Central European leaders discuss Belarus, fighting COVID-19

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Prime ministers of central Europe's Visegrad Group Mateusz Morawiecki, second left, of Poland, Viktor Orban, second right, of Hungary, Igor Matovic, left, of Slovakia and Czech Republic's Andrej Babis, right, gather for talks in Lublin, Poland, on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. In preparation for European Union summit this month, the meeting is to discuss situation in Belarus, ties with Russia and fighting COVID-19. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW – The prime ministers of four central European countries said Friday that a new election should be held in Belarus to allow the country's voters to decide the course of its future.

“We all agree that Belarus should hold free elections so that the Belarusian nation can on its own and in a sovereign way determine their fate and future,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said after he hosted fellow Visegrad Group leaders at a meeting in Poland's eastern city of Lublin.

Gearing up for a European Union summit later this month, Morawiecki and the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary also called for all political prisoners to be freed in Belarus and proposed a plan of economic cooperation in the small business sector and in infrastructure to help the nation move forward economically.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said it was “very important” for the situation in Belarus to be discussed at the EU summit in Brussels on Sept. 24-25.

Belarus has seen a month of street protests against the results of the country’s Aug. 9 presidential election, which is widely believed to have been rigged. Official results gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term with 80% of the vote, but protesters dispute the count and are demanding he step down after 26 years in office.

Hungarian President Viktor Orban said that in addition to the economic plan for Belarus, a “defense or military” system should be worked out by the European Council, the EU's decision making body, in the coming weeks. He didn't specify what the security arrangement should be.

Morawiecki added that some “tested and proven mechanisms,” which he didn't describe, will be proposed to help Belarus become a “bridge between the East and the West.”

The four leaders also said that a new strategy should be discussed among all 27 EU members at the Brussels summit of how to best fight the spread of the coronavirus without more economic harm.

“We are waiting for initiatives and decisions by the European Commission, and we must act to minimize the effects of the pandemic, but we can't afford another lockdown,” Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic said.

Orban said that fast-growing central Europe could be an engine of a pickup in the economy.

“We all suffer because of the coronavirus, but we also have all that growth potential and we should be confirming and strengthening it all the time,” Orban said.

Poland, the largest of the four and aspiring to take a leadership, currently holds the rotating presidency of the so-called Visegrad 4, central Europe's political and economic cooperation group.