MINSK -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed with his embattled Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka to a $1.5-billion loan for Minsk, in what the Belarusian opposition leader described as Russia “paying for our beatings.”
Putin, in comments broadcast on television from the talks in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on September 14, said the Belarusian people should resolve the country’s political crisis without foreign interference even as Moscow deepens support to prop up Lukashenka.
The meeting was the first between the two leaders since a wave of daily demonstrations demanding Lukashenka's resignation erupted following his disputed reelection in an August 9 poll.
In the latest mass protests, tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Minsk and other cities on September 13, chanting "You're A Rat" and demanding Lukashenka step down after 26 years in power.
The Belarusian opposition, led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, accuses Lukashenka of rigging the election, which handed him a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote.
Since then, thousands of people have been detained and beaten by police while nearly all the opposition's key leaders have been forced to leave the country or been arrested in a widening crackdown condemned by the United States and European Union.
Tsikhanouskaya has warned that any agreements between Lukashenka and Russia will be null and void because the longtime ruler lacks legitimacy and no longer represents the people.
In response to Russia’s financial lifeline, Tsikhanouskaya warned Putin and appealed to Russian citizens not to allow their tax money to be wasted on repressing their neighbors.
"I hope Putin understands that it is Lukashenka, and not our people, who is to repay this loan," the exiled presidential candidate wrote on her Telegram channel.
"My commentary is an appeal to Russian citizens: 'Dear Russians! Your taxes will pay for our beatings. We are certain that it's not what you'd want.' This may prolong Lukashenka's agony but not prevent the people's victory," Tsikhanouskaya said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after four hours of talks that the loan will partly be used to refinance earlier loans.
Putin has for years pressed for deepening a union agreement and envisages closer economic and political integration between the two ex-Soviet republics despite finding an often difficult and resistant partner in the Belarusian leader.
Analysts say that the political crisis in Belarus presents Russia a possible opportunity to extract demands from an embattled Lukashenka that were previously off the table.
But providing support to Lukashenka also risks triggering a backlash from a Belarusian public and opposition that is not openly hostile to Russia.
Despite an ostensibly rocky personal relationship with Lukashenka, Putin does not want to see a close ally toppled in street protests that could have a knock-on effect at home.
Feeding that perception, Lukashenka has claimed NATO members are plotting a "color revolution" to topple him and planning to use Belarus as a geopolitical launching pad to undermine Russia.
In addition to the loan, which Putin said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed to during a recent visit to Minsk, the Russian leader signaled military support for Lukashenka, saying defense cooperation would continue between the two countries.
Hours before the meeting, Russian paratroopers began joint exercises with Belarusian forces.
Last month, Putin raised the possibility of sending military support if Belarus "starts to get out of control” and “extremist elements in Belarus cross the line and begin acts of looting.”
In their talks, Putin also backed the plans for constitutional reform that Lukashenka had previously announced, and which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to cling to power after an election it says was rigged. Putin said it was up to Belarusians to resolve the crisis themselves.
Lukashenka said that Belarus should maintain close ties with "elder brother" Russia, in particular economic cooperation.
"Economy is the basis for everything and we have always been sticking to this point of view, believe me. And these developments have demonstrated that we should stay closer to our elder brother and cooperate on all issues, including economic ones," he said at the talks in Sochi.
The Kremlin said the two sides also talked about trade cooperation and energy supplies for Belarus during nearly four hours of talks. Russian energy subsidies have long propped up the Belarusian economy although the two sides have often clashed over pricing.
Since the political crisis erupted, Putin and Lukashenka have discussed the situation several times by phone. Last month the Russian president called on both the Belarusian authorities and the opposition to find a political solution to the crisis.
But Putin also said Russia is not “indifferent to what is going on there,” noting the close ethnic and linguistic ties and economic cooperation between the two states.