Over 1,000 opposition demonstrators rally in Minsk to protest closer integration with Russia.
Leaders of Russia and Belarus sat down for talks Saturday on deepening ties between the two allies — a meeting that triggered a protest in the Belarusian capital.
More than 1,000 opposition demonstrators rallied in Minsk to protest closer integration with Russia, which they fear could erode the post-Soviet independence of the nation of 10 million.
The protesters marched across the Belarusian capital, chanting “No to integration” and “Belarus to Europe.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for talks in Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, to discuss economic agreements intended to bring the two ex-Soviet neighbours and allies even closer.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than a quarter-century, relies on cheap Russian energy and loans to maintain a Soviet-style economy.
Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1997 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but stopped short of forming a single state.
The Kremlin has recently cranked up pressure on Belarus, raising energy prices and cutting subsidies. Russian officials noted that Minsk should accept closer economic integration if it wants to benefit from lower energy prices.
'We just want equal conditions'
Speaking at the start of talks in Sochi, Lukashenko urged Putin to continue fuel shipments at Russia's domestic prices.
“We just want equal conditions — nothing else,” Lukashenko said with a wry smile as he faced Putin across the table.
“We shall talk about future prospects. It's a landmark meeting,” Putin said.
Some in Belarus fear that the new agreements could pave the way for a full merger — concerns fuelled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
There also has been speculation that Putin, who has been in power for nearly two decades, could contemplate a merger with Belarus as a way to stay at the helm of the union state of Russia and Belarus after his current presidential term expires in 2024.
Putin himself has been coy about his future plans.
Lukashenko has bristled at the Russian pressure, charging that some Russian officials want to push Belarus into weakening its sovereignty.
The Belarusian leader vowed not to surrender Belarus’ post-Soviet independence, but the opposition in Belarus has remained nervous.
"Politicians are playing with Belarusian sovereignty like in a card game, and we will keep protesting as long as a threat to our independence remains," said Pavel Severinets, the organiser of Saturday's rally.
The protest wasn't sanctioned by the authorities, but police allowed the demonstrators to march across downtown Minsk. There were some minor scuffles between plainclothes police agents and demonstrators, but police then let the protest proceed.
“They are again trying to pull us back into that rotten empire that is trying to revive itself at the expense of neighbours,” said 19-year-old student Mikhail Olshansky, who covered his face with Belarus' red-and-white flag.
Lukashenko has shown little tolerance to dissent during a rule that has won him the nickname of Europe's last dictator, but he has increasingly sought to reach out to the West as he faces Russia's pressure.
The US and the European Union have repeatedly criticised Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and crackdowns on the opposition, but they have lifted some their sanctions in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners.