MOSCOW- Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed a $1.5 billion loan on Belarus on Monday after its embattled leader, Alexander Lukashenko, flew to entreat his patron for more support.
A day after more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk for the fifth straight weekend to demand his removal, Lukashenko, who has led Russia’s closest ally for 26 years, flew to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to ask Putin for help.
In addition to announcing the loan, which Putin said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed during a recent visit to the Belarusian capital, the Russian president signalled support for Lukashenko in other ways, saying defence cooperation would continue between the two countries.
Russian news agencies reported separately that Moscow was sending paratroopers on Monday for joint exercises.
Putin also backed plans Lukashenko has previously announced for constitutional reform, which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to cling to power after an election it says was rigged, and said it was up to Belarusians to resolve the crisis themselves.
Despite increasingly aggressive action from his security forces, Lukashenko has failed to reclaim the streets from demonstrators, who taunted him in their tens of thousands on Sunday with chants of “You’re a rat!”
Lukashenko calls the demonstrations a Western plot and has placed his fate in Moscow’s hands, requesting economic support and military aid.
Since the Aug. 9 presidential election, which Lukashenko denies rigging, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all the opposition’s main leaders have been jailed, deported or forced into exile.
Police said they detained 774 people at Sunday’s protests.
The opposition says it fears Lukashenko could try to sell out Belarusian independence for Putin’s support. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition candidate whose supporters say she was the true winner of the election, said no agreement reached by Lukashenko with Putin would be valid.
“I want to remind Vladimir Putin: whatever you accept and whatever you agree upon during the meeting in Sochi will have no legal weight,” she wrote on social media site Telegram.
“All the agreements signed with an illegitimate Lukashenko will be revised by the new leadership. Because the Belarusian people have refused to put their trust in Lukashenko and support him at the election. I am very sorry that you have decided to engage in dialogue with a dictator and not the Belarusian people.”
Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Peter Graff, Editing by Timothy Heritage