Russia says it has told Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko it is ready to offer military assistance if necessary, as demonstrators gather for what was expected to be one of the biggest protests against Lukashenko’s re-election.
A least two protesters have been killed and thousands have been detained since last Sunday’s vote, which opponents of Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, say was rigged to disguise the fact he has lost public support.
He denies losing, citing official results that gave him just more than 80 per cent of the vote.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenko Russia was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary and said external pressure was being applied to the country, without saying where from.
There was tight security as Lukashenko’s supporters gathered in central Minsk for the first time since the election to voice their support for him and watch him give a fiery speech.
Lukashenko, under pressure from the European Union for cracking down on his opponents, said NATO tanks and planes had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border. NATO was not immediately available for comment.
“NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” he said, adding that Belarus would “die as a state” if new polls were held.
“I have never betrayed you and will never do so,” he said.
Some of those present held Belarusian national flags and chanted “For Belarus!” or “For Batka!”, Lukashenko’s affectionate nickname, as patriotic music sounded from speakers.
Often emotional in state TV appearances, the 65-year-old leader has alleged a foreign-backed plot to topple him. He has also cited promised military support from Russian President Vladimir Putin if necessary, something the Kremlin has not confirmed.
Several thousand people attended the protest. Opposition media channels said Lukashenko had bussed people in from other parts of the country and that they were coerced into attending.
Russia, which has had a troubled relationship with Lukashenko, is watching closely as Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian energy exports to the West and is also viewed by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO.
The EU is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Belarus in response to the violent crackdown.
Protesters show no signs of backing down.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s opposition rival in the contested election, has called for a huge “March of Freedom” through the centre of Minsk on Sunday, the Belarusian capital.
Like previous protests, it is expected to culminate on Independence Square outside the main government building, the same location as the pro-Lukashenko meeting.
Australian Associated Press