Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko met his last ally Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, less than 24 hours after more than 100,000 people hit the streets in a fresh round of protests demanding his resignation.
The pair held a “working meeting” at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi – their first face-to-face meeting as a protest movement began after the presidential election on August 9 in Belarus. The protesters accused Lukashenko of rigging the election in his favor.
Often referred to as the “last dictator of Europe”, Lukashenko has maintained his grip on power in the former Soviet nation for the past 26 years and completed protests with violent taunts. Hundreds of people have been arrested and those detained have been charged with atrocities.
The Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the meeting that leaders would discuss “key issues” for the development of bilateral relations, including trade, economy, energy and culture. It made no mention of political turmoil in Belarus.
But during a televised portion of Monday’s meeting, Lukashenko thanked Putin for his “moral support in this difficult time”, protesting that he was struggling to keep up.
“Friends are the ones who get in trouble. I say that honestly,” Lukashenko said, leaning towards Putin, leaving the Russian leader with no apparent heat towards his Belarusian counterpart.
Putin reaffirmed previous commitments under mutual treaties with Belarus, including the 1994 security agreement, stating that both countries provide aid – including military help if necessary – if faced with any external threat Does.
“We see Belarus as our closest ally,” he said, promising a loan of $ 1.5 billion to his neighbor as the country struggles with a tanking economy amid a coronovirus epidemic.
The Russian state news agency Tas reported on Sunday that the meeting is taking place against the backdrop of a joint military exercise involving the Belarusian and Russian troops in the city of Brest on the border with Poland.
Putin has offered military assistance by one of only a few foreign leaders to congratulate Lucasenko on his electoral victory, making the situation worse. So far, no Russian troops have crossed the border.
Putin’s relationship with Lukasenko cooled down after the failure of talks last year to deepen integration between the two countries, with Lukashenko dismissing what he saw as an attack on his country’s sovereignty.
Those relations were made more strained just before the election after the detention of a group of suspected Russian businessmen from Belarus, who were accused by Belarusian authorities of being in the country to destabilize it. Russia refused to appoint mercenaries for that purpose. Lukashenko has said that the arrest was a mistake.
In a ubiquitous interview with Russian journalists from the state’s news agencies last week, he called Putin his “elder brother”, emphasizing the strength of his ties and blaming Americans, Czechs, Lithuanians and Ukrainians for suppressing protests .
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Putin has avoided commenting directly on the protests and Lukashenko’s actions on their leaders.
Last week, one of the most high-profile protest figures, Maria Kolenikova, said she was forcefully taken to the Ukraine border last week, as Belarusian security officials tried to drive her out of the country. Kolenikova said she had received death threats to avoid being expelled from the country.
Nearly all senior personalities in the coordination council formed after protests by the opposition for peaceful change of power have either been detained or forced to leave the country.
Keir Giles of Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy think, said the stakes were high for both sides in the negotiations – both men would have to decide how much each needed the other.
“If it goes against Russia [Lukashenko], His days are numbered; But if he compromises himself too much for Putin’s hands, his freedom and his country’s risk, “Giles said.
“Whatever the official announcements from this meeting … we can be sure that a lot of consent has been agreed behind the scenes, the real meaning [of which] It will be played in Belarus in the coming weeks and months.
Meanwhile, the United States indicated on Friday, that it would soon punish the people of Belarus with sanctions for electoral fraud and prohibit protests as Washington asked Russia to step down Lukashenko.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Bezgan said that Lukashenko is increasingly dependent on Moscow to maintain his rule. He said that Belarusian public opinion could change against Russia.
“It is a risk to change the Belarusian people, who have no complaints with Russia against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hopes the Kremlin worries about violence against protesters in Belarus and the kidnapping of opposition figures Will express
Reuters contributed to this report.