Amid Democratic Street Uprising, Belarusian Strongman Gets Support From Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia, on Monday.

Kremlin press office handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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Kremlin press office handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia, on Monday.

Kremlin press office handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin provided a limited lifeline to Alexander Lukashenko as the Belarusian strongman 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 August presidential elections demonstrators say were rigged to keep Lukashenko in power.

On Sunday, a crowd of more than 100,000 again swamped downtown Minsk for the fourth weekend in a row.

A repeated show of force by Lukashenko’s security forces have led to thousands of arrests — and credible allegations of widespread torture — but failed to stem voters’ ire.

Lukashenko’s nickname in protest circles is simply «the rat.» A standard chant at rallies has become a basic demand: «leave.»

Lukashenko has refused to step down, arguing he won his reelection in a popular landslide.

Putin appears with Lukashenko

In extended opening remarks before cameras, the leaders’ body language seemed to characterize the power dynamic at play.

Lukashenko leaning in hard towards Putin — the Belarusian strongman repeatedly wiping his brow as the Kremlin leader suggested he viewed the political crisis in Belarus as an internal affair for now.

«We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside to sort out this situation in a calm manner,» said Putin, leaning back in his chair.

Lukashenko was, by turn, almost painfully ingratiating in response — thanking his «older brother» and «all Russian people,» for their support as Putin tapped the floor with his foot absentmindedly.

«Everyone understands that Moscow has now become the kingmaker in the context of this political crisis,» says Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations in an interview with NPR.

Yet Preiherman suggested Russia’s position as far from settled.

«We’ll only understand Moscow’s longer-term strategy in Belarus in some time.»

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 politics, and a long-stalled plan to create a union state between two countries.

Even ahead of the August presidential elections, Lukashenko said Russia was behind a plot to disrupt the vote.

Protests in the wake of the vote have prompted a change of heart. Lukashenko now argues the demonstrations are a western-backed plot to end his rule and expand NATO to Russia’s borders.

NATO has repeatedly denied the charges.

Yet Lukashenko walked away far from empty-handed in his four-plus hour meeting with Putin in Sochi on Monday.

Putin announced a $1.5 billion loan for Belarus’s struggling 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 Putin was simply placing — by default — Russia’s geopolitical interests above all else.

«The legitimacy of any leader … is valued not by performance or genuine popularity of the leader, but by how well they maintain the distance» between Russia and the West, wrote Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Yet any overly tight embrace of Lukashenko also risks alienating Belarusians who until now haven’t been trying to get out of Russia’s orbit.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s opponent during the disputed August elections, issued a statement ahead of Monday’s talks saying she regretted Putin had chosen «dialogue with a dictator» over the Belarusian people.

She also insisted any deals cut by Lukashenko in Sochi would be subject to future government review.

In turn, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that Russia still sees Lukashenko as the «legitimate president» of Belarus.

«As to those people who don’t agree with the results of the elections, they are all citizens of brotherly Belarus. We love and value them all.»

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