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 26-year 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 an estimated 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, a 66-year-old former state farm director, 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.
As he sat across the table from Putin, Lukashenko pointed at NATO's drills near Belarus' borders and said the two countries must strengthen their defense ties.
Putin emphasized that Russian paratroopers who were sent to Belarus for joint drills will leave the country after the exercise. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters after the four-hour talks that the leaders did not discuss the possibility of basing Russian forces in Belarus.
Peskov also reiterated that Russia regards Lukashenko as Belarus' legitimate president.
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 against Belarus, Lukashenko now has to rely squarely on Russia's support.
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 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 fulfill all our obligations,” the Russian leader told Lukashenko during Monday's talks.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger to Lukashenko, left for Lithuania a day after the August vote under pressure from Belarus authorities. She warned Putin that any agreements he may reach with Lukashenko will not stand with a new opposition-led government.
“I'm very sorry that you have opted to have a dialogue with the usurper 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 the new Russian loan to Belarus, she added: “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 added. “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. “The Kremlin already has made a decision and is moving to fulfill a careful plan to have Lukashenko removed."
Alexander Klaskousky, an independent Minsk-based analyst, believed that for the Kremlin, a push for deeper integration between the two countries makes no sense now because of Lukashenko’s precarious position.
Klaskousky predicted that the Kremlin might prod Lukashenko to de-escalate the crackdown on protests and engage in political maneuvering to ease tensions, while looking behind the scenes for a candidate to replace him.
“Massive protests aren't abating, and the barbed wire, water cannons and hundreds of detainees underline Lukashenko's pitiful condition, forcing the Kremlin to start looking for an alternative,” Klaskousky said. “Putin would hardly want to put all eggs in one basket.”
The U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, agreed to hold an “urgent debate” on Belarus on Friday, given the mass detentions and police beatings of protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet emphasized Monday that all allegations of torture by the Belarus security forces should be documented and investigated.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.