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Tiny Lithuania has outsized role as EU faces Belarus crisis

Lithuania is relatively small by European Union measures, but it is playing an outsized role as protesters in neighboring Belarus face a brutal law enforcement crackdown following a presidential election they say was rigged.

As the EU’s foreign ministers meet Friday to discuss the crisis, the Lithuanian government's strong pro-democracy voice rooted in decades of resisting Soviet control also serves as a reminder of the bloc’s uneven response so far.

Lithuania has given refuge to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in Sunday's disputed election that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claims to have won with 80% of the vote after 26 years of authoritarian rule.

People demonstrate in support of Belarusians after a troubled weekend presidential vote, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Supporters took to the streets of Warsaw to support crowds of protesters in Belarus who swarmed the streets and workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP PhotoCzarek Sokolowski)

Belarus's northern neighbor also is “ready and considering the possibility of accepting Belarusians, suffering from the ongoing brutalities, on humanitarian grounds,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius tweeted on Wednesday.

With nearly 7,000 people detained and scores injured, the fierceness and scope of the police response to post-election protests was extraordinary even for Lukashenko’s long, iron-fisted tenure. The 65-year-old former state farm director has been in power since 1994 and was nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator” in the West for his suppression of dissent.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, in another expression of concern, met Thursday with representatives of nongovernmental organizations operating in Belarus. Meanwhile, editors from Lithuanian news organizations issued a statement condemning the mistreatment of journalists covering the protests and offering assistance to independent Belarusian media.

People demonstrate in support of Belarusians after a troubled weekend presidential vote, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Supporters took to the streets of Warsaw to support crowds of protesters in Belarus who swarmed the streets and workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP PhotoCzarek Sokolowski)

The support is longstanding. Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, is located just 170 kilometers (105 miles) from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and already has become a center for Belarusians in exile. The city hosts a university that Lukashenko banned. A number of Belarusian nongovernmental organizations have relocated there.

Why the rights of citizens in Belarus matters so much to the people of a small Baltic nation with a population of 2.8 million is rooted in Lithuania's history.

The country was the first former Soviet republic to declare its independence. After that historic step in 1990, Lithuania embraced democracy, joined NATO and the European Union, and then turned to promoting democracy abroad as well.

People demonstrate in support of Belarusians after a troubled weekend presidential vote, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Supporters took to the streets of Warsaw to support crowds of protesters in Belarus who swarmed the streets and workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP PhotoCzarek Sokolowski)

Many Lithuanians, remembering how members of the Lithuanian diaspora supported the independence movements back home, felt a special responsibility to help those with similar aspirations elsewhere in eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine and Belarus. In international forums, Lithuanian officials have often promoted issues of democracy in those two countries.

“Having this historical experience, we believe it’s necessary to support people in Belarus and Ukraine who want to support democracy in their country,” said Laurynas Jonavičius, an assistant professor with the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.

“It became a part of Lithuanian identity to be a beacon of democracy and a regional leader in democracy promotion,” he said.

People demonstrate in support of Belarusians after a troubled weekend presidential vote, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Supporters took to the streets of Warsaw to support crowds of protesters in Belarus who swarmed the streets and workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP PhotoCzarek Sokolowski)

Belarus, located on a strategically important fault line between Russia and Western-oriented NATO countries, poses a difficult challenge to Western nations amid the people's democratic awakening. They have largely kept their distance to Belarus, which has strong ties to Russia, and a strong push for a Western-oriented direction there could also exacerbate ties with Moscow further.

Other countries in the region with communist-era memories of corrupt and authoritarian leaders also have also spoken out on behalf of the anti-government protesters contesting that Lukashenko fairly won reelection to a sixth term.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša said his government is trying to create pressure on Lukashenko to agree to repeat the election under the strong watch of international election observers, saying it would be “the only peaceful solution for the current crisis.”

People demonstrate in support of Belarusians after a troubled weekend presidential vote, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Supporters took to the streets of Warsaw to support crowds of protesters in Belarus who swarmed the streets and workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce a police crackdown on demonstrations over a disputed election that extended the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP PhotoCzarek Sokolowski)

“I think that if President Lukashenko agrees on that, this would solve the whole situation there,” Janša said during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“We hope that the European Union will act,” Janša said.

Poland’s government earlier this week called for EU leaders to hold an extraordinary summit, saying there is a need to defend human rights and democracy in Belarus.

Like Lithuania, Poland, an EU member since 2004 that also borders Belarus, has long been a proponent of democratic change in its autocratic neighbor. The Polish government for years has funded a satellite TV channel, Belsat, that broadcasts news into Belarus as an alternative to government propaganda.

But Poland’s voice at the EU level has been weakened by a perception that Poland’s own government is eroding democratic standards with laws giving the ruling party more power over the judicial system and anti-LGBT rhetoric.

While Poland was a strong voice for democracy in Georgia and Ukraine in the past, some Polish commentators in recent days have observed Lithuania taking on the leading role that Warsaw once had at the EU level.

“Lithuania has taken Poland’s place on EU’s eastern policy,” the liberal daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which is highly critical of Poland’s right-wing government, declared in a headline Thursday.

In the article under the headline, journalist Paweł Wroński argued that Poland has abandoned active diplomacy in eastern Europe aimed at democracy promotion.

“Lithuania is a country that is listened to more carefully on Belarus and presents a more active, coherent and consistent policy towards its southern neighbor,” he wrote.

Matthew Lee in Bled, Slovenia, and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.