Putin, Lukashenko to talk ‘integration’ amid Belarus protests
by Anna MALPAS / Anna SMOLCHENKO
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who is facing the largest protests of his rule, will discuss plans to further integrate their countries on Monday, the Kremlin said.
As Lukashenko prepared for his first visit to Russia since protests broke out over his disputed re-election, the United States said Friday it would impose new sanctions on Belarusian figures within days and warned Moscow it would alienate Belarusians if it continued to back the strongman.
The Kremlin said Putin and Lukashenko would meet in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss further integration plans as well as key trade and energy projects.
“Key issues of the further development of Russian-Belarusian strategic partnership and alliance are planned to be discussed,” the Kremlin said.
Putin has been keen to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has accompanied its offers of military and economic aid with calls for tighter integration.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no plan for the leaders to sign any documents.
– US sanctions –
On Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the United States was coordinating with the European Union and looking to target both Belarusian individuals and exports.
Speaking to reporters, Biegun also asked how Moscow could “back such a regime and such violence against peaceful citizens.
“If the Kremlin continues down this path, it risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said.
Historically Russians and Belarusians have enjoyed good relations and the opposition says the protests are not aimed against Russia.
Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, has said he will not give up power to the opposition, which claims its candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was the winner of the August 9 polls. She has taken shelter in EU member Lithuania after coming under official pressure.
Lukashenko, 66, has had a volatile relationship with Moscow, playing it off against the European Union and ruling out outright unification with Russia.
But with Western pressure against Lukashenko mounting, his options are now limited. Since mass demonstrations against him began he has sought support from Putin, with regular phone calls between the leaders.
Lukashenko has cracked down on the protest movement with thousands detained and those held in custody giving accounts of police violence and torture. Several people have died in the crackdown.
Putin swiftly congratulated Lukashenko on his victory and raised the possibility of intervening militarily.
More than 100,000 people have taken to the streets of Minsk over the past four weekends, and a new protest is planned for Sunday.
Senior opposition members have been jailed or pressured to leave the country.
On Friday, two Belarusian protesters sought refuge outside the Swedish embassy in Minsk, saying they needed protection from Belarusian law enforcement after a recent rally.
They “stated that they wish to apply for asylum in Sweden,” said a spokeswoman for the Swedish foreign ministry.
– ‘Dependent on Russia’ –
Russia and Belarus have formed a “union state” that links their economies and militaries but the Kremlin has been pushing for a closer integration.
In a symbolic gesture, the Russian ambassador to Minsk Dmitry Mezentsev on Thursday handed Lukashenko a gift of a book of historic maps depicting Belarus when it was part of the Russian Empire.
EU members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have introduced sanctions against Lukashenko and other high-ranking officials over the election and subsequent crackdown.
Lukashenko threatened to re-route Belarusian cargo away from the Baltic states’ ports to Russia’s instead, and the transport ministries of the two countries discussed the issue on Friday.
Analysts said that Moscow will seek to exploit Lukashenko’s political vulnerability to wring concessions from him.
“Russia will seek to fully capitalise on its support for Lukashenko,” analyst Konstantin Kalachev told AFP.
“He is fully dependent on Russia.”
But Andrei Suzdaltsev of the Higher School of Economics said it was unwise of Moscow to support Lukashenko after he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many in Belarus.
“Lukashenko and integration are incompatible,” he told AFP, adding that the leader would “sign up to anything but do nothing” and any such agreements would only anger Belarusians.