MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin owed a $ 1.5 billion loan to Belarus on Monday in a gesture of support for its leader Alexander Lukashenko, who flew to beg his lawyer for help after five weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation.
A day after more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk chanting You’re a Mouse, Lukashenko met with Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in urgent need of help to maintain his 26-year rule.
“First of all, I want to thank you … I personally thank you and all the Russians, all of them, and I will not list those who were involved in our support during this post-election period,” Lukashenko said.
Putin gave some details about the new loan, which he said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed to during a recent visit to the Belarusian capital.
The Kremlin later said some of the new money would be used to refinance early loans. He also said the two presidents had agreed to boost trade co-operation and discussed energy supplies to Belarus during nearly four hours of talks.
Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) is the legitimate president of Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked if the Belarusian leader had lost his legitimacy as a result of the protests.
Putin said defense co-operation would continue. Hours ago, Russian news agencies reported that Moscow was sending paratroopers for joint exercises.
The Russian leader also backed plans Lukashenko had previously announced for constitutional reform, which the opposition has dismissed as a ploy to retain power following the controversial August 9 presidential election.
“We want the Belarusians themselves to resolve this situation peacefully and through dialogue and to find a common solution, without any incitement or pressure from outside,” Putin said.
It was an unpleasant meeting for 66-year-old Lukashenko, who had opposed Moscow shortly before the election by gathering 32 Russian citizens whom Belarus accused of being mercenaries sent to destabilize the country.
Lukashenko said he was very grateful for Moscow’s support, adding that he had learned a very serious lesson from recent events. At one point, television footage showed him pressing sweat from his eyebrows with a handkerchief.
YOUR TAXES WILL PAID FOR OUR BEATINGS
Since the election, which Lukashenko denies manipulated to defeat opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, thousands of people have been arrested and almost all opposition leaders imprisoned, deported or forced into exile. Police said they detained 774 people Sunday.
Reacting to the news about the Russian loan, Tsikhanouskaya wrote on the social media platform Telegram: Dear Russians! Your taxes will pay for our beats. We’m sure you would not like it.
That could prolong the throes of Lukashenko’s death but could not prevent the victory of the people, she said.
The amount of the loan slightly exceeds the $ 1.4 billion that Belarus burned in gold and foreign exchange reserves last month in order to support its ruble currency.
A Russian political analyst, Fyodor Lukyanov, said it was a significant incentive for Lukashenko.
At the moment Minsk has no source of money other than Moscow … For him, that was his main goal – debt refinancing and a new loan. He apparently achieved this, Lukyanov said.
Given that they are giving him money and actively cooperating with him, (shows) Moscow thinks he will stay in power, at least for now. The situation is gradually stabilizing.
The West has acted cautiously, balancing sympathy with the pro-democracy movement against the fear of provoking Russian intervention. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a phone call with Putin, reiterated calls for a peaceful solution while respecting the will of the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko has been a thorny ally of Russia in the past and has had a difficult personal relationship with Putin. But the Kremlin has made it clear it does not want to see an ally ousted by street protests, as happened in 2014 in Ukraine.
Putin said last month he had set up a police reserve force at Lukashenko’s request to decide if necessary. Russia has offered to restructure Belarus’s debt and support its banks, and has sent reporters to operate Belarus state television after staff left in protest against what they called propaganda.
Additional Reports by Maria Kisisova, Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Written by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff, Edited by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones
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