Officers clash with protesters at a women’s march in Freedom Square as mass protests continue across Belarus. Photo: Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
Belarus’ under-fire president, Alexander Lukashenko, won critical support from Russia’s Vladimir Putin Monday, securing a $1.5 billion loan and continued political backing, which could prove a lifeline as he battles to survive mass protests demanding his ousting.
Lukashenko cut a desperate figure as he appeared alongside Putin, his powerful backer, in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi Monday. He mopped his brow and jotted down notes submissively while the Russian leader spoke before press cameras at their first face-to-face meeting since the disputed Belarusian election on the 9th of August.
“A friend is in trouble, and I say that sincerely,” Lukashenko said at the start of the meeting.
Lukashenko’s security forces have waged a harsh crackdown on opposition figures and protesters in the wake of the contested election, locking up, threatening or forcibly deporting opponents. But the brutal methods have so far failed to crush the broad protest movement that is demanding the removal of the strongman known as “Europe’s last dictator” after his 26 years in power.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 people marched on Lukashenko’s residence in Minsk, as mass opposition rallies were held elsewhere in the country. Belarusian riot police used water cannons and carried out mass arrests of protesters; more than 770 were arrested, including about 500 in the capital, authorities said Monday.
Ryhor Astapenia, an academy fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, told VICE News that Putin’s political and economic support was vital for Lukashenko as he attempts to stay in power.
Lukashenko – who has blamed the West for stirring up demonstrations against his rule – had requested Russian economic support and military aid, and last week gave an interview to Russian journalists warning that if his government was toppled, “Russia will be next.”
“Russia will provide enough money right now, so Lukashenko will be able to keep paying the police officers, the army, people working in state-run companies,” said Astapenia.
“It will help him to feel more sustainable right now – so he’ll be able to focus just on political issues and suppressing the protests, not economic ones. It’s a signal that Putin is still supporting Lukashenko – if he decided not to, the Lukashenko system will fall very quickly.”
As well as the pledge of a $1.5 billion loan to prop up Belarus’ ailing economy, Putin endorsed Lukashenko’s proposition for constitutional reform – which the Belarusian opposition has dismissed as a stunt to buy time and cling to power – as a “timely and reasonable” move that would help “reach a new level in the development of the political system”.
Astapenia said he believed Russia would attempt to use that process to “try to control the process of political change in Belarus”, while the Belarusian opposition has voiced concerns Lukashenko could effectively sell out the country’s independence in return for Putin’s backing.
Putin said last month he had formed a police reserve force, at Lukashenko’s request, to intervene in Belarus if necessary, and said Monday that defence cooperation with Belarus would continue. Meanwhile, Russian news agencies reported that Moscow was sending paratroopers to Belarus Monday for ten days of joint military exercises.
But Astapenia said that direct intervention to support Lukashenko in putting down the protests was a “very tricky” prospect for Moscow.
“They understand that will make Belarusian society very anti-Russian in one day,” he said. “The Russians want to avoid that – they would like to have political and economic solutions so they will be able to control the political system inside the country, and not to have to intervene militarily.”
The Sochi meeting took place as the United Nations’ human rights chief Michelle Bachelet told delegates in Geneva that there had been hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment by Belarusian security forces, saying the perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Despite Putin’s lifeline to Lukashenko, Astapenia said the outcome of the meeting in Sochi would have little impact on the momentum of the protests in Belarus, which had wide-ranging support. Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a statement directed at Putin on Telegram that any agreement he reached with Lukashenko would “have no legal weight”.
“I am very sorry that you have decided to engage in dialogue with a dictator and not the Belarusian people,” she wrote.
“It doesn’t mean the protests will disappear,” Astapenia told VICE News. “People are really confident that they should get rid of Lukashenko. It will just make Lukashenko feel a little more secure.”