Belarus President Puts Army on Alert as Opposition Woos Russia

Russia Offers Awkward Ally in Belarus Support as Protests Grow

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, facing the biggest domestic challenge to his 26-year rule, deployed the military to the country’s borders with the European Union as he complained of unspecified security threats.

“Today, we have problems not only inside but outside” the country, Lukashenko told his security council Tuesday, the state-owned Belta news service reported. “We reacted to this and deployed combat units of our army on the western borders of our frontier and have brought them to full combat readiness.”

Lukashenko dramatically raised the stakes ahead of a planned EU summit Wednesday on the disputed presidential election in Belarus, which has been roiled by the biggest protests in its history. His move came after Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Belarus crisis in separate calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Putin warned against “exerting pressure on the Belarusian leadership” in his talk with Macron, and told Merkel of the “unacceptability of any attempts at external interference,” according to Kremlin statements. Macron urged Russia to favor calm and dialog regarding Belarus, according to the Elysee Palace, while Merkel told reporters she called Putin to make “it clear that the right to freedom of speech, and to demonstrate, must be present.”

Appealed to Russia

Lukashenko has appealed to Russia for support as he fights to maintain his power after claiming to have won a landslide victory with 80% of the vote in the Aug. 9 election. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Monday in a video message from exile in Lithuania that she is ready to act as “national leader” in place of him until new elections can be held.

The Kremlin was betting before the election that Lukashenko would manage to extend his rule for a sixth term, while also becoming more dependent on Russia as his harsh tactics alienated the West and made him vulnerable to Moscow’s demands for tighter political and economic integration.

As the opposition protests snowballed, Russia has kept a cautious watch in case Lukashenko is forced from office. That would leave the Kremlin scrambling to maintain its special relationship with a vital buffer against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The opposition sought to reassure Russia about future relations as nationwide strikes continued in Belarus in support of the demands for Lukashenko to step down. “We recognize and accept that” Russia is an important partner and Belarus should maintain “all existing agreements,” Maria Kalesnikava, a top Tikhanovskaya ally, wrote in a message published on Telegram by the editor-in chief of Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio on Tuesday.

While some bilateral agreements should be made more functional “one would have to be crazy not to appreciate the range of ties between Russia and Belarus,” opposition challenger Valery Tsepkalo, who was barred from the election, said in an interview late Monday. His wife, Veronika, who campaigned alongside Tikhanovskaya, compared relations with Moscow to U.S.-Canada ties, saying “we are doomed to seek a common language with Russia.”

Lukashenko, who insists he won’t resign or call a new vote, said he spoke by phone Tuesday to Putin, who informed him about the discussions with Merkel and Macron.

Intense Diplomacy

The intense diplomacy took place as EU leaders plan an emergency conference call on Belarus on Wednesday. They’ll seek to convey to the people of Belarus that they have the right to choose their own president, according to an EU official familiar with the plans, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations were private.

Thousands of employees in major Belarusian state-run factories have walked out in support of opposition calls for a general strike, after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital, Minsk, and other cities on Sunday to call for Lukashenko to resign.

The protests have been fueled by anger at the severity of the police violence in response, including accusations of torture and the deaths of at least two people. Security forces have largely stood aside since Friday, however.

A national coordination council being formed by the opposition movement will choose representatives for any negotiations with Belarusian officials to resolve the crisis, Olga Kovalkova, a senior aide to Tikhanovskaya, said in an interview Tuesday on Ekho Moskvy.

Lukashenko poured scorn on the opposition initiative at his security council, calling it “an attempt to seize power with all the ensuing consequences,” according to Belta. “We will take appropriate measures,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.