MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that he stands ready to send police to Belarus if protests there turn violent, but added in an interview broadcast Thursday that there is no such need now and voiced hope for stabilizing the situation in the neighboring country.
Belarus’ authoritarian president of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, is facing weeks of protests against his reelection to a sixth term in the Aug. 9 vote, which the opposition says was rigged.
Putin told Russia’s state television that Lukashenko has asked him to prepare a Russian law enforcement contingent to deploy to Belarus if necessary.
Putin said that he and Lukashenko have agreed that “there is no such need now, and I hope there won’t be.”
He said they agreed that Russia will send a contingent to help only if “the situation spins out of control” and extremist groups unleash violence and try to seize government buildings.
In an apparent jab at the West that condemned Lukashenko’s crackdown on protesters and urged him to launch a dialogue with the opposition, Putin accused unidentified foreign forces of trying to win political advantages from the turmoil in Belarus.
Russia has a union agreement with Belarus, envisaging close political, economic and military ties, seeing the neighbor as a key bulwark against Western expansion and an important conduit for Russian energy exports.
Lukashenko on Thursday accused Belarus’ neighbors of open interference in its affairs with a push for new elections in what he described as a “hybrid war” and “diplomatic carnage.” He charged that Poland was harboring plans to take over the Grodno region on the border, saying that it prompted the deployment of additional Belarusian troops to the frontier.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the Aug. 9 election that extended Lukashenko’s rule as neither free nor fair and encouraged Belarusian authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition.
The Belarusian leader, who has ruled the nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and refused to engage in dialogue with the opposition, which is contesting his reelection to a sixth term.
After a brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the first days of post-election protests, which caused international outrage and helped swell protesters’ numbers, the authorities changed tactics and let daily demonstrations go unhindered for nearly two weeks. The government, meanwhile, has maintained pressure on the opposition with threats and selective jailing of its leaders.
On Wednesday, police dispersed protesters who gathered on the capital’s main Independence Square, detaining dozens. The action signaled a return to force, albeit without violence that marked the post-election crackdown, when nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least three protesters died.
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