MINSK -- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin held talks in Belarus on September 3 as authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka pivots to Moscow to overcome weeks of protests and international isolation over an election widely viewed as rigged.
Unprecedented daily protests against Lukashenka since the August 9 vote are being closely watched in Russia, which for years has pushed for closer economic and political integration between the two ex-Soviet countries despite finding an often difficult and resistant partner in the Belarusian leader.
The protests and associated crackdown have also upended Lukashenka’s nascent rapprochement with the West, which the Belarusian president had used to balance ties with its much larger eastern neighbor.
Mishustin's one-day visit to Minsk focused on economic and energy issues, the two sides said. During a meeting with Lukashenka, Mishustin noted progress in strengthening the two countries' union agreement envisaging close political, economic, and military ties.
The visit paves the way for a planned meeting between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin within the next two weeks, officials have said. Separately, Belarus's Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin will visit Russia on September 4.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets across Belarus to protest the "rigged" results that gave Lukashenka more than 80 percent of the vote. The protesters are calling on Lukashenka to step down after 26 years in power, release all political prisoners, and hold free and fair elections.
In response, Lukashenka has intensified a crackdown on protesters and mobilized the army, claiming NATO members are plotting a "color revolution" to topple him and planning to use Belarus as a geopolitical launching pad to undermine Russia.
"The country is working, although many, especially our neighbors, would like us to collapse," Lukashenka said after meeting with the Russian prime minister, referring to the European Union states bordering Belarus and ongoing protests.
"This lesson should incentivize the two brotherly countries, Belarus and Russia, to draw relevant conclusions," he said. "And to reach agreements on many issues on which we previously could not agree.”
Analysts say Putin is struggling with the difficult balancing act of calculating whether Russia can extract demands from an increasingly weak Lukashenka with its interest in not isolating a Belarusian public and opposition that is so far not hostile to Russia.
Putin last week 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.”
George Kent, U.S. deputy assistant secretary overseeing policy toward Belarus at the State Department, said at a conference in Washington on September 2 that the United States and its allies would have a tough response if Russia intervenes in Belarus.
He said that if Moscow thinks relations with the West the last few years have been bad, "it can get worse."
Lukashenka's government has "lost all legitimacy in the eyes" of the Belarusian people and it would be "catastrophic" for Russia's image in Belarus to intervene militarily on his behalf, he said.
In response to Mishustin’s visit, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled presidential candidate who has become an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition, suggested any agreements between Lukashenka and Russia would be void.
“Sovereignty cannot be the subject of negotiations or bargaining. I doubt that any decisions and agreements that can be signed by Lukashenka will be recognized by the new government. The reason for this is known: the people have refused to trust Lukashenka,” she said via her Telegram channel.
Tsikhanouskaya, who claims to have won 60 to 70 percent of the vote, has previously told RFE/RL that the Belarusian opposition has no issues with Russia and would like every country to respect its sovereignty and the will of the people.
Earlier on September 3, the official BelTa news agency reported that Lukashenka has appointed new heads for the country’s KGB security service, the Security Council, and the State Control Committee. Retaining the loyalty of the security forces, who have helped him crack down hard on dissent, is vital to Lukashenka maintaining control of the situation.
Thousands of people have been detained during protests after the election. UN human rights investigators said on they had received reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings, and mistreatment.
Meanwhile, another 10 people were detained at peaceful protests on September 3, the Vyasna human right center said.
As authorities try to stifle the spread of information, they have revoked the accreditation of many Belarusian journalists and deported some foreign journalists. Several Belarusian journalists were detained earlier this week and charged with taking part in unsanctioned protests.
Two popular TV anchors who resigned from state TV in solidarity with the protesters have also been detained. One, BT TV presenter Dzmitry Kakhno, was sentenced on September 3 to 10 days of administrative arrest for participating in an unauthorized rally.
On the evening of September 3, about 70 journalists demonstrated outside the Interior Ministry's headquarters in Minsk, calling for the detained journalists to be released.
News also emerged that two members of the opposition Coordinating Council’s presidium will be tried again for allegedly violating the law on organizing mass events. Volha Kovalkova and Syarhey Dyleuski, who is also a strike organizer, were to be released from detention on September 3 after serving 10 days in jail on a similar charge.
The Coordination Council said another detained member of its presidium, Lilia Vlasova, had been charged with tax evasion, according to Interfax.
The authorities also have launched a case against Viktar Kuvshinau, a manager of software company PandaDoc in Minsk, for alleged financial crimes, his wife said.
Kuvshinau had helped teachers who were members of the election commission and witnessed instances of fraud to file complaints to law enforcement agencies. He also assisted those who had lost their job with finding a new post.
PandaDoc CEO Mikita Mikado has launched an initiative to help law enforcement officers who will leave the service.