Putin Warns Belarus Protesters: Don’t Push Too Hard

Putin Warns Belarus Protesters: Don’t Push Too Hard

Putin Warns Belarus Protesters: Don’t Push Too Hard

Putin Warns Belarus Protesters: Don’t Push Too Hard

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia gave an ominous warning on Thursday to protesters in Belarus not to push too hard to topple their country’s embattled president, saying that Russia had formed a special reserve force of security officers to restore order in the event of chaos in its western neighbor.

Mr. Putin, speaking in an interview with Russian state television, said he had ordered the creation of a “certain reserve of law enforcement officers” at the request of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. He said the force had not been deployed yet, because “we also agreed that it will not be used unless the situation gets out of control.”

Mr. Putin’s remarks laid out for the first time the Kremlin’s view of more than two weeks of protests in Belarus, which he described as “perhaps the closest country to us.” While saying that Belarusians themselves must decide their future after a disputed presidential election on Aug. 9, he added, “We are certainly not indifferent to what is happening there.”

But Mr. Putin is wary of getting sucked into Mr. Lukashenko’s fight for survival. That would invite worldwide condemnation and possibly new Western sanctions — and, most important, risk turning the generally pro-Russian population of Belarus into another hotbed of seething anti-Moscow sentiment like Ukraine.

Belarus occupies strategically important territory between Russia and the West, and while Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents insist they have no intention of aligning Belarus with NATO or the European Union at the expense of Russia, the spectacle of mass protests against a rigged election has set nerves on edge in the Kremlin.

“For Putin, Belarus is an existential question,” said Andrei Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government.

Belarus is different from former Soviet lands like the Baltic states that never had much in common with Russia and long ago established functioning democracies, Mr. Kortunov said. The country is so close and similar to Russia that a successful shift to greater political pluralism would “make it very difficult to argue that the current model we have in Russia is the only one that can ever exist.”

Russia’s own elections, including a vote in July on constitutional amendments that allow Mr. Putin to prolong his rule until 2036, have often resembled the disputed Aug. 9 Belarusian presidential election in which Mr. Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory. Mr. Putin cracked down on protesters in Moscow after Russia’s own fraud-tainted elections in 2011, unleashing a round of repression that largely succeeded in demobilizing opponents.

Some analysts have drawn parallels between Russia’s desire to see an end to the tumult in Belarus and the attack last week on Mr. Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner who helped mobilize protests in the winter of 2011-12 and became Mr. Putin’s most prominent opponent. At the time of the poisoning — which the Kremlin denies, despite the finding of German doctors — Mr. Navalny was returning to Moscow from a trip to Siberia to rally support for local opposition candidates.

Mr. Navalny embarked on that effort after a sudden surge in political protests in Russia’s previously somnolent hinterland, notably in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk, where tens of thousands have gathered each weekend for more than a month to denounce the arrest of a popular elected governor.

The Khabarovsk protests, though driven largely by local grievances, unnerved the Kremlin by indicating that discontent, once largely restricted to urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg, could easily spread to far-flung areas at a time of deep economic pain because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the virus hit Russia, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have slipped to their lowest level since he came to power at the end of 1999.

Mr. Putin stressed on Thursday that security forces would not be sent to Belarus so long as “extremist elements hiding behind political slogans” don’t cross “certain boundaries,” which he defined as setting cars and property on fire or trying to seize administrative buildings.

But Mr. Putin, while trying to keep his options open, runs the risk of being pulled into Belarus by Mr. Lukashenko, “who will definitely interpret this as an endorsement” and can easily “burn a couple of cars” to prompt Russian intervention, Mr. Kortunov said.

Any deployment of Russian forces in Belarus, he warned, will “only create an explosion of an anti-Russian feeling” and alienate a country where the vast majority of people, unlike in Ukraine, speak Russian and harbor no deep-seated hostility toward Moscow.

In the television interview, Mr. Putin himself stressed the cultural, linguistic and economic relations between Belarus and Russia, which he said bought 90 percent of Belarusian agricultural exports. “We of course have certain obligations toward Belarus,” he added.

He said that Russia had responded to the Belarusian protests with more “restraint and neutrality” than the United States and Europe, which set in motion new sanctions against Minsk. But he also sent a clear message that Moscow would under no circumstances allow its neighbor to align more closely with the West and NATO, the American-led military alliance, as happened after a popular revolution in Ukraine in 2014.

His warning that Russia could intervene, said Nina Khrushcheva, a Russia expert at the New School in New York, signaled less “full-throated support for Lukashenko than a message to the West: If you keep pushing on Belarus, you will have another Ukraine on your hands.”

After protesters supported by the United States and Europe toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014, Russia seized Crimea and fomented armed rebellion in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, events that led to the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War.

The opposition in Belarus has taken pains to show that it bears Russia no ill will. Protests in Minsk, the capital, sometimes feature Russian flags along with the red-and-white banner of Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents.

Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Institute, wrote recently that Mr. Lukashenko was “on track for an inevitable and dishonorable exit,” and that Russia’s “least bad option” was to arrange a transfer of power to a leader acceptable to both Russia and protesters.

Mr. Putin stopped short on Thursday of clearly endorsing Mr. Lukashenko, and even gave a hint of criticism, saying that “if people take to the street, everyone should take this into account, hear them and respond.”

But Mr. Putin made no effort to prod Mr. Lukashenko toward a compromise, saying only that it might be possible, as the Belarusian leader has himself suggested, to revise the Constitution to allow for new elections in the future.

Belta, the official news agency in Belarus, reported Thursday that Mr. Lukashenko would discuss possible constitutional changes — but only with “labor collectives and student teams.” That closed the door to talks with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main rival in the disputed election, who is now in neighboring Lithuania, or a council set up in Minsk by protest leaders, many of whom have been detained.

Mr. Putin has had no complaint about Mr. Lukashenko’s brutal initial response to protesters. Asked indirectly about police violence this month against protesters in Belarus, Mr. Putin avoided the issue by pivoting, as he often does, to violence in the United States.

Belarus’s law-enforcement agencies, Mr. Putin said, “are behaving with restraint” compared with “what’s going on in some countries.”

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