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BELARUS SUMMITRY: European leaders will call in at noon today for a videoconference on the crisis in Belarus. The EU’s heads of state are expected to show their support for the opposition against embattled President Alexander Lukashenko, whose victory in this month’s election many agree was fraudulent. The question is: Where do they go from there?
The EU’s strategy, Jacopo Barigazzi writes, comes down to this: speak clearly, tread carefully. EU officials are aware their influence is limited, while other outside powers, principally the Kremlin, may have a big say in the outcome. Direct EU involvement could be played up by others as evidence of a foreign plot, a senior EU official warned, adding “we have to be very careful” not to be seen as “part of the game.” But the leaders are still likely to back additional sanctions on the country, which could be ready as soon as next week. More on Belarus below.
A WORD ON SANCTIONS: The European Commission has “already started” work on slapping additional sanctions on Belarus, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but wouldn’t estimate when the proposals would be ready. The EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell “will brief extensively the leaders [on] the state of play,” according to the Commission. An EU official said the sanctions will be targeted and linked to both the violent crackdown on protesters and the staging of the fraudulent vote. That would put the country’s security forces and election authorities in the EU’s cross hairs.
How to: The EU should follow a two-phase approach, trade consultant Tomasz Włostowski told POLITICO’s Giorgio Leali for our Pro Morning Trade newsletter. For now, Brussels could stick to sanctions against officials involved in the violence and falsification. But if the situation deteriorates again — which it could do very quickly — the EU should be ready to launch “phase 2,” which would hit state-owned businesses, Włostowski suggested.
PREP CALLS: Ahead of today’s talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the Europeans’ side, leaders urged an end to the violence in Belarus and dialogue with the opposition and civil society. Michel underscored that the EU wants to show its solidarity with protesters. Michel and Putin spoke for about half an hour and agreed to get back in touch after the European Council meeting, too, an EU official said.
The Kremlin, in its summaries of the calls, said Putin warned against foreign interference and meddling in Belarusian domestic affairs, adding this would be “unacceptable” to Russia.
WHAT ABOUT NATO? The defense alliance has been noticeably quiet on Belarus. But according to its former Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that’s precisely the point. “So far Russia can’t demonize the upheavals in Belarus as West-inspired,” the former Danish prime minister who now runs political consultancy Rasmussen Global told Playbook. “It’s a clever strategy that NATO doesn’t engage.”
What can the EU do? “A combination of carrot and stick should be the outcome of [today’s] EU deliberations,” Rasmussen said. “The stick should be the threat of further sanctions if the aggression against the Belarus people continues. But that should be combined with promises of using carrots in case Belarus … starts on a road toward a democratic society.” He argued that the EU should put Belarus under its macro-financial assistance program, which requires countries to abide by the rule of law and respect human rights.
Will Russia intervene? “There are limitations as to how much the Kremlin would invest in the protection of the Lukashenko regime,” Rasmussen said. What’s more, “any interference from Russia could easily change the mood into an anti-Russian attitude” among protesters.
Who should mediate between the regime and opposition groups? Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, chairman of the security cooperation forum OSCE, has offered to step in. Rama would be a neutral player and “would be well-suited to fill that position as a mediator,” Rasmussen said.
WISH YOU WERE HERE: Meanwhile, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó was photographed on Sunday aboard a billionaire businessman’s yacht in Croatia — on the same day he posted a photo of himself in an office hard at work on the Belarus crisis, Átlátszó reports. In response to the report, Hungarian State Secretary Tamás Menczer said in a Facebook post that the foreign minister is on a working holiday.