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First leader of Belarus says Lukashenko may still cling to power with Kremlin help

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The first leader of independent Belarus who helped oversee the Soviet breakup said on Sunday President Alexander Lukashenko had been badly shaken by the biggest push to oust him in 26 years, but that he could still hang onto power with Kremlin backing.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally of his supporters near the Government House in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus August 16, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

Stanislav Shushkevich, 85, an old opponent of Lukashenko, said powerful neighbour Russia had made clear it still supported the Belarusian leader, who faces a groundswell of anger over allegations of election rigging and police brutality.

Lukashenko, apparently emboldened after speaking twice by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the weekend, began a political counter-offensive on Sunday with his own public rally in Minsk rejecting calls to hold a new election.

Across town and elsewhere, the biggest opposition rallies yet dwarfed the Lukashenko event. They renewed calls for him to resign, but despite their carnival atmosphere, Shushkevich said “You can’t say that the Lukashenko era is ending”.

“I don’t think you can say that for one simple reason. Lukashenko serves the Kremlin because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to hold on. The Kremlin ... supports him,” he told Reuters by phone from his dacha in Belarus.

He pointed to Putin’s prompt congratulatory telegram to Lukashenko amid the unrest and two phone calls between the leaders. The Kremlin said Moscow would be ready to offer military help if necessary.

Moscow sees Belarus as a vital transit corridor for its oil and a buffer protecting its western flank. Ties had come under strain as Lukashenko appeared to drag his feet amid a Kremlin push for deeper integration between the two nations.

But Shushkevich cast that resistance as a smokescreen that disguised how pro-Russian Lukashenko’s policies really were.

Shushkevich dismissed the idea of Russia sending in troops to prop up Lukashenko, saying “Belarus has many more soldiers per capita than other countries.... They are not needed.”

“In such conditions, it’s difficult for the beaten and tortured Belarusian opposition to struggle with Russia,” he said, referring to local media reports, which have not been confirmed by the authorities, that 60 people were missing.

Moscow had other tools to help Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm boss, such as credit lines to support the creaking Soviet-style command economy, he said.

Shushkevich played a historic role in talks in 1991 with Russia’s Boris Yeltsin in which they agreed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Shushkevich ruled out a palace coup in which Lukashenko’s inner circle turns on him. “Over 26 years, Lukashenko has chosen very obedient deputies and very obedient military ... They are handsomely paid.”

Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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