The European Union and Belarusian opposition figures have condemned Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko for sharply downgrading ties with the union, amid tension over western sanctions against his autocratic regime and its alleged use of migrants to put pressure on neighbouring Lithuania.
Belarus has recalled its envoy to the EU, suggested that the bloc's representative in Minsk return to Brussels for consultations, and placed an entry ban on EU officials whom it blames for sanctions imposed on Minsk after it diverted a Ryanair plane last month so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested.
Belarus also announced that it was freezing participation in the EU's Eastern Partnership programme, through which the bloc co-operates with several ex-Soviet states where the West and Russia vie for influence.
Relations between the West and Belarus’s leader have collapsed since he claimed victory in a deeply flawed presidential election last August and launched a brutal police crackdown on critics who protested against the vote and his 27-year rule, while securing political, financial and security support from chief ally Russia.
"To the people of Belarus: you can count on the EU. We stand by you in solidarity and with practical support," said European Council president Charles Michel on Monday.
“We recall your right to elect your president through new, free and fair elections. To the regime of president Lukashenko: put the future of Belarus first.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that despite Mr Lukashenko's move to suspend participation in the Eastern Partnership programme, "we are ready to continue working with the Belarusian people to strengthen the bonds, foster regional co-operation and tackle joint challenges".
He did not make clear whether the EU would now treat the Belarusian pro-democracy movement like a form of government in exile, but opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who fled her homeland after claiming to be the rightful winner of last August's election – said she would seek to deepen relations with the bloc and maintain her country's involvement in the Eastern Partnership.
“We – my team and all democratic forces – will continue to work with our European partners and will do everything to ensure that in the Eastern Partnership projects, including at this year’s summit, our homeland is represented by those who really have the right to speak on behalf of the people,” Ms Tikhanovskaya said.
She and several other prominent Belarusian opposition figures are now based in Lithuania, which is a strong critic of Mr Lukashenko and accuses his regime of sending migrants from the Middle East to the Baltic state to put strain on its border forces.
Lithuania says some 600 irregular migrants have been stopped crossing the Belarusian border so far this year – compared with 81 in the whole of 2020.
Deteriorating relations have also exacerbated transit and cargo problems on borders between Belarus and EU states, where more than 1,100 trucks were waiting to cross on Tuesday morning.