MOSCOW - Russia indicated it was ready to provide military assistance to embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko — even as massive crowds marched in protest to an August 9 election protesters say was rigged in favor of the longtime Belarusian leader.
A Kremlin statement said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko agreed to “comprehensive assistance to maintain security in Belarus” on the basis of an existing joint security agreement during phone talks Sunday.
The Russian offer comes as Lukashenko has increasingly looked to Moscow to help maintain support for his suddenly flagging 26-year hold on power.
In a speech before several thousand loyalists in central Minsk Sunday, Lukashenko claimed his enemies — whom he labeled “rats” — were working with NATO to overthrow his government and steal an August 9th election he insists he won with over 80% of the vote.
“Just look outside the window! Tanks and planes are a 15 minute flight from our borders,” said Lukashenko in his speech.
“Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine, their leadership are ordering us to hold new elections,” he added. “We don’t have to be Europe’s toilet!”
NATO issued a statement saying there were no extraordinary military exercises taking place near the Belarusian border.
'March for freedom'
If Lukashenko was looking to rally his base, the effort was quickly eclipsed by a competing event held by his opponents a few hours later.
Tens of thousands — conservative estimates put protesters numbers at 200,000 — swarmed the city center in what appeared to be the largest gathering in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. Other large rallies took place in cities across the country.
Demonstrators were heeding a call from Lukashenko’s primary election opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, to join in a “March for Freedom.”
While many believe she was the true winner of the August 9 election, protesters’ anger also continues to stem from a crackdown in the days following the vote that saw unarmed demonstrators arrested and beaten.
Demonstrators on Sunday held up pictures of welts and bruises — or simply offered their own damaged bodies — as evidence of violence handed down by Lukashenko’s security forces.
Police detained nearly 7,000 people — with hundreds injured and at least two deaths reported. A number of protesters have disappeared.
“We know the struggle is not over yet, but we feel that truth is on our side, said Ilya Halishevich, 39, a business analyst, reached by VOA during the march.
Halishevich noted he had never seen so much white and red — the colors of old Belarus Democratic Republic flag now adopted by the opposition as a symbol of resistance.
Once again Sunday, drivers blared their horns incessantly — a staple of the protest that has come to signify disgust with Lukashenko’s rule.
Meanwhile, workers from several key factories — a former base of support for Lukashenko — began work stoppages Monday with the demand that the Belarusian leader resign.
With Lukashenko’s hold on power looking increasingly in jeopardy, attention shifted also to the Kremlin and concerns over a Russian intervention.
Would President Putin risk a repeat Russia’s armed incursions into neighboring Ukraine in 2014? Georgia in 2008?
Observers in Moscow voiced their doubts — for now — noting that while the Kremlin was similarly determined to keep Belarus in its sphere of influence, Putin’s loyalties to Lukashenko only ran so deep.
The two leaders are known to not care for each other’s company and their relations have been hampered by recent disagreements over issues ranging from gas prices, to the coronavirus, and a long-stalled talks over formation of a union state.
“There won’t be any armed intervention,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, during his program on Echo of Moscow radio.
“But the threat of an intervention is an active bargaining chip in the hands of Vladimir Putin,” he added, noting the Russian leader could use the threat of force to help shape post-Lukashenko Belarus “peacefully” in negotiations with the West.
Meanwhile, others suggested the uprising in Belarus differed fundamentally from other colored revolutions in the region.
“The protest movement has managed to increase its support base without resorting to that foreign policy metric so common to the post-Soviet space: “Freedom with Europe versus slavery with Russia,”’ writes Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“There is no discernible anti-Russian bent to the protests as yet, and this saves Belarusians from having to make a premature and, in many ways, artificial choice,” added Baunov.
Exiled politician Valery Tsepkalo — a would-be challenger to Lukashenko in the election who fled to avoid arrest — announced he had been making the rounds in talks with lawmakers from Russia, the European Union, and the US to gain backing for Tikhanovskaya’s election victory.
Meanwhile, Tikhanovskaya — the political novice who only entered the election after authorities arrested her husband, a political blogger, to keep him from participating — released a video on Monday in which she said she was ready to assume the mantle as national leader until new elections could be held.
“I don’t have and never have had any illusions about my political career,” said Tikhanovskaya.
“I never wanted to become a politician, but fate placed me on the frontline in the battle against arbitrary injustice.”