Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed a $1.5 billion loan on Belarus on Monday in a gesture of support for its leader Alexander Lukashenko, who flew to entreat his patron for help after five weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation.
A day after more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk with chants of “You’re a rat”, Lukashenko met Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in urgent need of help to maintain his 26-year grip on power.
“First of all, I want to thank you… personally thank you and all Russians, all those, and I will not list them, who were involved in supporting us during this post-election time,” Lukashenko said.
Putin gave few details about the new loan, which he said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed during a recent visit to the Belarusian capital.
The Kremlin later said some of the new money would be used to refinance earlier loans. It also said the two presidents had agreed to boost cooperation in trade and had discussed energy supplies for Belarus during nearly four hours of talks.
“Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) is the legitimate president of Belarus,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked if the Belarusian leader had not lost his legitimacy as a result of the protests.
Putin said defence cooperation would continue. Hours earlier, Russian news agencies reported Moscow was sending paratroopers for joint exercises.
The Russian leader also backed plans Lukashenko has previously announced for constitutional reform, which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to retain power after a disputed August 9 presidential election.
“We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort out this situation in a calm manner and through dialogue and to find a common solution,” Putin said.
It was an uncomfortable encounter for the 66-year-old Lukashenko, who had antagonised Moscow shortly before the election by rounding up 32 Russian nationals that Belarus accused of being mercenaries sent to destabilise the country.
Lukashenko said he was “very grateful” for Moscow’s support, adding that he had learned “a very serious lesson” from recent events. At one point, TV footage showed him mopping sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.
Since the election, which Lukashenko denies rigging in order to defeat opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all opposition leaders jailed, deported or forced into exile. Police said they detained 774 people on Sunday.
Reacting to news of the Russian loan, Tsikhanouskaya wrote on social media platform Telegram: “Dear Russians! Your taxes will pay for our beatings. We are sure that you would not want that.
“This may prolong the death throes of Lukashenko but it cannot prevent the victory of the people,” she said.
The loan amount slightly exceeds the $1.4 billion that Belarus burned through in gold and foreign exchange reserves last month in order to support its rouble currency.
A Russian political analyst, Fyodor Lukyanov, said it was a significant boost for Lukashenko.
“At the moment Minsk doesn’t have any sources of money apart from Moscow… For him, this was his main goal – debt refinancing and a new loan. He apparently achieved this,” Lukyanov said.
“Given that they are giving him money and actively cooperating with him, (it shows) Moscow thinks he will remain in power, at least for now. The situation is stabilising gradually.”
The West has acted carefully, balancing sympathy with the pro-democracy movement against fear of provoking Russian intervention. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a phone call with Putin, repeated calls for a peaceful solution respecting the will of the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko has been a prickly ally of Russia in the past, and has had an awkward personal relationship with Putin. But the Kremlin has made clear it does not want to see an ally toppled by street protests, as happened in 2014 in Ukraine.
Putin said last month he had set up a “reserve police force” at Lukashenko’s request, to be deployed if needed. Russia has offered to restructure Belarusian debt and support its banks, and sent journalists to operate Belarusian state TV after staff quit in protest against what they called propaganda.