Leader visits Russia amid mass protests
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.
Opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko demand his resignation at a protest Sunday in Minsk.