Putin Backs Lukashenko as Belarus Leader Vows Closer Ties

President Vladimir Putin on Monday backed embattled Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko and promised economic support as the Belarusian strongman vowed to strengthen ties with Moscow.

Lukashenko thanked Putin for his support and vowed to stick closer to “elder brother” Moscow during one-to-one talks at the Russian president’s residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Belarusian leader was making his first foreign trip since his disputed win in Aug. 9 presidential polls prompted mass protests against his rule, the latest drawing tens of thousands on Sunday in Minsk.

Putin appeared to endorse Lukashenko’s political future, praising the Belarusian’s sketched-out plans for constitutional changes to appease the opposition.

The Russian president said during joint televised comments he was “sure that considering your experience” this would “allow the development of the country’s political system to reach new heights.”

Putin also offered economic support, saying Russia would extend Belarus a government loan of $1.5 billion and called for more trade between the countries.

He said that Belarusians should “deal with this situation themselves, calmly and in dialogue with each other, without hints and pressure from outside.”

As they spoke, Lukashenko leaned towards Putin in his chair, while the Russian leader sat with his legs placed wide apart, sometimes drumming his fingers and tapping his feet.

‘Elder brother’

Putin said last month that Russia had created a reserve group of law enforcement officers to help ensure security in Belarus and he reiterated Monday that Russia was “committed to all its obligations” under a military alliance of former Soviet countries.

Lukashenko thanked Putin for behaving “very decently, very humanely” and said of Belarus that “we need to stick closer to our elder brother and cooperate on all issues.”

After consistently depicting the crisis as sparked by outside players, Lukashenko criticized military drills in NATO countries near Belarus’s borders, saying that Russia and Belarus would prepare their armies to resist any threats.

The Belarusian arrived in Russia a day after the latest demonstration against his rule saw police detain more than 500 protesters in Minsk.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims she was the true winner in polls, condemned Putin for negotiating with “illegitimate Lukashenko.”

“I really regret you decided to hold dialogue with a usurper and not with the Belarusian people,” Tikhanovskaya, who has taken shelter in Lithuania, said in a statement.

Lukashenko on Monday described the protests in Belarus as “a very serious lesson,” but said he hoped that this had been “overcome.”

While his harsh crackdown on demonstrators has prompted international condemnation and sanctions, Russia has remained a firm ally.

Putin congratulated Lukashenko after the elections and the leaders have exchanged frequent calls as Russia has stepped up political and military contacts in recent weeks.

As the position of the Belarusian strongman — in power for 26 years — has weakened, Russia has called for closer integration, although the leaders did not describe concrete steps in their public comments.

‘Don’t sell country’

Putin has long called for full unification with Belarus, while Lukashenko has so far ruled this out.

Russia dwarfs Belarus, with a population of around 9.5 million, and provides it with cheap fuel. Belarus is strategically important to Russia as a buffer zone, bordered to the West by EU and NATO members.

The two countries have already formed a close relationship as a “union state” with strong military and economic links and an open border until the coronavirus outbreak.

While opposition protests have focused on domestic issues, protesters called on Lukashenko not to “sell the country” at a mass demonstration on Sunday.

Police detained nearly 7,000 people during protests in the days after the election and three people died on the streets or in custody, with detainees giving accounts of beatings and torture.

The United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Monday that allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees “should be documented and investigated, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

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