Russia’s Putin doubles down on Belarus ally, wary of protest contagion

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is tightening his embrace of beleaguered ally Alexander Lukashenko as the Belarusian ruler intensifies a crackdown on month-long protests.

Putin, who hosts Lukashenko for talks in Sochi on Monday, is determined opposition demonstrators won’t topple the Belarusian president, said five people close to the Kremlin, who asked not to be identified discussing internal policy.

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It’s their first face-to-face meeting since daily protests erupted in Belarus demanding Lukashenko’s resignation after he claimed to win a landslide in August 9 elections to extend his 26-year rule. The demonstrations show no sign of fading and Lukashenko has made no concessions.

“Belarus is of huge importance,” said Mikhail Vinogradov, who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation. “Putin doesn’t want to end up on the losing side.”

The crisis engulfing Moscow’s closest partner echoes revolts that swept away pro-Kremlin leaders in Ukraine and Armenia since 2014, and comes weeks after Putin changed Russia’s constitution to allow him to extend his two-decade rule potentially to 2036.

The Russian leadership was taken aback by the scale of the unrest in Belarus, the people close to the Kremlin said. While Moscow doesn’t trust Lukashenko, it can’t accept the opposition coming to power via street protests and will back him while encouraging steps toward an eventual succession, they said.

The European Union and the US condemned the repression and rejected the election result, but have only threatened sanctions so far.

The opposition that united behind Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who’s now in exile in Lithuania, says she won the election and wants Lukashenko to begin talks on handing over power.

Putin said last month he’d agreed with Lukashenko to send Russian police to help quell the unrest if necessary, while adding he saw no need yet. Russia has dispatched media workers to Belarus to replace striking staff at the state broadcaster.

Belarus has asked Russia to reschedule $1 billion in debt. Discussions on Russian gas supplies took place Friday.

Lukashenko’s ties with Putin strained after he resisted Russian pressure last year for deeper integration, and instead sought a rapprochement with the West.

After attacking Russia during the election, his tilt back toward Moscow has come as Belarusian security forces have pushed out of the country or jailed almost all senior opposition figures, while using brutal tactics against protesters.

“Belarusians are really aghast at Putin’s support for Lukashenko,” who’s become “totally alien to his own people,” Valery Tsepkalo, an opposition politician, said by phone from exile in Poland.

There’s a risk “Russia will turn the most friendly neighbor they have into a population that sees them as an accessory to Lukashenko and his authoritarianism,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Belarus who’s now senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Lukashenko, 66, called Putin his “older brother” and suggested their fates were intertwined in an interview with Russian media broadcast Sept. 9.

“You know what we agreed with the Russian establishment and leadership?” he said. “That if Belarus breaks, Russia will be next.”

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