition, jailing several activists, summoning others for questioning and selectively ordering dozens of demonstrators to appear in court.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said 51 protesters were detained on Tuesday at rallies that spanned several cities. According to the Viasna human rights group, 15 people were detained in Minsk, the country's capital, where several thousand people rallied at Independence Square despite heavy rain, pushing for the country's longtime President Alexander Lukashenko to resign.

Two members of the Coordination Council, an opposition body set up by former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to facilitate a peaceful transition of power, were also handed 10-day jail sentences.

The detentions come without the dramatic violence seen two weeks ago, as Lukashenko moves to quell the unrest gradually, with vague promises of reforms mixed with threats, court summonses and selective arrests.

Observers say the moves by Lukashenko to buy some time likely will see him holding onto power for now, although he almost certainly will face more challenges amid a worsening economy and simmering public anger.

"All the signs are now that this is a war of attrition. That Lukashenka counts on wearing down the population now," Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Euronews.

"We can no longer speak just of the opposition. This is most of the country united in a peaceful demand for change."

In terms of regime tactics to bring a conclusion to the unrest, Gould-Davies believes Lukashenko will now try a different tack to the heavy-handed measures already seen on the streets of Belarus.

"It will involve low-level harassment, hoping that exhaustion and economic hardship, in particular, might encourage the striking workers to go back to the factories and abandon the movement for change," he said.

"I don't actually see that happening any time soon. Conversely, the movement for change will be looking for cracks in the regime, for members of the elite to realise that loyalty lies with the future of the country rather than this discredited, authoritarian leader," he added.

The brutal suppression of peaceful rallies in the immediate aftermath of the election fuelled public anger, helping swell the number of protesters, reaching an unprecedented peak of about 200,000 participants on two consecutive Sundays.

Police used tear gas, flash grenades and beatings on crowds in the capital of Minsk and elsewhere. In the days following the August 9 election, security forces detained thousands, with hundreds injured and at least three deaths.

The huge crowds at subsequent protests have forced the government to back off and allow the demonstrations to take place largely unhindered for the past two weeks.