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On Belarus, E.U. plans sanctions but tries to avoid conflict between Russia and the West

But they also made clear that their range of action is limited: They are trying to support Belarusan protesters’ demands for democracy without turning the situation into a geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West.

“The protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after the video discussion. “This is, in the first place, a national crisis. This is about the right of the people to freely elect their leadership. We stand firmly behind the right of the Belarusan people to determine their own fate.”

Ahead of the E.U. summit, the main Belarusan opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, called on E.U. leaders not to recognize the results of the election, which she said were “falsified.”

“Mr. Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” Tikhanovskaya said in a video posted on YouTube.

There have been protests throughout the country every day since the election, but mass strikes at state-owned factories and other major enterprises have lost some momentum, with many employees returning to work for fear of losing their jobs.

Lukashenko, meanwhile, has attempted to smear the opposition by calling it anti-Russian and pro-Western, and suggesting that it intends to eventually sever the 1999 agreement that binds Belarus and Russia politically and militarily. The opposition denies all those charges.

Lukashenko has also been busy conferring with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two have had four phone conversations since Saturday, when Lukashenko made a public plea for his Russian counterpart to urgently speak with him. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday “there’s no need at the moment” to deploy Russian military assistance to Belarus.

Michel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron all spoke with Putin on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Belarus. Putin’s response, according to Kremlin readouts, was to say that “interfering in the internal affairs of the republic and putting pressure on the Belarusan leadership are unacceptable.”

Merkel said Wednesday that she had also attempted to speak with Lukashenko but that she had been rebuffed, making her skeptical about the potential to mediate between the Belarusan leader and his opponents.

“I don’t see possibilities for mediation right now,” she said. “I couldn’t get in contact with Lukashenko, and you can only mediate when all parties involved are in contact.”

European leaders agreed to reroute $63 million that had been earmarked for Belarus away from the government and toward civil society and other destinations inside the country.

Russian leaders have, like Lukashenko, spun the situation as a Western attempt to meddle in the politics of a country that is closely allied with Russia, without offering evidence to support the allegation.

During an interview on state television Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “No one is making a secret of the fact that this is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space.”

“We are concerned about the attempts to take advantage of the domestic difficulties being experienced by Belarus and the Belarusan people and leadership for the purpose of external interference in these events and processes,” Lavrov added. “This is more than plain interference; the goal is to push rules which foreign actors deem to be beneficial to themselves onto Belarusans.”

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow and Birnbaum from Riga, Latvia. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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