Belarus continues to grumble with protests; Moscow, Minsk see hope

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Foreign Desk Report

MINSK/MOSCOW: The leaders of Russia and Belarus agreed on Saturday that the problems in Belarus would be resolved soon, the Kremlin said, as tens of thousands took to the streets in Minsk once again to urge President Alexander Lukashenko to quit.
Accused of rigging last Sunday’s election, Lukashenko had earlier issued an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the Belarus leader grapples with the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule and the threat of new Western sanctions. Ties between the two traditional allies had been under strain before the election, as Russia scaled back the subsidies that propped up Lukashenko’s government. Russia sees Belarus as a strategic buffer against NATO and the EU.
Statements by both sides contained a pointed reference to a “union state” between the two countries. Lukashenko has previously rejected calls by Moscow for closer economic and political ties as an assault on his country’s sovereignty. “Both sides expressed confidence that all the problems that have arisen will be resolved soon,” a Kremlin statement said after Lukashenko and Putin spoke by phone.
“These problems should not be exploited by destructive forces seeking to harm the mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries within the framework of the union state,” it added. The European Union is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Belarus in response to a violent crackdown in which at least two protesters have been killed and thousands detained.
On a visit to neighbouring Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was monitoring the situation closely. The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania called on Belarus to conduct new “free and fair” elections.