Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to prop up Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko with a $1.5-billion loan, but said the “time was right” for constitutional reforms that could pave the way for the embattled leader’s early exit.
Mr Lukashenko had travelled to Russia to seek support from Mr Putin, as ongoing mass protests at home threaten his 26-year rule.
With his hands clasped together and his body turned towards his Russian counterpart, a deferential Mr Lukashenko described neighbouring Russia as “our big brother” and said “when there’s trouble you find out who your friends are”.
In televised comments ahead of talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Mr Putin said Russia would grant a loan and fulfil its military obligations under a union treaty between the two countries.
“We are waiting for Belarusians to resolve the situation without any interference from the outside,” Mr Putin said on Monday, adding: “I think that starting work on changing the Belarusian constitution is timely.”
Protests broke out last month when Mr Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote in a presidential election widely seen as rigged.
Amid a brutal police crackdown on demonstrations he said fresh elections would only be held “if you kill me”. But he later appeared to row back on the comments, saying there could be another vote before the end of his current term if a new constitution was adopted.
The Belarusian opposition has dismissed the suggestion as playing for time.
Moscow has remained tight-lipped throughout the crisis as to exactly how far it would go to keep Mr Lukashenko in place. While the neighbours have traditionally close ties, in recent years these have become strained as Belarus resists moves towards closer integration with Russia.
Analysts have suggested Moscow may shore up the dictator in the short term while working behind the scenes to promote a replacement.
In the meeting on Monday, Mr Lukashenko pointed to Nato drills near Belarus’s border as a sign that the country was under threat.
Russia this week sent paratroopers to Belarus for joint military drills, and Mr Putin said similar exercises would be held every month for the next year.
The Russian leader earlier said he had put a reserve police force on standby to enter Belarus if the situation there deteriorated.
Minsk and Moscow have both accused foreign forces of attempting to destabilise Belarus. The EU and US have called for fresh elections and are planning sanctions in response to police violence.
Mr Lukashenko’s visit to Russia came a day after an estimated 150,000 people took to the streets of Minsk in the latest demonstration calling on him to go. Police said they detained more than 700 people across the country and videos from one rally showed a woman being punched to the ground.
In the days after the August election, the rule of former Soviet farm boss Mr Lukashenko looked all but over amid popular protests and mass strikes. But since then authorities have clamped down on the opposition, arresting key figures and forcing others into exile.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after apparent threats to her children, on Monday criticised the Russian president for inviting Mr Lukashenko for talks.
“I am very sorry that you have opted to have a dialogue with the usurper and not the Belarusian people,” said Ms Tikhanovskaya, who earlier declared herself the legitimate winner of the presidential election.
“Any agreements signed with Lukashenko, who lacks legitimacy, will be retracted by the new government.”