MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin granted Belarus a $ 1.5 billion loan on Monday in a gesture of support for his leader Alexander Lukashenko, who flew to ask his patron for help after five weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation. .
One day after more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk to sing “You are a rat”, Lukashenko met Putin at the Sochi resort of Sochi in urgent need of help to maintain his 26-year-old grip on power.
“First of all, I want to thank you … personally thank you and all the Russians, all of them, and I will not list those who were involved in supporting us during this time after the election,”
Putin provided little detail about the new loan, which he said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed to during a recent visit to the Belarusian capital.
The Kremlin later said some of the new money would be used to refinance previous loans. It also said the two presidents had agreed to strengthen cooperation in trade and had discussed energy supplies to Belarus during nearly four hours of talks.
“Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) is the legitimate president of Belarus,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked if the Belarussian leader had not lost his legitimacy as a result of the protests.
Putin said defense cooperation would continue. Hours earlier, Russian news agencies reported that Moscow sent paratroopers to joint exercises.
The Russian leader also supported plans previously announced by Lukashenko for constitutional reform, which the opposition has rejected as a stunt to retain power after a controversial presidential election on 9 August.
“We want Belarusians, even without outside pressure or pressure, to resolve this situation calmly and through dialogue and find a common solution,” Putin said.
It was an unpleasant meeting for the 66-year-old Lukashenko, who had countered Moscow shortly before the election by gathering 32 Russian nationals whom Belarus accused of being mercenaries sent to destabilize the country.
Lukashenko said he was “very grateful” for Moscow’s support, adding that he had learned “a very serious lesson” from recent events. At one point, TV footage showed him sweating from his forehead with a handkerchief.
“YOUR FEES PAY FOR OUR KIND”
Since the election, which Lukashenko denies rigging to defeat opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, thousands of people have been arrested and almost all opposition leaders imprisoned, deported or forced into exile. Police said they detained 774 people Sunday.
In response to the news of the Russian loan, Tsikhanouskaya wrote on the social media platform Telegram: “Dear Russians! Your taxes pay for our battles. We’re sure you do not want that.
“This can prolong Lukashenko’s death, but it can not prevent people’s victory,” she said.
The loan amount slightly exceeds the $ 1.4 billion that Belarus burned through in gold and foreign exchange reserves last month to support its ruble currency
A Russian political analyst, Fyodor Lukyanov, said it was a significant boost for Lukashenko.
“At the moment, Minsk has no sources of money other than Moscow … For him, this was his most important goal – refinancing debt and a new loan. He apparently achieved this, ”Lukyanov said.
“Given that they are giving him money and actively cooperating with him, (it shows), Moscow believes he will remain in power, at least for now. The situation is gradually stabilizing. ”
The West has acted carefully and weighed sympathy with the pro-democracy movement for fear of provoking Russian intervention. In a telephone call with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his call for a peaceful solution that respected the will of the Belarussian people.
Lukashenko has previously been a stinging ally of Russia and has had an awkward personal relationship with Putin. But the Kremlin has made it clear that it does not want to see an ally overthrown by street protests, as happened in 2014 in Ukraine.
Putin said last month that he had set up a “reserve police force” at Lukashenko’s request to be deployed if necessary. Russia has offered to restructure Belarus ‘debt and support its banks, sending journalists to run Belarus’ state television after staff stopped protesting against what they call propaganda.
Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, writing by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff, editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones