French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to help mediate Belarus after several weeks of protests over a disputed presidential vote.
He called for “peaceful change” in the country after meeting exiled opposition leader Svetlana Takhanovskaya in Lithuania on Tuesday.
The European Union said that it does not recognize Alexander Lukashenko as the Belarusian President.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the “pressure” on Belarus.
Russia remains Mr. Lukashenko’s main ally, and has promised security assistance if the political crisis worsens.
But many countries have criticized the mass demonstrations as well as the August 9 presidential elections that the opposition says were rigged in Mr Lukashenko’s favor.
Europe’s longest reigning ruler
- What is happening in Belarus?
- ‘Breathing Freedom’: Belarus expect change
And on Tuesday, the UK and Canada announced sanctions on Mr Lukashenko and other senior Belarusian officials over a series of alleged human rights violations.
The European Union has also threatened to impose sanctions.
What did the French President say?
“We will do our best as Europeans to help in mediation,” Macron told reporters. “Our objective is for this arbitration to begin in the next few days or weeks.”
He spoke during a meeting with Ms. Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius which was seen as a major show of support for the opposition.
“Macron said,” the objective is a peaceful transition, with people jailed for holding free elections under their political views and international observation.
He also said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Council President Charles Michel would “push” Belarus to accept arbitration.
Ms Tikhanovsna is scheduled to visit Berlin next week and may meet with Chancellor Merkel for talks, her spokesperson told the Reuters news agency.
“[Mr Macron] Supports the idea of arbitration because he understands that powerful countries need to be involved to initiate negotiations with Lukashenko, ”said Ms. Tichanovskaya.
“I think he will talk with the Russian side about Belarus and do everything possible to involve Russia in these negotiations,” he said.
But Russia responded to Mr Macron’s latest comments, saying it called “unprecedented external pressure” on Belarus.
In televised comments, President Putin said that Belarus was in a “difficult position” and emphasized Moscow’s “timeless and all-weather” relationship with the country.
And, later on Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesman canceled the talks in Lithuania by describing it as a meeting between a “French president and a Belarusian citizen”.
Macron promotes foreign policy activism
Svetlana Tikhanovsna said she sees President Macron “because she is one of Europe’s most powerful leaders” and because “she and France are famous for playing the role of mediators in many other matters”.
It was a flickering reference to the French leader’s foreign policy activism, which currently seems to have moved up a notch or two.
In addition to his Belarusian intervention, Mr. Macron is also beating government chiefs in Lebanon, while at the same time speaking strongly against Turkey on behalf of Greece. A few months ago he was sponsoring peace talks for Ukraine.
Historically, this is what France does. Not being involved in big issues on the European periphery would have to accept that France is no longer the country it once was. Whereas, with Britain leaving the European Union, French foreign policy leadership is – in French eyes – more relevant than ever.
But on top of that, there is the macron factor. The president is still the man who came to power unexpectedly three years ago; A person of immense self-confidence who does not like being told any mission is beyond that.
Hey what’s up?
UK and Canada sanctions on Belarus, including travel restrictions on senior officials and asset freezes, were jointly announced on Tuesday.
“Today Britain and Canada have sent a clear message by imposing sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko’s violent and fraudulent regime,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb said in a statement.
He said: “We do not accept the results of this rigged election. We will be responsible for the thugs deployed against the Belarusian people and we will stand up for our values of democracy and human rights.”
“[We] Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Belarus will not stand quietly as systematic human rights violations continue.
“Canada stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus as they struggle to restore human rights and achieve democracy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information of Belarus announced that it would suspend independent online media outlet Tut.by from 1 October to 30 December.
The website is one of the country’s most popular news sources, and has been a major source of updates for both Belarus and foreign media during the recent unrest.
Belarus has been heavily criticized by rights bodies in the past for suppressing free speech and mocking the press.
What is the background?
Mr Lukashenko, 66, claimed a sixth term as president in the widely disputed election of 9 August. He insisted that he won impartially with 80% of the votes and characterized the protest against him as a Western-backed conspiracy. Earlier this month, he obtained a $ 1.5bn (£ 1.2bn) loan from Russia.
Ms Tikhanovsna claimed that she won 60–70% in places where votes were counted properly.
Many opposition figures are now in self-imposed exile in neighboring countries amid a wave of arrests and sanctions.
Despite the breakdown, there are no signs of anti-government protests coming down.