MOSCOW – The authoritarian leader of Belarus visited Russia on Tuesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin as soaring tensions with the West have boosted his reliance on Moscow’s support.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko thanked Putin for the “very serious support" Belarus has received from Russia and pledged that the country would duly repay its loans.
Putin, in turn, praised Belarus as a “reliable and stable partner.”
The Belarusian economy, which suffered from the coronavirus pandemic, received a new blow when the European Union imposed bruising sanctions against some of its top exports over Belarus' May 23 diversion of an airliner and the arrest of an opposition journalist who was a passenger.
Lukashenko has denounced the economic sanctions and said that Belarus would halt cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration in retaliation.
Lithuania, a EU member which has granted refuge to Belarus opposition figures, has accused Belarusian authorities of encouraging migration from Iraq, other Mideast nations and Africa. The EU's border control agency has pledged to step up its support to Lithuania to help stem the flow.
Belarus was rocked by months of protests after Lukashenko's August 2020 election to a sixth term in a disputed vote that was widely seen as rigged.
Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.
Belarusian authorities raided three more independent media organizations, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said Tuesday, after 30 searches of media offices and journalists' apartments last week.
Overall, 39 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial, the Association said.
Speaking at the start of his talks with Putin in St. Petersburg, Lukashenko charged that his foes have switched from trying to stage a “rebellion” to “individual terror" by targeting government supporters and trying to scare them.
He claimed that Western-funded organizations were fomenting the unrest and denounced their alleged actions as “disgusting.”
“We have started to work very actively to deal with all those NGOs,...which were effectively promoting terror instead of democracy,” Lukashenko said.
Earlier this month, the Belarusian leader claimed that his government had thwarted a series of purported Western-backed plots, including a plan to blow up a Russian military communications facility in Vileyka.
Russia and Belarus have a union agreement that envisages close political, economic and military ties but stops short of a full merger. Russia has pumped billions of dollars into shoring up the Soviet-style, state-controlled economy of Belarus with cheap energy supplies and loans.
Before last year's election and protests, Lukashenko often accused the Kremlin of trying to force him to relinquish control of prized economic assets and eventually abandon his country’s independence. Faced now with tougher economic sanctions, the Belarusian leader emphasized a need to jointly counter Western pressure.
“We will deal with terrorism and all that, but the economy is the most important thing,” Lukashenko said, voicing hope that “we will resist that economic blow together with Russia” and adding that the West will not succeed in trying to “monopolize the international agenda and put pressure on us.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the presidents agreed during their five hours of talks that Belarus would receive Russia's natural gas next year at this year's prices, the Interfax news agency reported. The two also discussed terms for new Russian loans and steps to increase cooperation in energy, taxes and customs.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.