Putin throws $1.5 billion lifeline to Belarus leader

A handout still image taken from a video footage released by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office on the official website of the Russian President shows Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 14 September 2020. [Handout image/EPA/EFE]

Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed a $1.5 billion loan on Belarus on Monday (14 September) in a gesture of support for its leader Alexander Lukashenko, who flew to entreat his patron for help after five weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation.

A day after more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk with chants of “You’re a rat”, Lukashenko met Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in urgent need of help to maintain his 26-year grip on power.

“First of all, I want to thank you… personally thank you and all Russians, all those, and I will not list them, who were involved in supporting us during this post-election time,” Lukashenko said.

The Kremlin said some of the new money would be used to refinance earlier loans.

Putin backed plans Lukashenko has previously announced for constitutional reform, which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to retain power after a disputed 9 August presidential election.

But his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would stand down a reserve of law enforcement officers and national guards that Putin had placed near the border late last month, ready to intervene in case the situation got out of control.

The move signalled Moscow’s keenness to emphasise financial support, not force – and possibly its belief that a violent crackdown by Lukashenko’s security forces has been effective enough to keep him in power in the former Soviet republic.

“We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort out this situation in a calm manner and through dialogue and to find a common solution,” Putin said.

Putin said, however, that defence cooperation would continue. Hours earlier, Russian news agencies reported Moscow was sending paratroopers for joint exercises.

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