VILNIUS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron became on Tuesday the highest-profile Western leader to visit the exiled opposition leader of Belarus, pledging European support for the country’s people.
Belarus has seen weeks of mass demonstrations since veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of an Aug. 9 presidential election that his opponents say was rigged. The authorities have arrested thousands of people, and all major opposition leaders are now jailed or in exile.
Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhounskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election. She has met the prime ministers of Lithuania, Norway and Poland, but Macron is the first leader of a major Western power to meet her.
“We had a very good discussion but now we need to be pragmatic and to support the Belarusian people and we will do our best, believe me”, Macron said after the 45-minute meeting at his hotel in Vilnius.
Tsikhanouskaya said Macron had promised “to do everything to help with negotiations, (during) this political crisis in our country … and he will do everything to help to release all the political prisoners.”
Moscow has made clear it continues to back Lukashenko as leader of Russia’s closest ally. The West has had to balance its sympathy for the pro-democracy movement with its reluctance to provoke Moscow.
On Monday, Macron urged Belarus authorities to stop unlawful arrests, release protesters detained arbitrarily and respect election results.
So far, the European Union has failed to enact even the mildest sanctions it threatened on Belarus: a list of around 40 officials who would be hit by travel bans and asset freezes.
Macron is expected later in the day to visit French soldiers serving as part of a NATO battlegroup in the Lithuanian town of Rukla.
The French leader has promoted strategic dialogue with Russia and criticised NATO. He is keen to show eastern European countries that France remains committed to their security.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas and Ardee Napolitano in Vilnius; writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten)