Belarus protests: Lukashenko to meet Putin as unrest continues

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File photo showing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 15 February 2019

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Belarus’s embattled President, Alexander Lukashenko, is flying to Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin.

It will be their first face-to-face meeting since protests broke out in Belarus last month following the disputed presidential election.

Mr Putin recognises Mr Lukashenko as the legitimate Belarusian leader and says he has forces ready to intervene if the protests get out of control.

There is speculation he wants closer ties in exchange for continued support.

The talks will take place in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi as a joint military exercise begins near the western Belarusian city of Brest.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through the Belarusian capital Minsk and other cities to demand that Mr Lukashenko resign. Police said they detained about 400 people.

The Belarusian opposition accuses Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, of rigging the presidential election.

He has insisted that he won fairly with 80% of the vote and has painted the protests as Western-backed and anti-Russian.

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Analysis box by Sarah Rainsford, Moscow correspondent

Alexander Lukashenko wants this meeting to demonstrate to protesters back home that Russia has his back: a fresh reminder that Vladimir Putin’s watching what’s happening in Belarus, and could send in his security forces.

In return, he’s been busy signalling to Moscow that he is the man to keep Belarus in its orbit, painting the protesters as anti-Russian and backed by the West.

Some have speculated that Mr Putin will push for deeper economic and political ties with Minsk as the price of his support.

Only that risks increasing tensions, not stabilising things like Moscow wants – and there’s no guarantee that a weakened Mr Lukashenko could even deliver on any promises.

So there is a growing sense here that Moscow will back him in public – for now – while beginning talks behind the scenes on a transition plan.

How any such deal would play out with the crowds of protesters demanding Mr Lukashenko go now is another matter.

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