Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Lukashenko threatens protesters after Russia bailout

  • Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (l) with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Russia has loaned embattled Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko $1.5 billion (€1.3bn), even as he warned protesters not to cross his "red lines".

"We agreed that during this complicated period Moscow would grant Minsk a state loan," Russian president Vladimir Putin told Lukashenko at a press conference in Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, on Monday (14 September).

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He also pledged Belarus would be the "first country" to receive Russia's new coronavirus vaccine, when it was ready.

And Russian paratroopers would take part in military drills near Brest, in western Belarus, this week, Putin said.

But he ruled out use of Russian force to quell the pro-democracy protests in his neighbour.

"This is for the training of troops. Let me repeat to prevent conjecture: this is an event that was planned and even announced last year. After the joint exercises, the Russian units will return to their permanent stations," Putin said.

"We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort out this situation in a calm manner," he added.

The $1.5 billion was a lot more than the €53 million the EU institutions pledged for the "support of the Belarusian people" since the political crisis erupted there after rigged elections in August.

But it was less than Lukashenko needed to stabilise his economy, given that he has been burning more or less the same amount each month in foreign currency reserves to prop up his ruble.

Putin also embarrassed the Belarusian hard man by having him met by a local governor instead of by a real VIP at the airport.

And the body language in their press conference showed a suppliant Lukashenko bending toward the Russian leader, who sat leaning back in his chair, looking bored, with his legs spread wide, in a show of machismo.

The Sochi meeting came after six weeks of mass protests in Minsk, posing questions on Lukashenko's ability to retain power for the first time in his 26-year rule.

It also comes after years of enmity between the two men, in which Putin has tried to swallow Belarus in a state union, and Lukashenko has threatened to switch allegiance to the West.

Lukashenko referred to that option once again in Sochi, saying he had spoken with "comrade Orban about cooperation with other countries, especially in the European Union", referring to his recent meeting with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

But his EU talks "showed us that we need to stay closer with our older brother [Russia]," Lukashenko added.

He depicted Nato as a threat because it had sent troops to Lithuania.

And he depicted the EU as being engulfed in a second wave of coronavirus, unlike Belarus. "There is no [second] surge in Belarus, as in Europe," he said,

Lukashenko downplayed the opposition movement.

"We have a march of women and girls on Saturday, and a general march on Sunday. Saturday Sunday. On ordinary days, the country lives an ordinary life," he said.

And he threatened more violence, by comparing events in Belarus to a former uprising in the Russian province of Chechnya, which Putin crushed with military force.

"The main thing, I always say, is [for protesters] not to cross the line. There is a 'red line', you [Putin] are also familiar with this and know more than me: you had to draw these lines in Chechnya," Lukashenko said.

Macron calling

The Sochi meeting came amid light-touch EU diplomacy to try to avoid violence without looking as though the West was interfering.

French president Emmanuel Macron, in a phone call with Putin the same day, called for a "peaceful solution".

But the EU is also preparing to sanction more than 30 Belarusian officials over the crackdown.

And the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is to hold a debate on Lukashenko's brutality on Friday, giving moral support to protesters, after the German EU presidency called for the move.

"The situation on the ground clearly warrants an urgent debate. The human rights council should not stay silent on this matter," Germany's envoy to the UN body, Michael von Ungern-Sternberg, said.

The EU was "creating the conditions for preserving this political standoff in the society of Belarus," the Belarusian ambassador, Yury Ambrazevich, said.

The Philippines and Venezuela were the only UN council members who rallied to his side by voting against the debate.

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