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Putin Agrees To Support Belarus With $1.5 Billion Loan, Warns Of 'Foreign Interference'

By RFE/RL's Belarus Service September 14, 2020

MINSK -- President Vladimir Putin has agreed with his embattled Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka to a $1.5-billion loan for Minsk, though the Russian leader said the Belarusian people should resolve the crisis without foreign interference.

Putin, in comments broadcast on television from the talks in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on September 14, said he thought a proposal by Lukashenka to carry out constitutional reform was logical and timely.

The meeting was the first between Lukashenka and Putin since a wave of demonstrations demanding Lukashenka's resignation erupted following his disputed reelection last month.

Belarus has witnessed daily demonstrations since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the winner of the August 9 poll.

Lukashenka has blamed the protests on foreign interference, and thousands have been detained and beaten by police in a brutal crackdown that has been condemned by the United States and European Union.

In addition to announcing the loan, which Putin said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed to during a recent visit to Minsk, the Russian leader signaled military support for Lukashenka, saying defense cooperation would continue between the two countries.

Russian paratroopers began joint exercises with Belarusian forces on September 14.

Putin has promised military assistance under a bilateral military pact between the two countries.

Putin also backed the plans for constitutional reform that Lukashenka had previously announced, and which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to cling to power after an election it says was rigged. Putin said it was up to Belarusians to resolve the crisis themselves.

Lukashenka said that Belarus should maintain close ties with "elder brother" Russia, in particular economic cooperation.

"Economy is the basis for everything and we have always been sticking to this point of view, believe me. And these developments have demonstrated that we should stay closer to our elder brother and cooperate on all issues, including economic ones," he said at the talks in Sochi.

The meeting follows the fifth consecutive weekend of large protests in Minsk and other cities in the former Soviet republic. Protests on September 13 drew tens of thousands of Belarusians into the streets, with chants of "You're A Rat" and "Sasha, You're Fired!"

The Interior Ministry said police detained 774 people at the anti-government protests across Belarus over the weekend, including more than 500 in the capital, for "violating the law on mass events." A total of 544 of them will remain in pretrial detention, it said.

The Belarusian opposition, led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, accuses Lukashenka of rigging the election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote. Since then, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all the opposition's key leaders have been forced to leave the country or arrested.

Putin and Lukashenka have discussed the situation in Belarus several times by phone. Last month the Russian president called on both the Belarusian authorities and the opposition to find a political solution to the crisis.

He praised the Belarusian response to the protests and said in an interview with the state TV channel Rossia-24 on August 27 that Russia's reactions had been "much more reserved and neutral that of other countries, Europeans and Americans."

But he also said Russia is not "indifferent to what is going on there," noting the close ethnic and linguistic ties and economic cooperation between the two states.

Putin in the past has pressed Lukashenka on closer political and economic integration, but Lukashenka has resisted. His need for Moscow's backing now, however, might mean Lukashenka will have to reconsider Russia's overtures.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/lukashenka -to-seek-putin-s-backing- after-weeks-of-protests-demanding -his-resignation/30837163.html

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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