By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Belarusian counterpart on Thursday for talks on closer integration between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.
The meeting follows allegations of a failed plot to assassinate Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, allegedly involving a blockade of the country’s capital, power cuts and cyberattacks. Belarusian and Russian security agencies arrested the alleged coup plotters in Moscow earlier this month. Speaking at the start of the meeting, Lukashenko said Russia and Belarus must “draw the lines that no one should cross and respond to those who fail to understand the need to behave more calmly.”
Lukashenko has grown increasingly dependent on Russia’s financial and political support after months of massive protests against his rule, and his visit to Moscow raised speculation that he could accept the Kremlin’s push for a stronger union. The Belarusian leader fueled such expectations over the weekend when he declared that he was preparing to make one of the most important decisions of his more than quarter-century rule.
“We have made some serious progress on programs of our union,” Lukashenko said at the start of his talks with Putin. “There are acute issues related that we need to focus on, including defense and security.”
Russia and Belarus have a union agreement that envisages close economic, political and military ties, but stops short of a full merger. Lukashenko has repeatedly resisted what he described as Moscow’s attempts to subdue Belarus. “Our teams are continuing work to develop the legislation for the union state,” Putin said.
The authoritarian Belarusian leader, who has been in power since 1994, has vowed not to abandon Belarus’ post-Soviet independence and resisted Moscow’s push for opening a military base in Belarus.
But Lukashenko’s positions have weakened amid massive protests against his rule, which erupted after his reelection to a sixth term in office in a vote in August that the opposition saw as rigged. Authorities cracked down harshly on the protests, arresting more than 34,000 people and beating many. Most prominent opposition figures have fled Belarus or have since been jailed.
The U.S. and the European Union have responded by slapping sanctions on Belarus. On Monday, Washington ramped up sanctions against Belarus, with the U.S. Treasury Department announcing it was revoking a license that had allowed transactions with nine top state-owned companies in Belarus since 2015. They include the oil company Belneftekhim, which accounts for 30% of the country’s industrial output.
Amid the Western pressure, Lukashenko has edged closer to Russia. He alleged that the U.S. was behind the botched coup attempt — a claim the White House has rejected. In Wednesday’s state of the nation address, Putin harshly criticized the West for failing to condemn the alleged coup attempt. “The practice of organizing coups and planning political assassinations of top officials goes over the top and crosses all boundaries,” Putin said.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in Belarus’ presidential election who moved to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure, dismissed the coup claim as an apparent “provocation of Russian and Belarusian security agencies.”
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