MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents, who swiftly poured cold water on the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first.
Putin helped Lukashenko ride out mass street protests after a disputed election last year and has also backed Belarus in a standoff with the European Union over thousands of migrants stranded on the EU’s eastern borders.
But the two leaders have endured a prickly relationship over the years, despite Lukashenko leaning on cheap Russian energy supplies and loans to prop up his rule.
“We know the situation in Belarus has calmed down, inside the country, but still there are problems, we’re perfectly aware of that,” Putin said in a speech to foreign policy officials in Moscow.
“And of course we appeal for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. But for its part Russia will definitely continue its approach of strengthening ties and deepening the process of integration with Belarus.”
It was not immediately clear which opposition figures Putin was encouraging Lukashenko to speak to. The Belarusian leader unleashed a violent crackdown on street demonstrations after claiming victory in the disputed August 2020 election, jailing opposition figures or running them into exile.
“Reportedly, Putin had just called on (Lukashenko) to start the dialogue with the opposition,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the election.
“However, before this dialogue happens, we must make sure this dialogue doesn’t take place in prison. All political prisoners must be released as a pre-condition, and violence must end.”
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)