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”.
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”.
– ‘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.
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.”