French President Emmanuel Macron visited the exiled opposition leader of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday, becoming the highest-profile Western leader to visit the Belarus politician, pledging European support for the country’s people.
Belarus has seen weeks of mass protests and demonstrations in the streets of numerous cities ever since veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of an August 9 presidential election that his opponents have claimed was rigged.
Opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania after the election, meeting with the prime ministers of Lithuania, Norway and Poland, yet Macron is the first leader of a major Western power to meet her.
Speaking after the 45-minute meeting at his hotel in Vilnius, Macros said “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”.
Tsikhanouskaya claimed that Macron had promised “to do everything to help with negotiations, (during) this political crisis” and that “he will do everything to help to release all the political prisoners”.
Russia made it clear on numerous occasions that it aims to continue supporting Lukashenko as leader of Russia’s closest ally, with the West having to balance out its sympathy for the pro-democracy movement and the reluctance to provoke Russia.
On Monday, Macron urged Belarus authorities to stop unlawful arrests, release protesters detain arbitrarily and to also respect election results for what they are.
The European Union has so far failed to put into place even the mildest sanctions that it threatened to impose on Belarus so far, with there being a list of around 40 officials who would be hit by travel band and asset freezes.
Macron is set to also visit French soldiers that are serving as part of a NATO battlegroup in the Lithuanian town of Rukla.
Macron has promoted strategic dialogue with Russia, as well as criticised NATO, being keen on showing eastern European countries that France is fully committed to their security.