Belarusian opposition leader urges EU to step up action against ‘brutal’ Lukashenko regime

Speaking to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for an international conference to be convened immediately to discuss the “crisis” situation in her homeland.
European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

26 May 2021

Tsikhanouskaya addressed the Committee on Wednesday following the detention of a Belarusian blogger on a commercial flight on Sunday.

Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega are both being detained and are said to be fearing for their lives. Belarus is the only European country that still executes prisoners.

Belarus authorities on Monday released video of Protasevich that appears to have been recorded under duress since his detention at Minsk airport.

In the clip, the journalist said he was in good health and seemingly confessed to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state.

Protasevich and Sapega were detained after Belarus scrambled a military jet to force their plane - flying from Athens to Vilnius, in neighbouring Lithuania - to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Western countries accuse Belarus of hijacking the Ryanair plane that was rerouted over a supposed bomb threat.

The EU has since told airlines to avoid flying over the country’s airspace. The EU has also decided to ban Belarusian airlines from European skies and promised further sanctions.

Tsikhanouskaya, in an emotional address, told MEPs, “The current EU approach towards Belarus does not work. It has not changed the behaviour of Lukashenko who just has a growing sense of impunity.”

“The current EU approach towards Belarus does not work. It has not changed the behaviour of Lukashenko who just has a growing sense of impunity” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition leader

She warned the EU to ensure that its reaction is “not limited to just this flight incident,” adding, “You must address the situation in its entirety or you will face similar incidents.”

“My country has been turned into pariah of Europe, a dangerous and non-transparent country. The international community must initiate a high-level conference on this crisis in Belarus without delay and it must firmly and publicly maintain a non-recognition policy of the regime.”

“The EU must table a plan for supporting democracy in Belarus and Belarus friendship groups should be created in national parliaments. We must also use clear language to Russia that any contracts signed with Lukashenko will be nullified.”

She went on, “The EU must deny any kind of financial support to the Lukashenko regime and ban all products from Belaraus. The EU should refrain from all new investments in Belarus and also support an independent media.”

Tsikhanouskaya is a Belarusian human rights activist and politician who ran in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election as the main opposition candidate.

She said, “From now on, any citizen of any country who flies over Belarus is not guaranteed even basic security,” she said from Vilnius, where she is based.

She fled to neighbouring Lithuania shortly after a disputed August 9 election and called for Lukashenko to leave power.

Lukashenko has faced the biggest challenge to his nearly 27-year rule since protesters took to the streets after he was declared the winner of an election they said was rigged.

“The international community must initiate a high-level conference on this crisis in Belarus without delay and it must firmly and publicly maintain a non-recognition policy of the regime” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition leader

In December, Tsikhanouskaya was awarded the Sakharov Prize, the European Union's annual human rights award, at a ceremony in Parliament.

Speaking virtually to the Committee meeting, she urged the European Union to move towards “targeted financial sanctions against people and individuals who are in the pockets of Lukashenko.”

She described the people in Belarus as being “in desperation” in face of the crackdown, adding, “Our protest movement is principally peaceful, and we don’t want to answer violence with violence.”

She told the committee, “My friends in Europe please hear me: it is time to act now.”

German EPP member and committee chair David McAllister  told Tsikhanouskaya, “Your message today is understood very clearly.”

Committee member, Polish Socialist Robert Biedroń branded the airline incident as “outrageous”, adding, “if the EU wants to be taken as a credible player in the international arena it must respond now to these scandalous actions.”

Lithuanian Renew Europe member Petras Auštrevičius told the meeting, “it is clear Lukashenko intends to expand his brutal regime and this action against a commercial plane was an act of air piracy.”

He added, “We in the West have underestimated Lukashenko but we cannot be silent seeing these crimes being committed.”

ECR Polish member Anna Fotyga added, “Belarus would not have hijacked this plane without Putin’s approval. We therefore must consider sanctions on Russia as well. However, we should not be tricked: Belarus’ actions may have been intended to drive Belarus away from Europe and closer to Russia.”

“We must make it clear to the Belarusian people that we are on their side. We want to hit the Lukashenko regime, not the Belarusian people.”

She added, “The global aviation system is a core part of the international order created after the Second World War. Lukashenko and Putin are trying to test and undermine it. A weak response to any act of terrorism, including a state-sponsored one, will only encourage further aggression. I count on EU leaders and democratic partners to deter the two last dictators in Europe.”

In a statement, the EESC said, “Free speech and free press are non-negotiable pre-conditions for freedom and democracy. That is why autocratic regimes strive to silence people like Roman Protasevich. Such actions do not portray the regime as strong and powerful; they unveil its weaknesses and legitimate fears.”

It added, “The EESC believes that an immediate, coordinated and unequivocal response of the European Union and its allies is needed more than ever for saving Belarus and its political prisoners, including journalists. We continue to stand firmly by the Belarussians in their courageous fight for freedom, dignity, human rights and democratic future.”

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