President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has arrived in Russia to meet leader Vladimir Putin, seeking Moscow’s backing after a fifth consecutive weekend of huge protests demanding his resignation.
- Mr Lukashenko has had a difficult relationship with Mr Putin, but Russia supports his regime
- More than 100,000 people took to the streets of the Belarusian capital on the weekend
- Russia will send paratroopers into Belarus for joint military exercises at the end of this month
Flight tracking data showed Mr Lukashenko’s plane on Monday touched down in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Russian President often hosts visiting dignitaries.
The fate of the Belarusian leader is in Mr Putin’s hands as he faces the gravest crisis of his 26 years in power.
Economic and military support from Moscow could help tip the balance in his favour as his security forces crack down hard on his critics.
The Belarusian Opposition accuses Mr Lukashenko of rigging last month’s presidential election, which he says he won fairly with 80 per cent of the vote.
Since then, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all the Opposition’s key leaders have been detained, deported or forced to flee the country.
At least 100,000 protesters took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Sunday, taunting Lukashenko with chants of: “You’re a rat.” Police said they detained 774 people at protests across the country.
Mr Putin’s actions so far suggest he has no desire to see the leader of a neighbouring ex-Soviet country toppled by pressure from the streets — even if Mr Lukashenko has often proved a prickly and difficult ally.
The Kremlin has long pushed for closer integration with Belarus, including a joint currency. Mr Lukashenko has resisted some of those measures, and has had a difficult personal relationship with Mr Putin.
Yet the Belarusian leader’s position could become more precarious should the protests persist.
Mr Putin said last month he had set up a “reserve police force” at Mr Lukashenko’s request, though it would be deployed only if needed.
On Monday Russia will send paratroopers to Belarus for joint “Slavic brotherhood” military drills until September 25, RIA news agency quoted the defence ministry as saying.
Russia has also offered to restructure Belarusian debt and support the banking system.
Belarus is the former Soviet republic with the closest political, social, economic and defence relationships with Russia.