MOSCOW – Belarus' authoritarian president visited Russia on Monday in a bid to secure more loans and political support, as demonstrations against the extension of his 26-year rule entered their sixth week.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi came a day after an estimated 150,000 people flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital, demanding Lukashenko's resignation. The Interior Ministry said 774 people were arrested in Minsk and other cities of Belarus for holding unsanctioned rallies on Sunday.
Putin said Russia would provide a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus and fulfill all its obligations under a union treaty between the two neighbors. Speaking at the start of the talks, he emphasized that the Belarusians themselves must settle their political situation without any foreign meddling, and commended Lukashenko for his pledge to conduct a constitutional reform.
Protesters in Belarus have dismissed Lukashenko's reelection for a sixth term in the Aug. 9 presidential vote as rigged. The United States and the European Union have both criticized the election as neither free nor fair and urged the Belarusian leader to engage in talks with the opposition, a demand he has rejected.
The opposition has dismissed Lukashenko's talk about constitutional reform as an attempt to buy time and assuage the protesters' anger. Putin hailed it as a “timely and reasonable” move that would help "reach a new level in the development of the political system.”
In a bid to win Moscow's support, Lukashenko, a 66-year-old former state farm director, has tried to cast the protests as an effort by the West to isolate Russia, which sees Belarus as a key bulwark against NATO and a major conduit for energy exports to Europe.
As he sat across the table from Putin, Lukashenko pointed at NATO's drills near Belarus' borders and said the two countries must strengthen their defense ties.
Putin emphasized that Russian paratroopers who were sent to Belarus for joint drills will leave the country after the exercise. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters after the four-hour talks that the leaders did not discuss the possibility of basing Russian forces in Belarus.