Mon, 28 Sep 2020

BRUSSELS -- European Union Neighborhood Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has expressed his readiness to travel to Minsk on an EU fact-finding mission to gather information following the government's crackdown on protests triggered by the August 9 presidential election, which the bloc has described as 'neither free nor fair.'

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL after a video-link meeting of EU foreign ministers, Varhelyi suggested the possibility of traveling to the Belarusian capital, adding that he could go "any time...when I am tasked" and saying he would sit down with the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to discuss how to proceed.

No high-ranking EU politician has traveled to the country since the vote, but the commissioner expressed his readiness to do so during the August 14 council meeting and received the backing from several EU foreign ministers, according to several RFE/RL sources.

Even though the EU has not officially called for a rerun of the vote, Varhelyi mentioned the possibility.

"There have been not only major shortcomings, but the elections cannot be considered free and fair," he said. "So, we have to go there and see the situation on the ground. But, of course, this is a very strong likelihood that the elections might have to be rerun."

At least two protesters have died and some 6,700 people have been detained since nationwide protests erupted on election day after the government announced an exit poll that showed strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka winning a sixth term with about 80 percent of the vote.

That claim was rejected by opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave for Lithuania the next day.

Varhelyi said he had been in touch with officials from the Lukashenka government and underlined that his message to the Belarusian government was that "we should try and create a situation where we can bridge all the differences between the government and the opposition and where we can get a common reading of the elections, a common reading on what needs to be done after that."

At the meeting, the EU foreign ministers also tasked the commission and the EU's diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), with drawing up sanctions proposals targeting people who have been involved in the crackdown and individuals responsible for the alleged falsification of the election results.

Varhelyi said an agreement on sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes could come at the end of the month when the ministers meet again in Berlin.

"I think this will go ahead really fast," he said. "We agreed that 10 days from now...we will already be finalizing this."

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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