Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko greets officials during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at an airport in Sochi, Russia September 14, 2020. — Andrei Stasevich/BelTA/Handout via Reuters

Belarus leader entreats Putin for support as crackdown fails to dispel protests

MOSCOW, Sept 14 — Alexander Lukashenko flew to Russia today to entreat Vladimir Putin for support, as a crackdown on the opposition in Belarus showed no sign of dispelling mass demonstrations against the veteran leader’s rule.

Belarusian state media showed Lukashenko disembarking from his plane in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin often hosts visiting dignitaries.

More than 100,000 people defied increasingly aggressive Belarusian security forces on Sunday to take to the streets for the fifth straight weekend, demanding Lukashenko step down and taunting him with chants of “You’re a rat!”

Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, calls the protests a Western plot and has placed his fate in Moscow’s hands, requesting economic support, and potentially military aid.

The opposition accuses Lukashenko of rigging victory in an election last month, which he denies. Since then, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all the opposition’s key leaders have been jailed, deported or forced into exile.

Police said they detained 774 people at Sunday’s protests.

The opposition says it fears Lukashenko could try to sell out Belarusian independence for Putin’s support. Sviatlana Tsikhounskaya, the opposition candidate whose supporters say she was the true winner of the election, said no agreement reached by Lukashenko with Putin would be valid.

“I want to remind Vladimir Putin: whatever you accept and whatever you agree upon during the meeting in Sochi will have no legal weight,” she wrote on social media site Telegram.

“All the agreements signed with an illegitimate Lukashenko will be revised by the new leadership. Because the Belarusian people have refused to put their trust in Lukashenko and support him at the election. I am very sorry that you have decided to engage in dialogue with a dictator and not the Belarusian people.”

Lukashenko has been a prickly ally of Russia in the past, with an awkward personal relationship with Putin. But the Kremlin’s actions so far suggest Putin has no desire to see the leader of a neighbouring ally toppled by street protest.

Close relationship

Putin said last month he had set up a “reserve police force” at Lukashenko’s request, to be deployed only if needed. On Monday Russia will send paratroopers to Belarus for joint “Slavic brotherhood” military drills until Sept. 25, RIA news agency reported. Russia has also offered to restructure Belarusian debt and support its banks.

Belarus is the former Soviet republic with the closest political, social, economic and defence relationships with Russia. The two countries even proclaimed a “union state” in the 1990s, complete with a Soviet-style red flag.

The cost of Putin’s support could be Lukashenko’s acceptance of even greater Russian dominance. The Kremlin has long pushed for closer integration, including a joint currency. Lukashenko has resisted some of those measures. — Reuters