Belarus opposition leader urges Austria to do more to counter Lukashenko

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FILE PHOTO: Belarusian opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya visits Warsaw, where she meets with the Belarusian diaspora in Warsaw
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VIENNA (Reuters) - Belarusian opposition leader in exile Svetlana Tikhanouskaya urged Austria's government and Austrian companies present in Belarus to do more to help her allies against President Alexander Lukashenko in remarks published on Sunday.

Her comments in a joint interview with Austrian newspapers Kleine Zeitung and Die Presse come on the eve of a video conference hosted by Austria in support of Belarusian civil society in the face of a crackdown on opposition by Lukashenko's government. Tikhanouskaya helped organise the conference.

Austrian companies are among the most important European Union firms in Belarus. Raiffeisen Bank International's Priorbank is the fourth-biggest bank in the country in terms of loans, and phone operator A1 Telekom Austria has a share of roughly 42% of its mobile market.

"We understand that large companies like A1 do not want to give up their business activities in our country," Tikhanouskaya said.

"However, they could make their presence subject to certain conditions and make clear that their employees cannot be thrown in prison simply because they have a different opinion to Lukashenko."

Austria could take in students expelled from university in Belarus, she added.

Lukashenko claimed a resounding victory in last year's presidential election despite the widely held view that the vote was fraudulent. Various opposition groups say Tikhanouskaya won.

The resulting crackdown has involved hundreds thrown in prison, allegations that opposition activists were tortured, and spurred a lively opposition movement in countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Germany where many Belarusians live.

In the latest confrontation between the EU and Minsk since the election, Europe accuses Belarus of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross the Polish border into the EU.

Monday's conference, which was switched to a virtual format because Austria is going into a COVID-19 lockdown that day, is due to feature the foreign ministers of Germany, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia. The Belarusian government declined to take part.

The aim is to seek "constructive approaches for a peaceful, dialogue-based solution" in Belarus, Austria says.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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