China and the European Union have drifted further apart on the question of Belarus, as the fate of its embattled long-time ruler Alexander Lukashenko hangs in the air amid widespread protests against his sixth election victory.
China warned against “foreign forces” wreaking chaos in the Eastern European state, while Russia threatened to send troops to Belarus to quash the protests and the EU refused to accept the election result that saw Lukashenko elected to a sixth term, calling instead for “peaceful, democratic transition of power”.
After an emergency video summit, EU Council President Charles Michel told the people of Belarus the bloc stood “by your side” as unprecedented protests against strongman Lukashenko entered an 11th day.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
At least two protesters have died after being confronted by the Belarusian police, while thousands have been arrested for taking part in protests after Lukashenko declared that he won 80 per cent of votes in last week’s election.
President Xi Jinping – the first to be awarded the Order for Strengthening Peace and Friendship medal from Lukashenko in 2016 – was among the first, and few, world leaders to offer him congratulations after the election last week.
But on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cast the focus on the Belarusian people, saying: “China has always respected the development path chosen by the Belarusian people in accordance with their national conditions and their efforts to safeguard national independence, sovereignty, security and development.
“We do not hope that the situation in Belarus will escalate into chaos, and oppose external forces triggering division and disturbances in Belarusian society,” Zhao said, without naming any countries. “We hope and we believe that Belarus can ensure political stability and social peace by its own effort.”
Li Lifan, an associate researcher with Shanghai Institute of International Relations, said the “external forces” Zhao mentioned may refer to the European Union.
While Putin was among the first world leaders to congratulate Lukashenko after his re-election, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian media on Wednesday that Russia treated “everything that happens in Belarus as the internal affairs of that country”.
Before EU leaders officially rejected the result of the Belarus polls on Thursday, member states such as Latvia issued a statement calling for another election, while Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main challenger to Lukashenko, had gone into self-exile in Lithuania.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin offered military support to Minsk if necessary, under a security pact covering ex-Soviet states.
Moscow’s approach had provoked a strong reaction from the EU, with the 27 leaders holding an emergency summit on Wednesday and called on Putin to refrain from military means.
“Military intervention by Russia would make the situation much more complicated,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.
“The people of Belarus want change – and they want it now,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said afterwards, adding that the EU would back a “peaceful, democratic transition of power”.
The EU has been under strong pressure to act in concert on the situation in non-EU member Belarus from Eastern European member states such as Lithuania and Poland, who feared the growing influence of Russia in the region.
Ahead of the meeting, Belarus’ opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is self-exiled in Lithuania, called on EU leaders not to accept the election result.
Lukashenko on Tuesday threatened to take “appropriate measures” against the opposition camp’s plan to set up a council inside the country, which he denounced as an attempt to seize power.
He also claimed the protests were being stirred up from abroad against his 26-year rule of the ex-Soviet state.
Merkel – who said Lukashenko refused to take her call – said the Belarusian government “must put a stop to violence against peaceful protesters, release all political prisoners immediately and engage in a national dialogue with the opposition and society.”
French President Emmanuel Macron urged the Russian leader to foster “calm and dialogue”.
Putin emphasised in his phone calls to Macron and Merkel that interfering in Belarus and putting pressure on its authorities would be unacceptable, as the European Union moves to impose sanctions over the vote and a brutal police crackdown on protesters.
Putin already vowed to provide military assistance to Belarus – a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – if needed. The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance of ex-Soviet states.
Attention is firmly focused on how Russia will respond to the biggest political crisis facing an ex-Soviet neighbour since 2014 in Ukraine, when Moscow intervened militarily after a leader was toppled by public protests.
Culturally, politically and economically, Belarus is the ex-Soviet republic with the closest ties to Russia, including a treaty that proclaims a “union state” of the two countries with a Soviet-style red flag. But Putin and Lukashenko have had a difficult personal relationship.
For now, the credibility of Lukashenko is fast eroding, even within the establishment and his support base.
Workers have been going on strike at state factories long seen as bastions of his support, while Pavel Latushko, who served as ambassador to Poland, France and Spain under Lukashenko before becoming head of the country’s most prestigious state theatre, was sacked after expressing outrage at the abuse of detained protesters.
“In the life of every person, there comes a line that cannot be crossed,” Latushko told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou
More from South China Morning Post:
- Belarus protests cast shadow over China’s Belt and Road ambitions as Lukashenko refuses to relinquish power
- Belarus army ‘combat ready’ as opposition woos Russia
- Could red-and-white Belarus ‘protest flag’ provoke a Russian intervention?
- Lukashenko opponent ‘ready to lead’ Belarus after massive rally tests strongman’s grip on power
This article China and European Union diverge on Belarus crisis as protests continue first appeared on South China Morning Post