Belarus’s embattled president Alexander Lukashenko will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday to shore up Moscow’s support for his crackdown on protesters.
After weeks of a tense stalemate, police began to detain protesters in Minsk on Sunday in a bid to prevent a repeat of the mass rallies that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets over the past month.
Mr Lukashenko claims Russia’s help is vital to stop the “puppetmasters” he says are running the protests from abroad as a test run for eventually overthrowing his “older brother” Mr Putin.
“All of this is globalised and internationalised,” Mr Lukashenko said in an interview with four Russian state media outlets this week. “If you think that Russia’s riches will be able to deal with this, you’re mistaken. I spoke to several presidents, to my old friend [Mr] Putin, whom I call my older brother, and I warned him: there’s no way to prevent this.”
As Belarus’s masked security forces abduct opposition leaders and torture peaceful protesters, Mr Lukashenko has mounted a charm offensive aimed at Moscow in the hope Mr Putin’s help can stem the tide.
Mr Lukashenko’s opponents, however, fear Russia’s support may come at the expense of Belarus’s sovereignty.
The Kremlin has long pushed to deepen ties with Minsk through a “union state” treaty that has largely stalled on paper for two decades but could go as far as setting up a unified currency and central bank, cementing Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia.
Though Mr Lukashenko previously resisted Mr Putin’s drive for integration — costing Belarus $10bn in crucial oil subsidies in the process — the recent protests spurred him to make renewed appeals for Mr Putin’s help.
“Lukashenko’s behaving like he’s at the bazaar. He’s making a deal with Russia for his future,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Russia-focused political consultancy R Politik. “He realises he needs to secure the most comfortable conditions for his future existence.”
Mr Putin said last month that Russia had created an auxiliary police force which it would deploy to Belarus at Mr Lukashenko’s request if protests turn violent.
The announcement echoed the “little green men” Moscow sent to annex Crimea in 2014 after a pro-western revolution in Ukraine, and galvanised Mr Lukashenko’s own security forces to crack down on protests with renewed vigour.
Relations between the two presidents, however, are lukewarm. In the run-up to the election Mr Lukashenko repeatedly accused Russia of funding his rivals and plotting with the opposition to overthrow him. Even after embracing Moscow again, Mr Lukashenko has made the countries’ “brotherly relations” sound like a marriage of convenience due to Russia’s lack of allies in eastern Europe.
“[Mr Putin] understands perfectly well that you can’t turn Belarus to America or the west,” Mr Lukashenko told the Russian journalists, claiming that he had destroyed a “sanitary cordon a thousand kilometres long” linking the Baltic states to Ukraine.
“He was trying to send a message that there’s nobody closer and more loyal than Lukashenko, so they need to keep him on,” said Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics. “By framing the whole process as an external invasion he drags Putin in along with him.”
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the 38-year-old presidential candidate who declared herself the “national leader” after claiming victory in the disputed election, has called on Russia to abandon Mr Lukashenko.
Mr Putin has yet to spell out the price for his support, though the Kremlin dismissed talk of “mergers and acquisitions” that would see Belarus become part of Russia. Instead Moscow was likely to push Mr Lukashenko to speed up a long-delayed constitutional reform process in the hope of finding a more palatable client to head the country, Ms Stanovaya said.
“The Kremlin believes that Belarusian society is pro-Russian and if Russia offers some carrots in the form of serious social policy, then there won’t be any problems,” she said.
But Moscow has refused to engage with the opposition and stood by as Belarus jails or deports most of its leaders.
Mr Shraibman said Russia had reluctantly backed Mr Lukashenko in large part because it had no other credible figures to support. If Russia backs Mr Lukashenko too heavily, however, it could risk antagonising public opinion against Mr Putin, he added.