Putin Vows Military Support For Belarus’ Lukashenko

RUSSIA-VIRUS-HEALTH
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation via teleconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on May 11, 2020. – President Vladimir Putin on May 11, 2020 said Russia’s non-working period imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus will be lifted from May 12. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed military support for embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday, while urging a peaceful resolution to unrest and demonstrations that erupted after a disputed election.

EU ambassadors in the capital Minsk on Thursday denounced a crackdown on the opposition in the wake of the presidential poll, in which 65-year-old Lukashenko claimed a landslide reelection with some 80 percent of the vote.

The Belarusian strongman’s relationship with Putin had soured ahead of the August 9 ballot because Minsk refused closer integration with Russia — and even claimed Moscow had sent mercenaries across the border to organise riots.

Yet Putin on Thursday promised military backing for Belarus and said Russia had set up a reserve group of law enforcement officers to deploy if the post-vote situation deteriorated.

“It won’t be used unless the situation starts to get out of control,” Putin said, unless “extremist elements … begin setting fire to cars, houses and banks, begin seizing administrative buildings”.

But Putin also called on the authorities in Minsk and the opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully.

He conceded there were problems in Belarus, saying, “otherwise people wouldn’t take to the streets”.

The Russian leader’s calls for calm came after the European Union and ambassadors of member states in Minsk condemned a crackdown on government critics seeking new elections and Lukashenko’s resignation.

– ‘Unacceptable’ prosecution –

The opposition created a Coordination Council to oversee the peaceful transition of power after their leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania fearing reprisals.

Lukashenko ordered a criminal probe into the opposition’s attempts to “seize power” and several of the presidium’s members have been detained or summoned for questioning.

Maria Kolesnikova, an aide of Tikhanovskaya and member of the council, was summoned by investigators for questioning on Thursday. She said she invoked her right not to testify against herself.

The group’s most prominent member, Nobel Prize-winning author and outspoken government critic Svetlana Alexievich, was questioned by investigators on Wednesday and also refused to answer questions.

Two of the presidium’s members this week were sentenced to 10 days each in police detention for organising unsanctioned rallies and disobeying law enforcement orders.

“The European diplomats emphasised that prosecution of Coordination Council members on grounds presented by the authorities is unacceptable,” a joint statement said.

EU nations have also vowed to sanction individuals they say were involved in vote-rigging and the violent crackdown on protesters.

The EU ambassadors in Minsk on Thursday said that: “Belarusians are asking for an open dialogue with their own authorities about the future of their country,” urging “a peaceful and democratic process, underpinned by independent and free media and a strong civil society”.

– ‘Diplomatic war’ –

Lukashenko has dismissed calls to resign or host new elections, instead accusing Western countries and Russia of stirring political unrest.

The authoritarian leader on Thursday said the ex-Soviet country’s European neighbours had declared a “diplomatic war” and were meddling in Belarus’s internal affairs.

Last week he described demonstrators as “rats” in a video that showed him carrying an assault rifle, after more than 100,000 people took to the streets to demand he stand down.

His notorious security services rounded up nearly 7,000 participants in peaceful rallies that erupted in the days after the vote, and hundreds of detainees claimed they were abused by police in custody.

Local and international rights groups have urged the UN to investigate allegations of systematic torture at the hands of security services.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political newcomer who ran in place of her jailed husband, called for historic demonstrations and mass strikes following the election.

Workers at state-owned factories initially downed tools and joined the walk-outs in large numbers, but fewer employees have kept up participation due to pressure from the authorities, activists have said.

Industry Minister Pyotr Parkhomchik said Thursday that there were no ongoing strikes and that “all assembly lines have been restarted.”

AFP

Indian Wells: Azarenka Defeats Serena

Indian wellsFormer world number one, Victoria Azarenka, took advantage of an error-prone display by Serena Williams to win her second BNP Paribas Open title at Indian Wells in California.

The 26-year-old Belarusian beat the American number one seed 6-4 6-4 under 90 minutes in front of a stunned crowd at the sun-baked Indian Wells tennis garden.

Azarenka broke the top-seeded American once in the opening set and twice in the second before wrapping up the victory.

Meanwhile, world number one Novak Djokovic produced a sublime form to clinch an unprecedented fifth men’s title at Indian Wells.

The Serb beat big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic with a 6-2 6-love in the men’s final.

The 28-year-old Serb broke his out-of-sorts opponent twice in the first set and three times in the second to wrap up victory in one hour 17 minutes on a blazing hot afternoon.

Ukraine Crisis: Rebels Agree On Weapon Pullout Date

ukraineRebels in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to begin to pull back heavy weapons from the front-line, a Russian general involved in implementing a truce says.

Gen Alexander Lentsov said the pro-Russian rebels had signed the orders to complete the withdrawal over the next two weeks, starting from Sunday.

It is not clear whether the move will be reciprocated by Ukraine.

This comes as Ukraine and the separatists exchanged 191 prisoners, a key part of the Minsk ceasefire deal.

It was the first step carried out successfully under the terms of the February15 agreements signed in the Belarusian capital, brokered by France and Germany.

The exchange came as US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was considering “serious sanctions” against Russia following breaches of the truce, and that a decision would be made in the coming days.

Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said sanctions would not help solve Ukraine’s crisis.

Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians – as well as a number of European leaders – are expected to take part in a “dignity march” in the capital Kiev on Sunday, remembering the victims of sniper fire during protests last February.

Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted last April Ukraine’s Eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Gen Lentsov, a Russian member of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-operation (JCCC), said: “We have designated February 22 the “D-Day” as determined by the agreement from all sides. So from Sunday we will within the period of 14 days observe the agreement on the pullback of heavy weapons.”

He said the leaders of the self-proclaimed rebel Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics had already signed the orders.

“We hope for Kiev’s participation and help first and foremost,” the general added.

The pullout process had been due to start last Tuesday and completed by March 3, but Gen Lentsov said it would now be March7.

Ukraine and rebel forces accuse each other of multiple breaches of the truce, and there were reports of violations around Donetsk and the port city of Mariupol on Saturday.

The rebels took the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve during the week in spite of the ceasefire, arguing the truce did not apply to the flashpoint town, forcing government troops to retreat.