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European Leaders Condemn Recent Presidential Election In Belarus As A Sham

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the people of Belarus not to go too far in their protests against embattled President Alexander Lukashenko. Meanwhile, the European Union is trying to support those protesters without provoking Russia. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Berlin.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Amidst the protests and worker strikes in Belarus in the past couple weeks, European leaders met to talk about what to do about this European country that is squarely in the orbit of Russia. After much debate, EU leaders agreed they would refuse to recognize the results of the Belarus election earlier this month that gave Alexander Lukashenko yet another term. And they also promised sanctions on those cracking down on peaceful protesters. David Stulik, a senior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy and a former EU diplomat in Kyiv, is looking for more. He says this is a special moment. Belarusians in their protests and strikes are becoming more empowered.

DAVID STULIK: This is kind of a very exceptional - I would even argue it's an historical moment when a new Belarusian political nation is being built, when the people are becoming citizens, when they are becoming not the object of policies of somebody else of their president or the foreign actors, but they are becoming the subject.

SCHMITZ: And that's why he says the EU should be working on what he calls a Marshall Plan for Belarus. It would combine economic assistance with opening European markets to a country that Stulik says is too dependent on Moscow. Nearly all its electricity comes from Russia and most of its exports go there, too. Ian Lesser, executive director of the Brussels office of The German Marshall Fund, is more sympathetic to the EU's response. What's clear, he says, is the status quo in Belarus has changed. But what that means for Belarus and Europe is still up in the air.

IAN LESSER: I think there's a degree of caution on all sides. I don't think anyone wants this to go from a national crisis in Belarus to a regional or even a European one.

SCHMITZ: Making this more challenging for Europe, says Lesser, is the absence of the U.S. in a more trans-Atlantic approach to Belarus.

LESSER: This becomes, in a sense, a test for this larger argument about strategic autonomy in Europe, which is not necessarily a formula that many Germans favor. But you hear it a lot in France. And it's basically code for Europe doing more, more actively, more together in an environment where the United States is seen as less predictable and less trustworthy.

SCHMITZ: And that's why, says Lesser, it's fortunate that Germany now has the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel, has the experience and the clout to have the kind of dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin about how to prevent interference in unfolding events in Belarus, as well as how to ensure that the people of Belarus are able to decide their own fate. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.