• The Star Staff

Under siege in Belarus, Lukashenko turns to Putin

By Andrew Higgins and Ivan Nechepurenko

After claiming for weeks that Russia was plotting to overthrow him, President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus appealed to the Kremlin on Saturday for help against a wave of protests and strikes triggered by police violence after a disputed presidential election.

Lukashenko spoke by telephone with President Vladimir Putin, Belarus’ state news agency Belta reported, and secured a promise of Russian security assistance should Belarus request it. The agency quoted Lukashenko as saying that Putin had pledged that, if needed, “comprehensive assistance will be provided to ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus.”

The Kremlin’s own account of the leaders’ conversation, however, gave no indication that Putin had offered any concrete support or even a clear endorsement of Lukashenko’s staying in power.

The Belarus news agency said Putin had offered help to “ensure the security of Belarus in the event of external military threats,” which suggested that any help from Russia might not include security assistance against domestic threats like protesters.

In its own statement on the talks, the Kremlin said that Putin had agreed with the Belarusian leader on the need “to strengthen allied relations” and prevent “destructive forces” from using the political turmoil in Belarus to “harm the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.”

Putin and Lukashenko, the Kremlin said, “expressed confidence that all existing problems will be settled soon.”

As recently as last month, Lukashenko was accusing Moscow of engineering plots to overthrow his government and even of sending mercenaries to Belarus to disrupt the presidential election, which was held last Sunday.

But Lukashenko, facing the gravest crisis of his 26 years in power after claiming a landslide victory in what Western governments and many Belarusians dismissed as a rigged election, now seems to have calculated that Russia offers the best hope for his survival.

The European Union, outraged by a violent crackdown on protesters by Lukashenko’s security forces, said Friday that it was preparing to impose new sanctions on Belarus, while the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania called on the country to conduct new “free and fair” elections.

Lukashenko, who has often been called “Europe’s last dictator,” has danced between Russia and the West for decades, playing each off against the other as he struggled to keep his country’s decaying economy afloat and stay in power.

In Minsk, the Belarusian capital, thousands of people brought flowers to the Pushkinskaya metro station to a makeshift memorial for Aleksandr Taraikovsky, a protester who died there during some of the heaviest clashes with the police earlier in the week.

The protesters were peaceful, and there were no police officers at the site. But Lukashenko, speaking to officials in Minsk, warned that his government would not be “lulled to sleep” by peaceful protests, saying that it was under attack from internal and external foes who were spreading “fake” stories about his actions and the true scale of the protest movement.

Belarusian state television, which has either ignored the protests or painted them as a foreign-born plot, became a focal point for protesters later Saturday. More than 1,000 people massed outside its Minsk offices, shouting “We want the truth!” and demanding fair coverage.

Over the past three days, protesters and riot police officers have refrained from confronting each other, retreating from the violent clashes seen earlier in the week.

“He gave an order to allow us to get out and chant a bit,” said Vitaly Karazhan, 33, referring to Lukashenko. “At one point, he will have the riot police out again, he doesn’t want to give up power and there is no other way for him but the bloody one.”

Karazhan, who works as a medical equipment engineer, said he feared that Lukashenko might ask the Kremlin to send reinforcements to support his own stretched and exhausted riot police squads.

“If it wasn’t for Putin, he would have fled the country already,” Karazhan said in an interview. “Factories are on strike — where is he going to get the money to feed his security apparatus?”

Karazhan’s sentiment was shared by other protesters, who said they were wary of Russian interference. A poster at the Pushkinskaya station read: “We can sort this out without Putin.”

The Kremlin said that Belarus on Friday had released 32 Russian citizens who were arrested in late July when Lukashenko’s security services claimed they had foiled a Russian plot to disrupt the presidential election with a mercenary force of around 200 fighters. The Russians’ release, the Kremlin said Saturday, showed that the two countries’ “relevant departments” — code for security and intelligence agencies — were now engaged in “close cooperation.”

Lukashenko, signaling an abrupt tilt back toward Russia, told his officials in Minsk that he needed to speak with Putin because his country’s tumult was “no longer just a threat to Belarus” but endangered both countries.

Lukashenko’s turn to Russia for help Saturday, his latest pirouette in a dance that has been repeated time and again since he came to power in 1994, suggested that the Belarus leader has run out of new ideas for staying in control.

When protesters took to the streets after the election, the security forces responded with shocking brutality, aggressively beating demonstrators, even after they fell to the ground, and using rubber bullets, tear gas and, in at least one confrontation, live bullets.

The police violence, however, backfired, outraging even parts of Lukashenko’s base. Strikes by workers in dozens of state-owned factories gained steam Friday and indicated that opposition to the president had spread far beyond Western-leaning youths in Minsk and reached deep into what had been the bedrock of Lukashenko’s support.

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