The Kremlin said Tuesday that a US$1.5-billion loan it offered to Belarus carried no political conditions, despite claims by the Belarussian opposition that Russia was trying to shore up the country’s authoritarian president amid postelection protests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the loan when he hosted Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko for more than four hours of talks Monday in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the loan wasn’t contingent on any political moves.
“Like any loan, it has commercial conditions, but there was no talk about any other conditions,” Mr. Peskov told reporters during a conference call Tuesday.
Protesters in Belarus have dismissed Mr. Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term on Aug. 9 as rigged, and massive demonstrations calling for his resignation have entered a sixth week.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the presidential election in Belarus as neither free nor fair and urged Mr. Lukashenko to engage in talks with the opposition, a demand the leader who has held office for 26 years rejected.
Lawmakers in Ukraine, Belarus’s neighbour, joined the West in condemning the election and Belarussian authorities for a brutal crackdown on protesters during the first several days of demonstrations, when more than 7,000 people were detained.
The Ukrainian parliament passed a motion Tuesday supporting future sanctions against individuals involved in rigging the election and using violence against demonstrators.
The international pressure so far has left Mr. Lukashenko relying exclusively on assistance from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties.
Mr. Putin quickly congratulated Mr. Lukashenko on his re-election and promised to send Russian police to Belarus, if the protests there got out of hand.
Mr. Peskov said after the two presidents' talks on Monday that Russia would pull back from the border a law enforcement contingent that was convened for possible deployment to Belarus.
Despite their close co-operation, the governments in neighbouring Russia and Belarus have also engaged in acrimonious disputes. In the past, Mr. Lukashenko denounced what he described as Kremlin pressure for Belarus to abandon its independence.
The Belarussian leader, in a shift of rhetoric Monday, showered Mr. Putin with praise for helping Belarus and emphasized the need to counter what he described as hostile plans by NATO. He offered to intensify joint military drills, adding that “the recent developments have shown that we need to stand closer to our older brother.”
Mr. Putin emphasized that Russian paratroopers sent to Belarus for joint drills would leave the country after the exercise. Mr. Peskov said the leaders did not discuss the possibility of basing Russian troops in Belarus.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the drills began Monday and will run through Sept. 25 at a range near Brest, located on the border with Poland. The ministry emphasized that the scheduled counterterrorism manoeuvres weren’t directed against another country.
The Defence Ministry said another military exercise would be held in Belarus next month, involving troops from Russia and other ex-Soviet members of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. Belarussian troops, in turn, have deployed to southern Russia, where they will participate in the Caucasus 2020 military exercise set for next week.
The Coordination Council that the Belarussian opposition created after the presidential election to push for a new vote strongly criticized Russia for backing Mr. Lukashenko.
“Support for the actions of Belarus' law enforcement agencies, for the policy of repression instead of dialogue, will undoubtedly have a serious negative impact on bilateral relations,” it said in a statement.
Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and ambassador to France who was forced to leave Belarus after joining the Coordination Council, said the Kremlin is making a mistake by trying to shore up Mr. Lukashenko.
“It’s a wrong strategy to offer a financial lifeline to the outgoing government that will be wasted,” Mr. Latushko said in a phone interview from Poland. “Russia offers funds to Lukashenko, but it can’t put money in every Belarussian’s pocket. The economic situation will deteriorate, and the public discontent will only grow.”
Mr. Latushko charged that despite backing Mr. Lukashenko for now, the Kremlin may already have started a search for his replacement.
“Russia is implementing a strategy to downgrade the outgoing president to help shape broad public consensus for replacing Lukashenko in the near future,” he said.
Most observers noted that Russia would stand by Mr. Lukashenko until it could find a viable alternative.
“If Belarussian officials and the broad public feel that Russia dropped its support for Lukashenko, it would quickly finish his regime,” said Artem Shraibman, an independent analyst based in Minsk. “The Kremlin doesn’t want him to fall until it has other reliable partners in the Belarussian elite or the opposition.”
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