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Putin, Lukashenka Conclude Talks As West Ramps Up Pressure

By RFE/RL February 22, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka spent six hours together at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 22 for talks on their stalled integration efforts.

Their meeting came as each faces mass protests at home and mounting pressure from the West over police crackdowns against opposition leaders and peaceful protesters.

The talks started at 3 p.m. local time. The two then went skiing together before continuing the talks during a formal working dinner.

The Kremlin press service said their agenda focused on the development of Russian-Belarusian relations in terms of a "strategic partnership and alliance," economic ties, energy, and integration within the framework of a union state.

During a part of the meeting that was open to the press, the two also discussed the delivery of supplies of a Russian coronavirus vaccine to Belarus.

At the start of the meeting, Putin said he was "delighted to reaffirm the level of our interaction, strategic partnership, and allied relations."

Russian media quoted Lukashenka as saying during the meeting that there were "maybe six, seven [integration] road maps left out of 33" that still needed to be hammered out within their broader "plan of action" on joint cooperation. "All the others are ready to be signed," he said.

Lukashenka has long sought to portray himself as a brake on Moscow's pressure to merge Belarus with Russia.

But seven months of unprecedented street protests since a disputed presidential election has put the Belarusian leader on the defensive and seemingly more reliant on Putin's support.

Their summit was held as the European Union is poised to adopt fresh sanctions against Russia and possibly Belarus, ramping up pressure over a host of issues that have drawn the two neighbors closer in recent months.

The EU has progressively imposed sanctions on Belarus in response to the violent repression of peaceful protesters, the opposition, and media since an August 2020 election the bloc considers fraudulent that extended Lukashenka's 26-year authoritarian rule.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya claims to have won the vote. She is calling for the EU to take a tougher stance against Lukashenka's regime.

The last time Putin and Lukashenka met face to face was in mid-September 2020 in Sochi, when Belarus secured a $1.5 billion loan for its battered economy.

In recent years, Russia has pressured Belarus to take steps toward integration in order to cement a 20-year-old agreement to form a union state, only to be rebuffed by Lukashenka's defense of the nation's sovereignty.

However, the situation began to change after Russia helped prop up Lukashenka in the wake of the August presidential election, bringing the two sides closer over common threat perceptions.

"Minsk understands perfectly how important it is now to be on the right side of the Kremlin," political analyst Artyom Shraibman wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Lukashenka has tried many times to show that he and Putin are in the same boat against the collective West, and that the recent protests in Russia are a continuation of those in Belarus."

Putin arrived in Sochi with the threat of new Russia sanctions looming from the EU and Washington over the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and evidence that the anti-corruption campaigner was poisoned with a Novichok-like nerve agent. Navalny blames his poisoning on Putin and FSB security agents.

Navalny's detention in January upon his return from life-saving treatment in Germany and subsequent crackdown on some of Russia's largest anti-government protests in a decade have prompted international outrage.

With reporting by dpa and TASS

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/belarusian-russian- leaders-set-to-meet-as-west-prepares- to-ramp-up-pressure/31115041.html

Copyright (c) 2021. 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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