Kremlin Press Office Manual / Anadolu Agency through Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin provided a limited lifeline to Alexander Lukashenko as the Belarusian leader paid a visit to the Russian city of Sochi on Monday amid the biggest crisis of his 26-year rule.
For the past four weeks, Belarusians have repeatedly taken to the streets demanding Lukashenko’s resignation following the August presidential election, with demonstrators saying they were manipulated to keep Lukashenko in power.
On Sunday, a crowd of more than 100,000 again flooded downtown Minsk for the fourth weekend in a row.
A repeated show of force by Lukashenko’s security forces has led to thousands of arrests and credible allegations of widespread torture but failed to curb voter outrage.
Lukashenko’s nickname in protest circles is simply “mouse”. A standard cheer at rallies has become a basic requirement: “get away”.
Lukashenko has refused to step down, arguing that he won his re-election in a popular slide.
Putin appears with Lukashenko
In the extended opening speech in front of the cameras, the body language of the leaders seemed to characterize the dynamics of power in the game.
Lukashenko bowing strongly to Putin, the strong Belarusian constantly wiping his eyebrows while the Kremlin leader suggested he viewed the political crisis in Belarus as an internal matter for now.
“We want the Belarusians themselves, without outside encouragement and pressure, to resolve this situation in a peaceful manner,” Putin said, leaning back in his chair.
For his part, Lukashenko was almost painfully thankful in response by thanking “his big brother” and “all the Russian people” for their support as Putin hit the floor with his foot in absentia.
“Everyone understands that Moscow has now become creative in the context of this political crisis,” he says Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogue Council for International Relations in an interview with NPR.
Preiherman, however, suggested Russia’s position so far as to be resolved.
“We will only understand Moscow’s long-term strategy in Belarus at some point.”
Evolving Lukashenko-Putin relations
Indeed, while nominally Moscow’s ally, Lukashenko has repeatedly tested the Kremlin’s patience on a range of issues including the coronavirus, gas policy and a long-stalled plan to create a union state between the two countries.
Even before the August presidential election, Lukashenko said Russia was behind a plot to disrupt the vote.
Post-voting protests have sparked a change of mind. Lukashenko now argues that the demonstrations are a Western-backed plot to end his rule and expand NATO to Russia’s borders.
NATO repeatedly denied charges.
However Lukashenko left empty-handed in his four-hour plus meeting with Putin in Sochi on Monday.
Putin announced a $ 1.5 billion loan to Belarus’s economy.
The Kremlin leader also reaffirmed Russia’s existing security guarantees. Among them: Russian paratroopers will take part in joint exercises in Belarus starting this week.
Observers in Moscow suggested that Putin was simply putting Russia’s geopolitical interests above all else.
“The legitimacy of any leader … is assessed not by the performance or true popularity of the leader, but by how well they maintain the distance” between Russia and the West, wrote Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
However, any overly narrow embrace of Lukashenko also risks alienating the Belarusians, who have so far not tried to get out of Russia’s orbit.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s opponent during the controversial August elections, issued a statement ahead of Monday’s talks, saying she contrite Putin had chosen “dialogue with a dictator” over the Belarusian people.
She also insisted that any agreement reached by Lukashenko in Sochi would be subject to government review in the future.
On the other hand, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that Russia still sees Lukashenko as the “legitimate president” of Belarus.
“As for those people who do not agree with the election results, they are all citizens of fraternal Belarus. We love and appreciate all of them.”
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