Belarus’s authoritarian president visited Russia on Monday in a bid to secure more loans and political support, as demonstrations against the extension of his 26-year rule entered their sixth week.
Alexander Lukashenko’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi come a day after an estimated 150,000 people flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, 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 that Russia would provide a $1.5 billion loan ($26.3 million Cdn) to Belarus and fulfil all its obligations under a union treaty between the neighbours. Speaking at the start of the talks, he emphasized that the Belarusians themselves must settle the situation without any foreign meddling, and commended Lukashenko for his pledge to conduct a constitutional reform.
Protesters in Belarus have dismissed Lukashenko’s re-election for a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote as rigged. The United States and the European Union have criticized the election as neither free nor fair and urged the Belarusian leader to engage in talks with the opposition, a demand he rejected.
In a bid to win Moscow’s support, the 66-year-old former state farm director has tried to cast the protests as an effort by the West to isolate Russia, which sees its neighbour as a key bulwark against NATO and a major conduit for energy exports to Europe.
As he sat across the table from Putin, Lukashenko pointed at NATO’s drills near Belarus’s borders and said that the two countries must strengthen their defence ties.
Putin emphasized that Russian paratroopers who arrived in Belarus for joint drills that began Monday will leave the country after the exercise.
Russia and Belarus have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, but they have often engaged in acrimonious disputes. Before the election, Lukashenko repeatedly accused the Kremlin of pressing Belarus to abandon its independence.
But with the U.S. and the EU criticizing the election and readying a package of sanctions, Lukashenko now has to rely squarely on Russia’s support.
Opposition figures pan meeting, alliance
Despite frictions in the past, the Kremlin abhors the prospect of public protests forcing the resignation of the nation’s leader, fearing it could embolden Putin’s critics at home.
Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his re-election 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 fulfil all our obligations,” the Russian leader told Lukashenko during Monday’s talks.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition challenger who moved to Lithuania a day after the vote under pressure from the authorities, warned Putin that any agreements he may reach with Lukashenko will not stand.
“I’m very sorry that you have opted to have a dialogue with the dictator and not the Belarusian people,” she said Monday. “Any agreements signed with Lukashenko, who lacks legitimacy, will be retracted by the new government.”
Commenting on a new Russian loan to Belarus, she said: “I hope Putin realizes that it will be Lukashenko, and not our people, who will have to repay that loan.”
“Dear Russians, your taxes will be used to pay for the beating of us,” she went on. “We are sure you wouldn’t like to see that happen. It may extend the agony of Lukashenko, but it will not prevent the people’s victory.”
Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and ambassador to France who was forced to leave Belarus after joining the opposition’s Coordination Council, warned that while the Kremlin is standing by Lukashenko now, it may move later to engineer his departure.
“Lukashenko discredits himself each day, and when he completely loses his authority, it would be easier for Moscow to replace him,” Latushko told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Poland. “The Kremlin already has made a decision and is moving to fulfil a careful plan to have Lukashenko removed.”
UN rights council to meet
As Belarusian authorities continued to target the opposition with pressure and arrests, the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to hold an “urgent debate” on Belarus on Friday.
German ambassador Michael von Ungern-Sternberg, who requested the debate on behalf of the European Union, said the council “should not stay silent on this matter.”
Western and Latin American countries supported the motion, while Venezuela and the Philippines sided with Belarus. African nations mostly abstained.
In a speech on Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet voiced concern over reports from Belarus indicating “unnecessary or excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, thousands of arrests, many of them apparently arbitrary, and hundreds of allegations of torture or ill treatment, including against children, with some reports indicating sexual violence.”
“Re-establishing social peace in Belarus requires far-reaching dialogue, reforms and accountability for grave human rights violations,” she said.
All allegations of torture by the security forces should be documented and investigated, she added.