The European Union declared Tuesday that the Belarus presidential election that returned authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko to office had been “neither free nor fair.”
And, in a statement from EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell on behalf of EU members, the bloc threatened “measures on those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results.”
Belarus went to the polls on Sunday against a backdrop of large-scale opposition protests against Lukashenko’s rule, but the official electoral commission declared him the winner.
Street demonstrations that have since broken out were met with a forceful police crackdown, and opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania, saying she was fearful for her children.
“During the electoral campaign, the people of Belarus have demonstrated the desire for democratic change,” Borrell said in the statement drawn up after consultations with the 27 EU member states.
“State authorities deployed disproportionate and unacceptable violence causing at least one death and many injuries,” he said, his language echoed in a tweet by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“The people of Belarus deserve better,” he said, demanding the release of the thousands of alleged opposition activists rounded up during the protests.
Brussels previously had wider sanctions against figures linked to Lukashenko’s government, but lifted many of them in 2016 after the release of a previous batch of political prisoners.
There is still a ban on exports of weapons and equipment that could be used to repress the population, and four Belarusians are subject to an EU travel ban and asset freeze.
The European Union’s foreign ministers will meet on August 27 and 28 in Berlin, and could prepare new measures against Minsk for the approval of their leaders when they meet at a September 24 summit in Brussels.
EU Says Bloc Will Not Lift Sanctions on Russia Over Ukraine
European Council chief Charles Michel said Tuesday the EU has no plans to lift punishing sanctions against Russia that were imposed over the conflict in Ukraine.
Ukraine has been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of sending troops and arms to support the separatists.
Michel, who on Tuesday began his two-day visit to Ukraine with a trip to the country’s war-torn east, said “Russia has not reciprocated Ukraine’s positive steps” to settle the conflict.
“That’s why our economic sanctions against Russia will remain in place,” he said in his address to the media, accompanied by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Russia is a party to this conflict, and not a mediator,” Michel added.
He also reiterated Brussels’ support for Kiev, announcing the launch this year of a new programme to boost economic development and public services in war-scarred eastern areas.
“The people of Ukraine are not alone. We are on your side,” he said.
Michel’s visit comes during an increase in violence as eight Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since mid-February, shattering a ceasefire brokered last year.
The fierce fighting that erupted after Moscow’s takeover of Crimea has claimed more than 13,000 lives, according to the United Nations, but the number of new fatalities has been decreasing in recent years.
EU leaders December extended until mid-2021 the sanctions that target whole sectors of the Russian economy including its valuable oil businesses.
The measures over Russia’s role in the conflict were first imposed after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 and have since been renewed every six months.