MINSK – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that he stands ready to send police to Belarus if protests there turn violent but sees no such need yet, while Belarusian police dispersed a protest in the capital with renewed vigor Thursday, detaining about 180 people and raising pressure on the opposition.
Belarus’ authoritarian president of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, has been facing weeks of protests against his reelection to a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote, which the opposition says was rigged.
Putin told Russia's state television Thursday that Lukashenko has asked him to prepare a Russian law enforcement contingent to deploy to Belarus if necessary. Putin said he and Lukashenko have agreed that “there is no such need now, and I hope there won’t be."
“We have agreed not to use it until the situation starts spinning out of control and extremist elements acting under the cover of political slogans cross certain borders and engage in banditry and start burning cars, houses and banks or take over administrative buildings,” he said.
Hours after Putin's interview, hundreds of riot police dispersed a protest on the Belarusian capital's main square in a move that underlined Lukashenko's determination to squelch protests. Scores of reporters, including AP journalists, were also detained.
The Coordination Council, created by the Belarusian opposition to facilitate a peaceful transition of power, criticized Putin's statement, saying it's “inadmissible” for any country to form armed units for use in Belarus.
In an apparent jab at the West, which has condemned Lukashenko's crackdown on protesters and urged him to launch a dialogue with the opposition, Putin accused unidentified foreign forces of trying to win political advantages from the turmoil in Belarus.
Russia sees neighboring Belarus as a key bulwark against Western expansion and an important conduit for Russian energy exports. The two countries have a union agreement envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko has relied on cheap Russian energy and other subsidies to keep Belarus' Soviet-style economy afloat.