MOSCOW — Belarus’ authoritarian president visited Russia 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 Lukashenkos talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi come 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.
Protesters in Belarus have dismissed Lukashenko’s reelection for a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote as rigged. He has dismissed protesters as Western puppets and rejected demands from the United States and the European Union to conduct a dialogue with the opposition.
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 the neighbor as a key bulwark against NATO and a major conduit for energy exports to Europe.
Russia and Belarus have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, but they often have engaged in acrimonious disputes. Before the election, Lukashenko has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of pressing Belarus to abandon its independence.
But with the United States and the European Union criticizing the election as neither free nor fair and readying a package of sanctions, Lukashenko now has to rely squarely on Russia’s support.
Despite the 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 quickly 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.
Moscow has also signaled it’s ready to discuss the restructuring of Belarus’ $1 billion debt to Russia, a key issue in Monday’s talks between Putin and Lukashenko.