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Pressure Mounts On The President Of Belarus To Resign

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So how long will the man known as Europe's last dictator be able to cling to power? In Belarus, the pressure is growing on the country's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, to step down after nearly three decades in power. Protesters say the recent presidential election he won was rigged. Neighboring countries are watching this very closely. The European Union held an emergency session today. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow, in another country, watching this especially closely. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So President Lukashenko says he's now mobilized the army on the country's western borders. I mean, we've seen massive protests. We've seen the crackdown. Is this even more escalation in all this?

KIM: Well, I mean, he's escalating the situation, President Lukashenko is, because he's refusing to talk with the opposition. He's basically said, over my dead body. The opposition has formed what they're calling a coordination council to facilitate dialogue, but Lukashenko says this is just a front. And he's already threatened to deal with members of this council appropriately. Today he ordered his internal security officials to bring calm back to the country. And he's also playing up this idea of a foreign threat, What you were asking about, since Belarus borders three NATO member states. This, of course, could be one way for him to draw in his only ally, which is Russia.

GREENE: OK. So you say that obviously there are three European countries on the border here. European leaders held this meeting today to sort of address this whole tense situation. What action is coming from that?

KIM: The EU leaders decided not to recognize the results of the August 9 presidential election. And they also said they would sanction Belarusian officials who are responsible for vote rigging but also the violent repression of demonstrators. Charles Michel, who is the head of the European Council, said the EU stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus and their right to elect their own leaders. He said, this is not about geopolitics. And that seems like a direct response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who earlier said Europeans were playing geopolitics. I think it is important to mention here that Belarus inhabits this kind of gray zone between the European Union and Russia and has never really expressed any interest in joining the European Union.

GREENE: Well, I mean, we saw another country sort of caught in the middle - Ukraine - and how Russia addressed that after there was political protests there. Talk about what the Kremlin is doing, reacting as they figure out what to do with Belarus on on its border.

KIM: Well, Belarus and Russia have very close political, economic and military ties. And Russian President Vladimir Putin very much views Belarus as being in his sphere of influence. So far, he's been keeping his cards very close to his chest. But today, his spokesman finally broke the Kremlin's silence on Belarus. He said international pressure on Lukashenko is unacceptable. But he also said an interesting thing. He said, Russia does not see the need to send troops into Belarus. That's something that Lukashenko had hinted at over the weekend.

GREENE: And what about the United States? Are we seeing any reaction from the U.S. at this point?

KIM: Well, the U.S. has been pretty absent in this whole discussion, even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was traveling in Europe last week. He did say the U.S. is working with European partners on some kind of response. And it does look like the Trump administration is letting the European Union take the lead here.

KIM: All right. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim. Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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