Russian PM In Minsk As Belarus Looks To Ally For Help
By RFE/RL's Belarus Service September 03, 2020
MINSK -- Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has arrived in Minsk as Belarus's beleaguered 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 visit to Minsk is to pave the way for a meeting between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin within the next two weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on September 2.
"This underlines our mutual disposition to further develop equal, mutually beneficial relations, including within the framework of the union state," said Lavrov, who was meeting with Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey.
Lavrov criticized "destructive" Western criticism of the Belarusian authorities, and warned that Moscow would respond "firmly and with dignity" to any attempts to destabilize Belarus or loosen its strong ties to Russia.
Makey thanked Russia for supporting Minsk in the face of what he described as protests orchestrated from abroad.
Separately, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin will visit Russia on September 4. Khrenin will take part in a meeting of defense ministers of post-Soviet countries, his office said in a statement.
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.
On September 3, the official BelTa news agency reported that Lukashenka had appointed new heads for the country's KGB security service, the Security Council, and the State Control Committee.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said that 24 people were detained the previous day for taking part in unregistered protests across the country.
Sixteen of them will remain in custody until courts hear their cases, the ministry said.
News has 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 have also 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 election commissions and witnessed instances of fraud to file complaints with 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 leave the service.
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."
In an interview with RFE/RL on August 28, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled presidential candidate who has become an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition, said deploying Russian forces in her country would be a mistake.
"This is our internal problem, an internal issue that Belarusians must resolve with the Belarusian government," said Tsikhanouskaya, who claims to have won 60 to 70 percent of the vote.
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 intervened in Belarus.
He said that if Moscow thought relations with the West the last few years had 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.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on September 2 that the United States was demanding an immediate end to the violent crackdown by Belarus's government on opposition supporters and was in consultation with its transatlantic partners over a response.
The European Union has been working on a list of individuals to target with sanctions.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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