MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowed a US$1.5 billion (S$2.04 billion) loan on Belarus on Monday (Sept 14) in a gesture of support for its leader Alexander Lukashenko, who flew to entreat his patron for help as demonstrations showed no sign of abating.
A day after more than 100,000 protesters demonstrated in Minsk for the fifth straight weekend to demand his resignation following an election they say was rigged, Lukashenko, who has led Russia's closest ally for 26 years, met Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
"First of all, I want to thank you... personally thank you and all Russians, all those, and I will not list them, who were involved in supporting us during this post-election time," Lukashenko said after the talks.
Putin gave few details about the new loan, which he said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had agreed during a recent visit to the Belarusian capital.
The Russian leader also signalled support for Lukashenko in other ways and said defence cooperation would continue. Hours earlier, Russian news agencies reported Moscow was sending paratroopers for joint exercises.
Putin also backed plans Lukashenko has previously announced for constitutional reform, which the opposition has dismissed as a stunt to keep power after the Aug 9 presidential election.
"We want Belarusians themselves, without prompting and pressure from outside, to sort out this situation in a calm manner and through dialogue and to find a common solution," Putin said.
Despite aggressive action from his security forces, Lukashenko has failed to reclaim the streets from demonstrators, who taunted him on Sunday with chants of "You're a rat!" Lukashenko calls the demonstrations a Western plot and has placed his fate in Moscow's hands, requesting economic support and military aid.
Since the election, which Lukashenko denies rigging, thousands of people have been arrested and nearly all opposition leaders jailed, deported or forced into exile. Police said they detained 774 people on Sunday.
The opposition says it fears Lukashenko could try to sell out Belarusian independence for Putin's support. Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said no agreement reached by Lukashenko with Putin would be valid.
"I want to remind Vladimir Putin: whatever you accept and whatever you agree upon during the meeting in Sochi will have no legal weight," she wrote on social media site Telegram.
"All the agreements signed with an illegitimate Lukashenko will be revised by the new leadership," she said. "I am very sorry that you have decided to engage in dialogue with a dictator and not the Belarusian people."
WEST TREADS CAREFULLY
The West has acted carefully, balancing sympathy with the pro-democracy movement against fear of provoking Russian intervention.
European leaders have repeatedly phoned Putin to express concern. French President Emmanuel Macron was the latest, with Paris saying he repeated calls for a peaceful solution respecting the will of the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko, 66, has been a prickly ally of Russia in the past, and has had an awkward personal relationship with Putin.
But the Kremlin has made clear it does not want to see an ally toppled by street protests.
Putin said last month he had set up a "reserve police force" at Lukashenko's request, to be deployed if needed. Russia has offered to restructure Belarusian debt and support its banks, and sent journalists to operate Belarusian state TV after staff quit in protest against what they called propaganda.
Belarus has the closest political, social, economic and defence relationships with Russia of any former Soviet republic.
The two countries proclaimed a "union state" in the 1990s, complete with a Soviet-style red flag.
The Kremlin has long sought closer integration. Lukashenko has resisted some of those measures.