Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko entreated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support at the Black Sea Sochi resort on Monday, as crackdown measures fail to dispel protests. Putin responded with a $1.5 billion dollar loan to Belarus, to refinance earlier loans, as well as gold and foreign exchange reserves depleted last month for supporting its rouble currency. In addition, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced the stand down of law enforcement and national guards placed at the Belarusian border in late August. Before the election protests, both leaders shared precarious relations, due to Lukashenko’s resistance against Putin’s attempts to integrate Belarus and Russia. In July, Belarusian authorities arrested Russian citizens, accusing them of being mercenaries plotting to destabilize Belarus before the election. Despite the recent tension, Lukashenko beseeched his longtime counterpart, saying that “a friend is in trouble,” and Peskov characterized the conversation as “constructive, lengthy, and substantiative in content.” Lukashenko’s former opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya reacted by warning Russian citizens that they will “pay for our beatings” on the social media platform, Telegram.
Expressing gratitude for the support, Lukashenko said he learned a “very serious lesson.” Putin described his initiative as “logical, timely, [and] appropriate.” He also discussed the withdrawal of forces at the border, appearing to emphasize financial support over military: “We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort this situation in a calm manner and through dialogue and to find a common solution.” On Sunday, over 100,000 demonstrators gathered aware of the Sochi meeting, demanding Lukashenko’s resignation and calling him a “rat.” Asserting illegitimate rule, Tsikhanouskaya warned that any agreement made would not “have legal force,” expressing regret for Putin’s dialogue “with the usurper, and not with the Belarusian people.” Experts predicted Lukashenko’s actions would isolate Belarus from the international market, forcing greater reliance on Russian assistance. Expecting impending sanctions, adviser to former Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas, Daniel Krutzinna told The Moscow Times the market will “only [be] open to investors from Russia or China, who are not well known for being altruistic-they will put very strong conditions on their engagement in Belarus.”
Putin’s assistance to Lukashenko is peculiar, given their capricious relations. Lukashenko’s exchanges for the loan are unknown, and he is threatening Belarusian sovereignty with Russian control by accumulating debt to Russia. According to The Moscow Times, Sofya Donets, an economist at Renaissance capital said the $1.5 billion loan is “mostly refinancing of already-existing debt.” Belarus owes Russia $8 billion, comprising nearly half its debt. Despite ostentatious support, Putin may have ulterior motives. Director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrei Kortunov said he “has never trusted or liked Lukashenko,” desiring his gradual removal, but not under pressure from protestors. Sharing desire for Lukashenko’s removal, the West should negotiate with Putin, as well as Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition party, instead of imposing sanctions. Together, they should negotiate an agreement to prompt Lukashenko’s fulfillment of his pledge for a constitutional referendum. Although rightfully opposed to negotiations with Russia, Tsikhanouskaya should acknowledge that Putin’s sentiments and relationship with Lukashenko could prove instrumental to removing him from power.
Protests erupted in Belarus before the election, due to Lukashenko’s handling of covid-19 and crackdowns on rivals threatening his reign. Following his controversial election victory, protests intensified amid accusations of rigging and illegitimate rule. Since election night, thousands of people have been detained, hundreds injured, and at least four are dead from clashes with police. At the end of August, to punish Lukashenko, the Baltic States imposed sanctions on him and other officials within his regime, to which they retaliated with reciprocal action. While his entreaty for Russia’s support may indicate desperation, he remains obstinate and continues aggressive retaliation against protestors. On Saturday, police violently detained women demonstrators, which Tsikhanouskaya called “disgraceful.” In efforts to counter brutality, protestors started grabbing officers’ masks, observing that they responded by covering their faces or running away. The founder of the Telegram channel, Black Book of Belarus, said pulling off the masks “in both the literal and metaphorical sense” will make an officer “think twice before he grabs, beats, or kidnaps someone.”
Many international authorities, including Lukashenko’s closest ally Putin, desire an end to his rule. Recent Western actions, including sanctions and placement of soldiers in the region on alleged military exercises, will not de-escalate tensions with Lukashenko or discourage his continued abuse of power. The West should remove forces, cancel future operations and negotiate with Putin to leverage his relationship with Lukashenko and Belarus’ debt to sway him into holding his referendum and conceding power. With Western supervision and Putin’s cooperation, perhaps all parties can help usher Lukashenko’s removal, potentially establish a limited relationship between Belarus and Russia, and ensure full Belarusian sovereignty.
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