EU leaders rejected Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko's re-election and announced more sanctions against those involved in the violent crackdown of peaceful protests.
At an emergency summit on Wednesday (19 August), EU leaders called for dialogue and for a peaceful transition of power, pledged money to Belarus civil society and independent media, and warned of Russian meddling in the country's affairs.
However, leaders did not call for fresh elections, after Lukashenko claimed he had won 80 percent of the votes in the 9 August poll, which the opposition says was rigged.
"Belarus must find its own path, that must happen via dialogue in the country and there must be no intervention from outside," German chancellor Angela Merkel said after the videoconference of leaders.
She added that the dialogue should include Lukashenko.
Merkel ruled herself out as a mediator, after revealing that she had tried to phone Lukashenko, but "he refused to talk to me, which I regret".
The EU also did not offer to mediate itself, but supported the idea of dialogue proposed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which both Belarus and Russia are members.
The EU wants to avoid a repeat of violence in neighbouring Ukraine, where six years ago a popular uprising ousted the pro-Kremlin leader, triggering a Russian military intervention.
Instead, it is trying to walk a fine line between ensuring stability in the region, supporting peaceful protests, and avoiding a strong reaction from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Contrary to Ukraine, in Belarus, protesters do not want to loosen ties with Russia.
Russia has also warned the EU against meddling in Belarus, while pointing at what happened in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, top EU officials insisted that the people of Belarus must chose the direction of their country.
European Council president Charles Michel said any resolution of the crisis "must be found in Belarus, not in Brussels or in Moscow."
But some leaders called for a rerun of the elections, even if leaders did not want to call for it as a bloc, to avoid being perceived as provocative.
"The entire European Council condemned the situation in Belarus and we all believe that the elections in Belarus should be held again," Poland's prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said after the meeting.
The other countries in the Visegrad group - the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia - supported free and fair elections, with Austria and the Baltic states joining them.
The EU will also channel €53m to the Belarus health system to fight Covid-19, help civil society, and victims of the crackdown.
Leaders pledged to sanction those responsible for the violence against protestors and the election fraud.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday also had a phone call with Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had earlier fled to Lithuania, an EU member state.
Tikhanovskaya has called for a second vote.
"It is the Belarusian people who are demanding a rerun of truly free and fair elections ... We support the Belarusian people in them choosing the path they want to have, it's their decision where they want to lead their country," von der Leyen said after the video call with leaders.
More protests, more crackdown
Despite the EU's message to Lukashenko about dialogue and avoiding escalation, the Belarus strong man is doubling down on his position.
Later on Wednesday, hundreds of Belarusian protesters gathered in Minsk to defy a new order from Lukashenko to his police to clear the streets of the capital.
"There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind," he said, according to local news agencies.
Police dispersed a demonstration and detained two people at the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) plant.
Earlier, police also took control of the main state theatre in Minsk, a gathering place for protestors after its director was fired for speaking out against the mistreatment of demonstrators.
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