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Under Siege in Belarus, Lukashenko Turns to Putin

MOSCOW — After claiming for weeks that Russia was plotting to overthrow him, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus appealed to the Kremlin on Saturday for help against a wave of protests and strikes triggered by police violence after a disputed presidential election.

Mr. Lukashenko, the Kremlin said in a statement, had talked with President Vladimir V. Putin and had agreed with the Russian leader on the need “to strengthen allied relations” and prevent “destructive forces” from using the political turmoil in Belarus to “harm the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries.”

Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko, the Kremlin said, “expressed confidence that all existing problems will be settled soon.”

As recently as last month, Mr. Lukashenko was accusing Moscow of engineering plots to overthrow his government and even of sending mercenaries to Belarus to disrupt the presidential election, which was held last Sunday.

But Mr. Lukashenko, facing the gravest crisis of his 26 years in power after claiming a landslide victory in what Western governments and many Belarusians dismissed as a rigged election, now seems to have calculated that Russia offers the best hope for his survival.

The European Union, outraged by a violent crackdown on protesters by Mr. Lukashenko’s security forces, said on Friday that it was preparing to impose new sanctions on Belarus, while the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania called on the country to conduct new “free and fair” elections.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has often been called “Europe’s last dictator,” has danced between Russia and the West for decades, playing each off against the other as he struggled to keep his country’s decaying economy afloat and stay in power.

In Minsk, the Belarusian capital, thousands of people brought flowers to the Pushkinskaya metro station to a makeshift memorial for Aleksandr Taraikovsky, a protester who died there during some of the heaviest clashes with the police earlier in the week.

ImageBelarus opposition supporters gathered near the Pushkinskaya metro station where Aleksandr Taraikovsky died this week. 
Credit…Sergei Gapon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The protesters were peaceful and there were no police officers at the site. But Mr. Lukashenko, speaking to officials in Minsk, warned that his government would not be “lulled to sleep” by peaceful protests, warning that it was under attack from internal and external foes who were spreading “fake” stories about his actions and the true scale of the protest movement.

Over the past three days, protesters and riot police officers have refrained from confronting each other, retreating from the violent clashes seen earlier in the week.

“He gave an order to allow us to get out and chant a bit,” said Vitaly A. Karazhan, 33, referring to Mr. Lukashenko. “At one point, he will have the riot police out again, he doesn’t want to give up power and there is no other way for him but the bloody one.”

Mr. Karazhan, who works as a medical equipment engineer, said he feared that Mr. Lukashenko might ask the Kremlin to send reinforcements to support his own stretched and exhausted riot police squads.

“If it wasn’t for Putin, he would have fled the country already,” Mr. Karazhan said in an interview. “Factories are on strike — where is he going to get the money to feed his security apparatus?”

The Kremlin said that Belarus had on Friday released 32 Russian citizens arrested in late July in what Mr. Lukashenko’s security services claimed was a plot to destabilize his government with a mercenary force of around 200 fighters. The Russians’ release, the Kremlin said on Saturday, showed that the “relevant departments” — code for security and intelligence agencies — of the two countries were now engaged in “close cooperation.”

Mr. Lukashenko, signaling an abrupt tilt back toward Russia, told his officials in Minsk that he needed to speak with Mr. Putin because his country’s tumult was “no longer just a threat to Belarus” but endangered both countries.

Credit…Belarusian KGB via State TV and Radio Company of Belarus, via Associated Press

He accused protesters of following the playbook for a “color revolution,” a reference to past popular uprisings cheered on by the West in Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet lands, and alleged that “elements of external interference have already appeared.”

By casting his opponents as Western-backed agents of a would-be color revolution, Mr. Lukashenko played into a conspiracy theory long embraced by the Kremlin that unrest in former Soviet territory is never really caused by locals but is always the result of machinations by Western intelligence agencies.

“The defense of Belarus today is no less than the defense of our entire space,” Mr. Lukashenko said, referring to the so-called Union State, a loose confederation comprising Russia and Belarus that was announced in the late 1990s but has never been fully implemented.

Mr. Lukashenko has in the past pushed hard to obtain cheap energy from Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin has in turn used Belarus’s dependence on Russian oil and gas to revive the moribund plan to unite the two countries.

Mr. Lukashenko’s turn to Russia for help on Saturday, his latest pirouette in a dance that has been repeated time and again since he came to power in 1994, suggested that the Belarus leader has run out of new ideas for staying in control.

When protesters took to the streets after the election, the security forces responded with shocking brutality, aggressively beating demonstrators, even after they fell to the ground, and using rubber bullets, tear gas and, in at least one confrontation, live bullets.

The police violence, however, backfired, outraging even parts of Mr. Lukashenko’s base. Strikes by workers in dozens of state-owned factories gained steam on Friday and indicated that opposition to the president had spread far beyond Western-leaning youths in Minsk, and reached deep into what had been the bedrock of Mr. Lukashenko’s support.

Andrew Higgins reported from Moscow and Ivan Nechepurenko from Minsk, Belarus.

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