Alexander Lukashenko has told Russia’s president Vladimir Putin that the protests sweeping his country are “not just a threat to Belarus”.
“Defending Belarus today is nothing less than defending all of our space,” he said, before speaking with the Russian leader, according to state news agency Belta. “If Belarusians don’t hold out, this wave will roll over there.”
Tens of thousands of people across Belarus have protested against Mr Lukashenko’s disputed win in last Sunday’s presidential election.
A violent police crackdown during which nearly 7,000 people were arrested — and many tortured — initially suppressed the rallies before galvanising them on Thursday.
Factory workers from Belarus’ heavily subsidised state enterprises, the core of Mr Lukashenko’s political base, went on strike to call for new elections and an end to the police violence.
Mr Lukashenko’s comments were a clear appeal to Mr Putin to defend himself against the unrest, an unprecedented phenomenon in the collective farm boss’s 26-year rule and an unthinkable event just a few days ago.
He said protesters were using “colour revolution playbooks” honed in pro-western uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia in the 2000s and said “elements of foreign interference” were directing them.
This is a turnround from the run-up to the election, when Mr Lukashenko repeatedly accused “puppetmasters” in Russia of funding a leading opposition candidate, who Belarus later jailed, and sending 33 mercenaries to “destabilise the situation”.
EU foreign ministers agreed on Friday to start work on sanctions against those responsible for “violence and falsification” around Sunday’s poll.
On Friday, Belarus released 32 of the mercenaries despite having charged them only two weeks earlier with planning terrorist attacks in cahoots with the local opposition. Russia said the mercenaries were taking advantage of Belarus’s lax border policy and lack of restrictions on international flights to transit to private security jobs in South America.
Mr Putin congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his disputed win, which the EU said on Friday it would not recognise.
Since the protests began, some Kremlin proxies — including the nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky — have floated the idea of dumping Mr Lukashenko.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it was “concerned by the incidents of violations of public order on the streets of several Belarusian cities” but condemned “clearly discernible attempts to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state with the goal of splitting society and destabilising the situation,” which it blames on western governments.