Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that he stands ready to send police to Belarus if protests there turn violent but sees no such need now, while Belarusian police dispersed a protest in the capital and detained scores Thursday, raising pressure on the opposition.
Belarus’ authoritarian president of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, is facing weeks of protests against his reelection to a sixth term in the August 9 vote, which the opposition says was rigged.
Putin told Russia’s state television in an interview broadcast Thursday that Lukashenko has asked him to prepare a Russian law enforcement contingent to deploy to Belarus if necessary.
Putin said that he and Lukashenko have agreed that “there is no such need now, and I hope there won’t be.”
“We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain borders and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings,” he said.
Hours after Putin’s interview was aired, hundreds of riot police dispersed a protest on the Belarusian capital’s main square, detaining dozens in a move that underlined Lukashenko’s determination to squelch protests. Scores of reporters, including AP journalists, were also detained.
The Coordination Council, created by the Belarusian opposition to facilitate a peaceful transition of power, criticized Putin’s statement, saying it’s “inadmissible” for any country to form armed units for use on the territory of Belarus.
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“This contradicts international law and consolidated position of Belarusian society,” it said in a statement.
In an apparent jab at the West, which has condemned Lukashenko’s crackdown on protesters and urged him to launch a dialogue with the opposition, Putin accused unidentified foreign forces of trying to win political advantages from the turmoil in Belarus.
“They want to influence those processes and reach certain decisions, which they think conform with their political interests,” Putin said.
Russia sees the neighbor as a key bulwark against Western expansion and an important conduit for Russian energy exports. The two countries have a union agreement envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on cheap Russian energy and other subsidies to keep Belarus’ Soviet-style economy afloat.
Despite the close cooperation, Russia-Belarus relations have often been strained by disputes. Lukashenko frequently played overtures to the West and accused Moscow of hatching plans to incorporate Belarus.
Just before the election, Belarus arrested 32 private Russian military contractors on charges of planning to stage riots. Belarusian authorities released the men shortly after the vote in a bid to mend ties with the Kremlin amid rising Western criticism.
In the interview, Putin described the incident as a provocation by the Ukrainian and the U.S. spy agencies, charging that they lured the Russians to travel to Belarus by promising them jobs in a third country and made the Belarusian authorities believe they had a mission to destabilize the country.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the Aug. 9 election that extended Lukashenko’s rule as neither free nor fair and encouraged Belarusian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.
The Belarusian leader, who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition, which is contesting his reelection to a sixth term. Seeking Moscow’s support, Lukashenko has cast the protests as part of a Western plot to weaken Russia.
After a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the first days of post-election protests, when nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three protesters died, the authorities changed tactics and let daily demonstrations go unhindered for nearly two weeks. The government, meanwhile, has maintained pressure on the opposition with threats and selective jailing of its leaders.
On the 19th straight day of protests Thursday, several dozen women stood on the Belarusian capital’s main Independence Square with their hands bound to protest the police dispersal of a rally there the previous night. Amid Wednesday’s crackdown, police blocked the doors of a Catholic church facing the square where several dozen protesters found refuge, causing public outrage and drawing a strong rebuke from the archbishop of Minsk and Mahilyow, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz.
“Putin must be ashamed, he’s promising to add Russian clubs to the Belarusian ones,” said 45-year-old protester Regina Fustovich.
As the evening came, about 1,000 demonstrators marched across the city to Independence Square, chanting “Freedom!” as motorists honked in support.
“Putin has untied Lukashenko’s hands,” said 20-year-old student, Anton Gavrilovich. “The protest will win sooner or later, because we are the majority, but the Belarusians will not forget that.”
Another protester, Irina Furs, a 30-year-old medical worker, suggested that “the Kremlin is afraid that the Belarusians could show an example of a successful peaceful struggle.”
When the demonstrators gathered around the church on Independence Square, police trucks pulled in and hundreds of officers began dispersing the rally, detaining dozens. Scores of Belarusian and foreign correspondents who were covering the demonstration, including AP journalists, were also rounded up by police.
In the interview, Putin defended the Belarusian authorities’ response to protests, saying that police in Belarus have shown “restraint.”
He accused Western critics of Belarus of hypocrisy and double standards, pointing at examples of violent police action, such as when “they shoot an unarmed man in the back while his three children were sitting in a car” in an apparent reference to the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was shot in the back seven times on Sunday as he leaned into his SUV, with three of his children seated inside.
As part of a multi-pronged effort to stifle protest, Belarusian prosecutors have opened a criminal probe against the opposition Coordination Council, accusing its members of undermining the country’s security.
Belarusian courts this week have handed 10-day jail sentences to two council members and summoned several others for questioning, including Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
Another council member, Maria Kolesnikova, a close associate of the main opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was called in for questioning Thursday.
“It’s part of the pressure on civil society,” she told reporters outside Belarus’ Investigative Committee headquarters. “The authorities are refusing to listen to the people.”
The EU ambassadors to Belarus warned Thursday that “prosecution of Coordination Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is unacceptable.”
At Thursday’s meeting in Berlin, EU foreign ministers are expected to approve a list of 15-20 Belarus officials who would face travel bans in Europe and a freeze on their assets. Lithuania is demanding that 118 people be blacklisted.
In an apparent bid to win time, the Belarusian leader has alternated pressure and threats against protesters with promises of a constitutional reform that could see a new election down the road.
Speaking at a meeting with officials Thursday, he said he would welcome discussions on constitutional changes with representatives of factory workers, farmers and students, but ruled out talks with protesters whom he described as “violent thugs who roam the streets and shout that they want a dialogue.”