Leader vis­its Rus­sia amid mass protests

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - Vladimir Isachenkov is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer. By Vladimir Isachenkov

MOSCOW — Be­larus’ au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­i­dent vis­ited Rus­sia on Mon­day in a bid to se­cure more loans and po­lit­i­cal sup­port, as demon­stra­tions against the ex­ten­sion of his 26­year rule en­tered their sixth week.

Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko’s talks with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi came a day af­ter 150,000 peo­ple flooded the streets of the Be­laru­sian cap­i­tal, de­mand­ing Lukashenko’s res­ig­na­tion. The In­te­rior Min­istry said 774 peo­ple were ar­rested in Minsk and other ci­ties of Be­larus for hold­ing un­sanc­tioned ral­lies on Sun­day.

Putin said Rus­sia would pro­vide a $1.5 bil­lion loan to Be­larus and ful­fill all its obli­ga­tions un­der a union treaty be­tween the two neigh­bors. Speak­ing at the start of the talks, he em­pha­sized that the Be­laru­sians them­selves must set­tle their po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion with­out any for­eign med­dling, and com­mended Lukashenko for his pledge to con­duct a con­sti­tu­tional re­form.

Protesters in Be­larus have dis­missed Lukashenko’s re­elec­tion for a sixth term in the Aug. 9 pres­i­den­tial vote as rigged. The United States and the Euro­pean Union have both crit­i­cized the elec­tion as nei­ther free nor fair and urged the Be­laru­sian leader to en­gage in talks with the opposition, a de­mand he has re­jected.

The opposition has dis­missed Lukashenko’s talk about con­sti­tu­tional re­form as an at­tempt to buy time and as­suage the protesters’ anger. Putin hailed it as a “timely and rea­son­able” move that would help “reach a new level in the de­vel­op­ment of the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.”

In a bid to win Moscow’s sup­port, Lukashenko has tried to cast the protests as an ef­fort by the West to iso­late Rus­sia, which sees Be­larus as a key bul­wark against NATO and a ma­jor con­duit for en­ergy ex­ports to Europe.

Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov re­it­er­ated af­ter the four­hour talks that Rus­sia re­gards Lukashenko as Be­larus’ le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent.

De­spite fric­tions in the past, the Krem­lin ab­hors the prospect of pub­lic protests forc­ing the res­ig­na­tion of the Be­laru­sian leader, fear­ing it could em­bolden Putin’s crit­ics at home.

Putin con­grat­u­lated Lukashenko on his re­elec­tion and promised to send Rus­sian po­lice to Be­larus if protests there turn vi­o­lent, not­ing that there is no need for that yet.

“We see Be­larus as our clos­est ally and we will un­doubt­edly ful­fill all our obli­ga­tions,” the Rus­sian leader told Lukashenko.

TUT.BY / AFP via Getty Im­ages

Op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko de­mand his res­ig­na­tion at a protest Sun­day in Minsk.

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