Lukashenko tells Putin Belarus protests pose a threat to Russia


Alexander Lukashenko has held telephone talks with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin after warning that the protests sweeping his country were “not just a threat to Belarus”.

“Defending Belarus today is nothing less than defending all of our space,” he said, according to state news agency Belta. “If Belarusians don’t hold out, this wave will roll over there.”

The Kremlin warned against “destructive forces that want to damage the two countries’ mutually beneficial co-operation,” and said the two men had expressed “certainty that all the problems that have arisen will soon be resolved.”

Tens of thousands of people across Belarus have protested against Mr Lukashenko’s disputed win in last Sunday’s presidential election.

Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania this week under pressure from Belarus security services, said she would form a “co-ordination council” from exile to work towards a “transfer of power”.

A violent police crackdown during which nearly 7,000 people were arrested — and many tortured — initially suppressed the rallies before galvanising them on Thursday.

Factory workers from heavily subsidised Belarus state enterprises, the core of Mr Lukashenko’s political base, went on strike to call for new elections and an end to the police violence.

Mr Lukashenko’s comments were a clear appeal to Mr Putin to defend himself against the unrest, an unprecedented phenomenon in the collective farm boss’s 26-year rule and an unthinkable event just a few days ago.

He said protesters were using “colour revolution playbooks” honed in pro-western uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia in the 2000s and said “elements of foreign interference” were directing them.

This is a turnround from the run-up to the election, when Mr Lukashenko repeatedly accused “puppetmasters” in Russia of funding a leading opposition candidate, who Belarus later jailed, and sending 33 mercenaries to “destabilise the situation”.

Speaking to Belarus’ armed forces on Saturday, Mr Lukashenko said he would not give up power voluntarily and rejected offers to mediate the crisis with foreign powers. “We won’t give up the country to anyone. We’ll get the situation under control,” Mr Lukashenko said, according to Belta. “Our soldiers have enough resources to defend themselves and their families and ensure the security of the state.”

EU foreign ministers agreed on Friday to start work on sanctions against those responsible for “violence and falsification” around Sunday’s poll.

On Friday, Belarus released 32 Russian mercenaries who it had charged two weeks ago with planning terrorist attacks in cahoots with the local opposition.

Russia said the mercenaries were taking advantage of Belarus’s lax border policy and lack of restrictions on international flights to transit to private security jobs in South America.

Mr Putin congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his disputed win, which the EU said on Friday it would not recognise.

Since the protests began, some Kremlin proxies — including the Russian nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky — have floated the idea of dumping Mr Lukashenko.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it was “concerned by the incidents of violations of public order on the streets of several Belarusian cities” but condemned “clearly discernible attempts to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state with the goal of splitting society and destabilising the situation,” which it blames on western governments.