French President Emmanuel Macron, whose attempts to court Russia’s Vladimir Putin have yielded scant returns, has intervened in the political crisis shaking Moscow’s ally Belarus by meeting opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Ms Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania under pressure from autocratic Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, said in Vilnius after talks with Mr Macron — the most prominent world leader she has met — that he had promised to help negotiate the release of those jailed in Belarus.
“[Mr Macron] said that time is very important since many people are suffering from the regime, many people find themselves in jail, and he will do everything to help free all political prisoners,” Ms Tikhanovskaya told reporters after the 35-minute meeting.
Mr Macron, who had vainly sought Mr Putin’s help in resolving crises from the Middle East to Ukraine, has condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the nerve agent novichok. A senior French official said the use of chemical weapons in such an assassination attempt was crossing “a red line”.
The French president has also thrown his weight behind attempts by the Baltic states — once part of the Soviet Union — to counter Russian cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns.
Mr Macron is visiting Lithuania and Latvia and issued a joint statement with the two countries’ leaders on Monday in support of measures to defend democracies from interference in election results, disinformation and attempts to bypass controls on the funding of political parties.
The meeting between Mr Macron and Ms Tikhanovskaya comes two days after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Belarus, another former Soviet state, in the latest in a string of protests demanding Mr Lukashenko’s resignation.
The demonstrations are the largest in Belarus’s independent history. But Mr Lukashenko has refused to make concessions to his opponents, and his hold on power has been bolstered by the backing of Mr Putin.
However, Ms Tikhanovskaya insisted that the protests, which have lasted for more than 50 days, would not stop.
“People will not accept the regime under which they have lived all these year,” she said in an interview with AFP that was published on Monday. “They will fight more and more against the system.”