Opposition leader says Belarus has become 'North Korea of Europe'

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's crackdown on pro-democracy protests and the independent media is turning his nation into "the North Korea of Europe," the country's opposition leader told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged tougher U.S. and European Union sanctions targeting Lukashenko's income sources, including "cronies who finance the regime" and state-run enterprises.

She testified by telephone from Prague to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. U.S. President Joe Biden was headed for Europe on Wednesday - his first international trip - where his discussions were expected to include Belarus.

Tsikhanouskaya fled into exile after Lukashenko, who has kept a tight grip on Belarus since rising to power in 1994, launched a crackdown on protesters who accused him of rigging his 2020 re-election, a vote that she widely was seen as winning.

Western powers have refused to recognize Lukashenko's victory. He denies election fraud and allegations of human rights abuses.

Lukashenko has intensified his crackdown on ongoing protests and independent media. Last month he drew international outrage by having a military aircraft force a Ryanair jet to land in Minsk, where a Belarusian social media activist aboard was arrested, prompting an EU ban on the state-run airline.

Tsikhanouskaya said that United States and EU should implement "a comprehensive and unwavering response" to force Lukashenko to hold a new election and end what she called his abuses.

"Otherwise we all will face such situations in the future as Lukashenko is turning my country into the North Korea of Europe - non-transparent, unpredictable and dangerous," she told the committee, referring to one of the world's most repressive nations.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher, who has been refused a visa to assume her post, testified during the same hearing that Lukashenko has become ever-more reliant on backing by Russia. As a result, Fisher said, he no longer can influence Russian military actions in Belarus.

Lukashenko's "willingness to increase dependency on Russia in every possible sphere ... has brought him to the point of being in no position, really, to barely have a say in what it is Russia would decide to do militarily," Fisher said.

Russia and Belarus are planning a record number of military exercises, according to experts, have signed a strategic partnership accord, and there have been reports they are planning to open three new joint military bases.

Earlier in the day, Tsikhanouskaya told the Czech Senate that an international tribunal should be established to investigate what she called the "crimes" of Lukashenko's "dictatorship." Tsikhanouskaya was visiting Prague before a summit of the Group of Seven advanced economies in Britain this week at which Belarus is expected to be discussed.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Will Dunham)