Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, has offered to send military assistance to support Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk to demand his resignation.
Up to 200,000 people gathered on Sunday in Minsk to protest against disputed elections, according to Reuters, which Lukashenko claims to have won with over 80% of the vote, a result which opponents say was heavily rigged.
People carried red and white flags and chanted “Lukashenko step down” and “We won’t forget or forgive.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s opposition rival in the contested election, had called for a huge “March of Freedom” through Minsk and in other towns and cities on Sunday.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, had previously called for Moscow’s assistance to support his regime. Tensions between the two powers increased before the election after Russia decreased the funding that props up the former Soviet state.
The leaders spoke on Saturday. In comments reported by state news agency Belta, and cited by Reuters, Lukashenko claimed Putin told him that “at the first request, Russia will provide comprehensive assistance to ensure the security of Belarus in the event of external military threats.”
A Kremlin read-out of the phone call did not mention the offer of security assistance, but both statements contained a pointed reference to a “union state,” Reuters reported.
Russia confirmed that Putin was ready to offer military assistance in Belarus if necessary in a statement released by the Kremlin on Sunday. The Kremlin said that Putin had told Lukashenko that he would be willing to sign a collective military pact if necessary, and said that Belarus was subject to external pressure/
Lukashenko has claimed protests against him are part of a foreign-backed plot to oust him. “NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” he said in comments reported by Reuters.
Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994 and is widely described as “Europe’s last dictator.”