Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday granted a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus as a show of support for its embattled leader, Alexander Lukashenko, after weeks of street demonstrations that have accused him of rigging last month's election to retain power in Minsk.
The two leaders met at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi for nearly four hours. Putin gave few details about the loan, although the Kremlin later said some of the new money would be used to refinance earlier loans. Russia also said the two presidents had agreed to boost trade cooperation and discussed energy supplies.
Lukashenko expressed his gratitude for the new loan.
"First of all, I want to thank you … personally thank you and all Russians, all those, and I will not list them, who were involved in supporting us during this post-election time," he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that Lukashenko "is the legitimate president of Belarus."
As for the protests, Putin said, "We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort out this situation in a calm manner and through dialogue and to find a common solution."
Putin said defense cooperation between Russia and Belarus would continue. Russian news agencies reported Moscow was sending paratroopers to Belarus for joint "Slavic Brotherhood" exercises.
Belarus authorities have cracked down on the demonstrations, detaining 774 on Sunday out of the estimated 100,000 who marched and chanted epithets against Lukashenko.
He has denied rigging the August 9 election against opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has fled to Lithuania.
Tsikhanouskaya, on social media, criticized the awarding of the loan to Belarus.
"Dear Russians! Your taxes will pay for our beatings," she said. "We are sure that you would not want that. This may prolong the death throes of Lukashenko, but it cannot prevent the victory of the people."
The United Nations human rights council says it will hold an urgent debate on the violence in Belarus.
In the Sunday protests, throngs marched through Minsk toward a government district, chanting, "Long live Belarus" and "You're a rat," a common taunt targeting Lukashenko.
Coming to a halt, they chanted "fascists" as hundreds of riot police with shields blocked a road.
The Interfax Russian news agency reported that shots were fired into the air to keep protesters away from an area of Minsk where the Belarusian leadership lives.