Foreign affairs minister to meet with Belarus opposition leader on trip to Europe

OTTAWA – Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is putting his frequent flyer points where his mouth is.

Champagne says he is determined to project Canada’s foreign policy as a defender of human rights while forging alliances with trusted, longtime allies. Friday’s announcement that he will undertake a four-country European tour — his second multi-country overseas trip in less than two months in the midst of a global pandemic — is intended to underscore that commitment.

Champagne departs Sunday on a four-country trip that will take him to Greece, Austria, Belgium and Lithuania. He will meet the exiled opposition leader of Belarus and hold talks on the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Read more: Belarusian police turn water cannons on protesters as thousands rally against Lukashenko

He will cap the trip with a stop in Vilnius, where he will meet with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She is seeking refuge there after what Champagne has said was a fraudulent election victory by the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, this past summer.

“There’s really just a handful of countries that have been speaking up and standing up to defend the rights of minorities, to defend human rights, to speak also about issues whether it is Nagorno-Karabakh, Belarus, Hong Kong, the Uighurs,” Champagne said in a recent interview.

“If you look at the statements and the actions that have been taken, you always find it’s either Canada, the U.K., Australia, the U.S., Germany, France — name me another one? — New Zealand sometime.”

Click to play video 'German Chancellor Angela Merkel says EU sanctions against Belarus ‘an important signal’' 0:56 German Chancellor Angela Merkel says EU sanctions against Belarus ‘an important signal’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says EU sanctions against Belarus ‘an important signal’

Bessma Momani, an international-affairs expert at the University of Waterloo, said there’s only so much diplomacy a foreign minister can do behind a computer screen, so Champagne’s desire to travel is understandable.

Momani said it is also smart for Canada to find allies to work on issues in tandem, whether it is the renewed violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or Canada’s nearly two-year dispute with China that has seen the People’s Republic imprison two Canadian men in what is viewed as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a leading Chinese high-tech executive on an American extradition warrant.

Despite the standoff over the continued imprisonments of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Champagne has been vocal on calling out China on rights issues in Hong Kong and on the repression of Muslim Uighurs in the southeastern province of Xinjiang.

“One has to find new coalitions of the willing in the absence of global unity on a number of human-rights crises, like in Xinjiang and Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Momani. “Moreover, there is power and cover for acting in concert, particularly with powerful countries like China where it is difficult and risky for Canada to stand alone.”

READ MORE: Belarus protesters detained by police as tens of thousands rally against Lukashenko

Champagne recently joined his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, to impose sanctions that directly target Lukashenko, his family and his ministers, after their violent crackdown on massive protests following Tikhanovskaya’s official defeat in the August election.

Tikhanovskaya, 37, is a political neophyte who challenged Lukashenko after her husband, who planned to seek the presidency, was jailed. She is a former English teacher who managed to connect with Belarusians fed up with Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule and a declining economy in the face of the pandemic.

Momani said Champagne’s meeting with her will highlight the Canadian and British sanctions as Lukashenko digs in and hopes the world will abandon “the nascent democratic social movement” that is opposing him.

“While Tikhanovskaya is just a figurehead, meeting with her is an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate some support to the embattled Belarusian opposition.”

In Vienna, Champagne will meet with representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is calling for peaceful negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia after the recent flare-up in their long dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Click to play video 'Armenia-Azerbaijan: WHO working with governments ‘on all sides’ of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to protect civilians' 3:24 Armenia-Azerbaijan: WHO working with governments ‘on all sides’ of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to protect civilians

Armenia-Azerbaijan: WHO working with governments ‘on all sides’ of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to protect civilians

A little smaller than Prince Edward Island, the area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has an ethnically Armenian majority.

Champagne also called jointly with Raab for a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Champagne will likely find that making meaningful progress on that issue is difficult, said Momani.

“Not unless they can get regional actors from Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Israel, who are all operating in this conflict, to the table. So the bar is much too high for Canada to make a difference on this issue,” she said.

In Brussels, Champagne’s meetings will include face-to-face talks with his European Union counterpart, Josep Borrell, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“Through dialogue and co-operation with our European partners, we can and must find lasting peaceful solutions to current challenges in the eastern Mediterranean, Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh. We remain deeply committed to strong transatlantic relations, as our security and prosperity are so closely linked,” the minister said in a Friday statement.

In Athens, Champagne will meet with Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, to discuss the dangerous journeys refugees are making across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

Champagne is to quarantine for 14 days in Canada after the trip, his second transatlantic foray of the COVID-19 era following a four-country trip in August that included a stop in Lebanon.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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