Putin vows military support for Belarus’ Lukashenko

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MOSCOW, Aug 27, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin
vowed military support for embattled Belarusian leader Alexander
Lukashenko on Thursday, while urging a peaceful resolution to unrest
and demonstrations that erupted after a disputed election.

EU ambassadors in the capital Minsk on Thursday denounced a
crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the presidential poll, in
which 65-year-old Lukashenko claimed a landslide reelection with some
80 percent of the vote.

The Belarusian strongman’s relationship with Putin had soured ahead
of the August 9 ballot because Minsk refused closer integration with
Russia — and even claimed Moscow had sent mercenaries across the
border to organise riots.

Yet Putin on Thursday promised military backing for Belarus and
said Russia had set up a reserve group of law enforcement officers to
deploy if the post-vote situation deteriorated.

“It won’t be used unless the situation starts to get out of
control,” Putin said, unless “extremist elements … begin setting
fire to cars, houses and banks, begin seizing administrative
buildings”.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Russia should stay out of the
Belarus crisis saying it was a “sovereign and independent state.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki meanwhile said any Russian
intervention would be a breach of international law and the “human
rights of Belarusian people, who should be free to decide their own
fate”.

But Putin also called on the authorities in Minsk and the
opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully.

He conceded there were problems in Belarus, saying, “otherwise
people wouldn’t take to the streets”.

The Russian leader’s calls for calm came after the European Union
and ambassadors of member states in Minsk condemned a crackdown on
government critics seeking new elections and Lukashenko’s resignation.

– ‘Unacceptable’ prosecution –

The opposition created a Coordination Council to oversee the
peaceful transition of power after their leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya
fled to neighbouring Lithuania fearing reprisals.

Lukashenko ordered a criminal probe into the opposition’s attempts
to “seize power” and several of the presidium’s members have been
detained or summoned for questioning.

Maria Kolesnikova, an aide of Tikhanovskaya and member of the
council, was summoned by investigators for questioning on Thursday.
She said she invoked her right not to testify against herself.

The group’s most prominent member, Nobel Prize-winning author and
outspoken government critic Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by
investigators on Wednesday and also refused to answer questions.

Two of the presidium’s members this week were sentenced to 10 days
each in police detention for organising unsanctioned rallies and
disobeying law enforcement orders.

“The European diplomats emphasised that prosecution of Coordination
Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is
unacceptable,” a joint statement said.

EU nations have also vowed to sanction individuals they say were
involved in vote-rigging and the violent crackdown on protesters.

The EU ambassadors in Minsk on Thursday said that: “Belarusians are
asking for an open dialogue with their own authorities about the
future of their country,” urging “a peaceful and democratic process,
underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society”.

The presidium on Thursday said the formation of armed groups abroad
to intervene in Belarus was “unacceptable” and against the wishes of
the Belarusian people.

– ‘Diplomatic war’ –

Lukashenko has dismissed calls to resign or host new elections,
instead accusing Western countries and Russia of stirring political
unrest.

The authoritarian leader on Thursday said the ex-Soviet country’s
European neighbours had declared a “diplomatic war” and were meddling
in Belarus’s internal affairs.

Last week he described demonstrators as “rats” in a video that
showed him carrying an assault rifle, after more than 100,000 people
took to the streets to demand he stand down.

Around a dozen journalists working for local and international
media outlets were detained by masked law enforcement for document
checks, police in Minsk said.

His notorious security services rounded up nearly 7,000
participants in peaceful rallies that erupted in the days after the
vote, and hundreds of detainees claimed they were abused by police in
custody.

Local and international rights groups have urged the UN to
investigate allegations of systematic torture at the hands of security
services.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political newcomer who ran in place of
her jailed husband, called for historic demonstrations and mass
strikes following the election.

Workers at state-owned factories initially downed tools and joined
the walk-outs in large numbers, but fewer employees have kept up
participation due to pressure from the authorities, activists have
said.

Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchik said Thursday that there were
no ongoing strikes and that “all assembly lines have been restarted.”