Be­larus’ pres­i­dent looks to Putin

Lukashenko, fac­ing mass protests at home, turns to ‘el­der brother’ Rus­sia for help. Will the Krem­lin step in?

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Laura King

There could be lit­tle ques­tion as to which par­tic­i­pant in the meet­ing was the sup­pli­cant.

Be­larus Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, be­lea­guered au­thor­i­tar­ian, on Mon­day had his first face-to­face en­counter with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin since the start of a mass protest move­ment in Be­larus that is now in its sixth week.

The demon­stra­tions in the for­mer Soviet re­pub­lic, which have shown no sign of abat­ing, erupted af­ter Be­larus elec­tion of­fi­cials de­clared Lukashenko the land­slide win­ner of an Aug. 9 pres­i­den­tial vote. The elec­tion was swiftly de­nounced by op­po­nents as a sham, and the Euro­pean Union and the United States have said the bal­lot­ing was nei­ther free nor fair.

In tele­vi­sion footage of the open­ing mo­ments of the two lead­ers’ ses­sion in Rus­sia’s Black Sea re­sort of Sochi, Lukashenko was lit­er­ally on the edge of his seat, his body an­gled to­ward Putin, a def­er­en­tial look on his face. He re­ferred to Rus­sia as an “el­der brother” to his coun­try.

The Rus­sian leader, by con­trast, ap­peared dis­tracted and fid­gety, even an­noyed. He looked away. His toe tapped.

“Putin found it hard to con­ceal his im­pa­tience,” said Keir Giles, a Rus­sia and Be­larus ex­pert at the Bri­tish think tank Chatham House. “He seemed ter­ri­bly bored with Lukashenko.”

But as Giles and oth­ers noted, any dis­play of en­nui by a for­mer spy­mas­ter like Putin, es­pe­cially one staged in front of state tele­vi­sion cam­eras, was prob­a­bly highly cal­cu­lated.

The Rus­sian leader, said Ox­ford re­searcher Ali­ak­sandr Herasi­menka, is “al­ways look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties,” per­haps in­tend­ing to ex­ploit Lukashenko’s weak­ness to gain eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­ces­sions, such as a push for closer in­te­gra­tion that the Be­larus leader has long re­sisted.

In the long term, Putin might well have lost in­ter­est in prop­ping up Lukashenko, a one­time col­lec­tive farm boss who has been in power for 26 years. But at the same time, an­a­lysts say, the Rus­sian pres­i­dent has no de­sire to see a next-door leader top­pled by pop­u­lar protests, a sce­nario that could em­bolden his own do­mes­tic crit­ics.

So the an­nounced re­sults of the meet­ing — in­clud­ing a $1.5-bil­lion loan to be ex­tended by Moscow as part of a larger debt re­struc­tur­ing and a prom­ise by Putin to ful­fill Rus­sia’s treaty obli­ga­tions — con­sti­tuted nei­ther a warm em­brace nor a cool re­buke.

The Rus­sian leader praised as “rea­son­able” Lukashenko’s of­fer of con­sti­tu­tional re­forms, which has been spurned by op­po­si­tion fig­ures in Be­larus as an empty prom­ise.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously said Rus­sia would send in po­lice if they were needed to help quell vi­o­lent protests, Putin said that was un­nec­es­sary at the mo­ment — and em­pha­sized that Rus­sian para­troop­ers tak­ing part in a joint ex­er­cise with Be­larus troops that be­gan Mon­day would leave when it was over.

Lukashenko, how­ever, is not with­out lever­age. He is well aware that Putin sees Be­larus as a vi­tal buf­fer be­tween Rus­sia and the West. Be­larus is also a path­way for lu­cra­tive en­ergy ex­ports to Europe by Rus­sia, with con­sid­er­able in­dus­trial re­sources, many of them con­trolled by oli­garchs loyal to Moscow.

On Sun­day, tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers turned out in the Be­larus cap­i­tal, Minsk, mark­ing one of the largest such gath­er­ings yet. Po­lice re­sponded with a de­gree of force that had not been seen since the early days of the protests, mak­ing hun­dreds of ar­rests in the cap­i­tal and across the coun­try.

Those de­ten­tions in­cluded the force­ful round­ing up of scores of women who have been at the protests’ fore­front, with many such episodes cap­tured on video and widely viewed on so­cial me­dia.

But while the protests have so far main­tained their mo­men­tum, nearly all the pub­licly known lead­ers of an op­po­si­tion coun­cil have been forced into ex­ile or jailed. Last week, Maria Kolesnikov­a, one of a troika of fe­male op­po­si­tion fig­ures, was de­tained dur­ing what her camp de­scribed as an ef­fort to forcibly de­port her to neigh­bor­ing Ukraine. She ripped up her pass­port to pre­vent this; her rep­re­sen­ta­tives say she is now in cus­tody.

The op­po­si­tion has wel­comed shows of in­ter­na­tional sup­port, in­clud­ing the U.N. Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s agree­ment to hold an “ur­gent debate” Fri­day on the crack­down in Be­larus. Western diplo­mats in Minsk have ral­lied to the de­fense of the coun­try’s only No­bel lit­er­a­ture lau­re­ate, Svet­lana Alex­ievich, the op­po­si­tion coun­cil’s only mem­ber still at large and in Be­larus. En­voys have been vis­it­ing her apart­ment in shifts since uniden­ti­fied men last week tried to force their way in­side.

But in a stroke of luck for Lukashenko, planned sanc­tions by the Euro­pean Union have been bogged down by di­vi­sions within the 27-na­tion bloc over an un­re­lated quar­rel in­volv­ing Cyprus.

Putin’s strat­egy could be to avoid un­der­cut­ting Lukashenko in pub­lic but at the same time to qui­etly lay ground­work for an or­derly tran­si­tion to new and less net­tle­some lead­er­ship in Be­larus, said Giles.

But Herasi­menka, who stud­ies dig­i­tal ac­tivism and dis­in­for­ma­tion, said it is also pos­si­ble the Rus­sian leader is bid­ing his time, not yet want­ing to com­mit to a par­tic­u­lar course of ac­tion.

“With him, it’s a mat­ter of tac­tics rather than strat­egy,” he said. “I’m not sure even he knows what he will do.”

In ex­ile in Lithua­nia, the op­po­si­tion’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Svet­lana Tikhanovsk­aya, called Lukashenko an “usurper” who lacks le­git­i­macy and ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment that Putin was con­tin­u­ing to deal with him. In her state­ment, she made scorn­ful ref­er­ence to the $1.5-bil­lion credit be­ing ex­tended by Moscow.

“It will be Lukashenko, and not our peo­ple,” she said, “who will have to re­pay it.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

BELARUSIAN PRES­I­DENT Alexan­der Lukashenko, left, met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on Mon­day in Sochi, Rus­sia. Be­larus’ au­thor­i­tar­ian leader is seek­ing loans and po­lit­i­cal sup­port from Rus­sia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.