The embattled president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is meeting his last ally standing Monday, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, less than 24 hours after more than 100,000 people took to the streets in the latest protest to demand his resignation.
The pair are to hold a “working meeting” at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi — their first face-to-face meeting since a protest movement emerged across Belarus after the contested Aug. 9 president election. Protesters accuse Lukashenko of rigging the election in his favor.
Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has maintained his grasp on power in the former Soviet nation for the last 26 years and met the protests with a violent crackdown. Hundreds have been arrested and there have been allegations of torture from people held in custody.
The meeting will take place against the backdrop of pre-planned joint military drills involving Belarusian and Russian troops in the city of Brest, on the border with Poland, Russian state news agency Tass reported Sunday.
Putin, one of only a few foreign leaders to congratulate Lukashenko on his election victory, has offered military assistance — in accordance with a longstanding alliance between the two states — should the situation worsen. So far, no Russian troops have crossed the border.
The Kremlin said in a statement ahead of the meeting that the leaders will discuss “key issues” for the development of the bilateral relations, including trade, economy, energy and culture. It made no mention of the political turmoil in Belarus.
Putin’s relationship with Lukashenko became frosty after the failure of talks last year to deepen the integration between the two countries, with Lukashenko rejecting what he saw as an assault on his country’s sovereignty.
Those ties were further strained just before the election after Belarus detained a group of suspected Russian mercenaries, whom Belarusian authorities accused of being in the country to destabilize it. Russia denied employing mercenaries for that purpose. Lukashenko has since said the arrests were a mistake.
In an all-encompassing interview with Russian journalists from state news agencies last week, he called Putin his “older brother,” emphasizing the strength of their relationship and blaming Americans, Czech, Lithuanians and Ukrainians for orchestrating the protests.
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Putin has refrained from directly commenting on Lukashenko’s crackdown on the protests and their leaders.
Last week, one of the most high-profile protest figures, Maria Kolesnikova, said she was forcefully taken to the border with Ukraine last week as Belarusian security officers tried to force her out of the country. Kolesnikova said she received death threats as she tore her passport to avoid being expelled from the country.
Nearly all senior figures in the coordination council, created in the aftermath of the protests by the opposition to negotiate a peaceful transition of power, have either been detained or forced to leave the country.
Keir Giles, of the London-based foreign policy think tank, Chatham House, said the stakes were high for both sides in the talks — both men must decide how much each needs the other.
“If Russia turns against [Lukashenko], his days are numbered; but if he places himself too much in Putin’s hands, his independence and that of his country risk being terminally compromised,” Giles said.
“Whatever the official announcements from this meeting … we can be sure that much more has been agreed behind the scenes, the real meaning [of which] will be played out in Belarus over the coming weeks and months” he added.
Meanwhile, the United States signaled on Friday, that it will soon punish individual Belarusians with sanctions for election fraud and crackdown on protests as Washington urged Russia to tell Lukashenko to step down.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Lukashenko is increasingly reliant on Moscow to maintain his rule. This could turn Belarusian public opinion against Russia, he added.
“It risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hoped the Kremlin would voice concern about the violence against protesters in Belarus and the abductions of opposition figures.
Reuters contributed to this report.