Britain and Canada on Tuesday became the first major nations to slap sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko over the country's seething political crisis.
The move came as Russia lashed out at what it dubbed "unprecedented external pressure" on Minsk after Lukashenko's disputed election victory triggered massive street protests and Western condemnation.
The European Union has so far failed to impose blanket sanctions on Lukashenko, with only its small Baltic members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania targeting the strongman leader and around 100 senior regime officials.
But French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday signalled that EU sanctions were in the offing after he promised that Paris would help foster mediation of the crisis.
London and Ottawa imposed the sanctions on Lukashenko, his son and senior regime figures for a string of alleged human rights violations.
Belarus has been in upheaval since a disputed August 9 presidential election in which opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya claimed victory against Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994.
The United States, European Union, Britain and Canada regard his presidency as illegitimate, but he has the backing of long-time ally Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron met Tuesday with Tikhanovskaya in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in what was seen as a major show of support for the activist.
Tikhanovskaya fled to the Baltic EU state bordering Belarus in the aftermath of the vote as mass protests in former Soviet republic were met with a brutal crackdown in which thousands were arrested.
"Europe is putting itself in a position to exert pressure, through sanctions that we will have to take in the coming days and weeks," Macron told reporters.
EU leaders are preparing to adopt sanctions against Lukashenko and other top Belarusian officials at a summit later this week.
- Lukashenko 'has to go' -
Macron on Sunday said that Lukashenko "has to go", but has also vowed support possible mediation in the crisis by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
"Our objective is for this mediation to begin in the next few days or weeks," Macron said, adding that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU chief Charles Michel would "push" Belarus to accept mediation.
"The aim is a peaceful transition, the release of people who are in prison for their political opinions and the holding of free elections under international observation," he said.
Tuesday's meeting with Macron was Tikhanovskaya's most high-profile so far.
She has previously addressed the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament and has met with EU foreign ministers and the leaders of neighbouring Poland and Lithuania.
Tikhanovskaya, a political novice whose blogger husband is in prison in Belarus accused of trying to overthrow the government, told AFP after the meeting that she had accepted an invitation to speak at the French parliament.
Parliamentary officials said she would address the lower house's foreign affairs committee.
- 'Difficult situation' -
Tikhanovskaya said the crisis should be resolved "as soon as possible" and new free and fair elections should be held by the end of the year.
"(Macron) supports the idea of mediation because he understands that powerful countries need to be involved to begin negotiations with Lukashenko. He is ready to help with this," she said.
"I think he will speak with the Russian side about Belarus and will do everything possible to involve Russia in these negotiations."
Macron has said that Putin, Lukashenko's main ally, is favourable to mediation in the Belarus crisis by the OSCE.
But Putin on Tuesday said that Belarus was in a "difficult situation" and was facing "unprecedented external pressure".
Addressing a forum on the Belarusian and Russian regions, the Kremlin chief said Moscow was ready to stand by Minsk, describing ties as "timeless and all-weather".
Putin has promised to provide Lukashenko with security assistance if the political crisis worsens and gave Belarus a loan of $1.5 billion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed Macron's talks with Tikhanovskaya, saying it amounted to a meeting between the "French president and a Belarusian citizen".