Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will meet next week to hold their first face-to-face talks since a wave of demonstrations demanding the longtime Belarusian leader step down erupted following his disputed reelection last month.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 11 that the two leaders will meet in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on September 14 for talks that would focus on energy cooperation and bilateral ties.
Belarus has witnessed daily demonstrations and strike actions since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the August 9 vote. Thousands have been detained and hundreds beaten by police in a brutal crackdown that has been condemned by the United States and European Union.
Opposition challenger Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who says she won 60 percent to 70 percent of the vote, is now in Lithuania, having arrived in the neighboring Baltic state shortly after the election under still unclear circumstances.
The announced meeting between Putin and Lukashenka comes as protests continued in Belarus.
At least nine protesters were detained outside a court in the capital, Minsk, as they rallied in solidarity with industrial workers defending their right to strike.
Police also detained protesters in the cities of Vitebsk, Homel, and Baranavichy, according to the Vyasna human rights center in Minsk.
“The threats and detentions come before the protests set for the weekend,” the head of the center, Ales Byalyatski, said. “Lukashenka would very much like to show the Kremlin that the protests are abating and he is in control of the situation, but so far repression has had the opposite effect.”
Putin, who has pressed a reluctant Lukashenka on closer integration, has backed the embattled Belarusian strongman, even promising military assistance under a bilateral military pact, including a police force.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has refused to commit to meet with members of the opposition Coordination Council, initiated by Tsikhanouskaya to help resolve the crisis and a transfer of power, saying some members held "anti-Russian views."
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Most of the council presidium's seven members have either been arrested or forced to leave the country.
Before the election, the 66-year-old Lukashenka had accused Russia of being among foreign powers trying to sow unrest ahead of the vote, with 33 Russian mercenaries captured in an arrest highlighted by state media.
But with his hold on power appearing to slip, Lukashenka has turned to his old ally, putting at risk a rapprochement with the West, including the United States, which sent its first oil shipment ever to Belarus earlier this year.
The planned meeting with Putin comes after Lukashenka met earlier this month with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who reported that progress was made toward deeper integration under the aegis of a Russia-Belarus "Union State" that was created in the 1990s but exists largely on paper.