Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko said that Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had promised him “comprehensive security assistance” against the protests sweeping his country.
“As far as military matters are concerned, we have an agreement with Russia . . . that covers these incidents,” Mr Lukashenko said on Saturday after speaking to Mr Putin, according to state news agency Belta.
“So I had a long and thorough discussion about the situation with the president of Russia. I was even a bit surprised by how up to date he is on what’s going on,” he said.
“He and I agreed: at our first request they will provide comprehensive security assistance to ensure Belarus’s security.”
Mr Lukashenko’s desperate appeals to Moscow for help came after a week of unprecedented protests across the country that threaten the former collective farm boss’s 26-year grip on power.
Workers from state-owned enterprises — the backbone of its quasi-Soviet command economy and the core of Mr Lukashenko’s political base — went on strike this week in protest at last Sunday’s disputed presidential election result and a subsequent brutal police crackdown against peaceful protesters.
Nearly 7,000 people were arrested — and many tortured — during the crackdown, which initially suppressed the rallies before galvanising them on Thursday.
On Saturday, employees at the’ state media conglomerate said they would join the strike.
The director of a factory where Mr Lukashenko was scheduled to appear next Monday admitted to a crowd of angry workers that he had voted for the president, but then acknowledged to loud cheers that he “didn’t win the election.”
Mr Lukashenko said the strikes were being organised by Belarus’s “enemies” and said workers who participated should be fired.
“If a working man, who’s meant to be outside politics, has an urge to go on to the square to make some sort of point, he’s not a worker. Let them go . . . But there should be no place for them at the factories after that,” he said.
“We give these factories colossal support so they can function. And what do we get? A knife in the back?”
Independent news website Tut.by reported that workers from state enterprises had been told to attend a rally in support of Mr Lukashenko on Sunday under threat of dismissal.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania this week under pressure from Belarus security services, said she would form a co-ordination council from exile to work towards a transfer of power.
Large protests are planned across the country for Sunday.
EU foreign ministers agreed on Friday to start work on sanctions against those responsible for “violence and falsification” around Sunday’s poll, and said the bloc would not recognise the result.
Mr Lukashenko said he would not relinquish power voluntarily and rejected offers to mediate the crisis with foreign powers.
“We won’t give up the country to anyone. We’ll get the situation under control,” Mr Lukashenko said, according to Belta. “Our soldiers have enough resources to defend themselves and their families and ensure the security of the state.”
Mr Lukashenko described his appeal to Mr Putin as a warning that the protests were “not just a threat to Belarus”.
“Defending Belarus today is nothing less than defending all of our space,” he said, according to state news agency Belta. “If Belarusians don’t hold out, this wave will roll over there.”
He said protesters were using “colour revolution playbooks” honed in pro-western uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia in the 2000s and said “elements of foreign interference” were directing them.
The comments were a sharp turnround from the run-up to the election, when Mr Lukashenko repeatedly accused “puppetmasters” in Russia of funding a leading opposition candidate, who Belarus later jailed, and sending 33 mercenaries to “destabilise the situation”.
On Friday, Belarus released all but one of the mercenaries only two weeks after charging them with planning terrorist attacks in cahoots with the local opposition.
Russia said the mercenaries were taking advantage of Belarus’s lax border policy and lack of restrictions on international flights to transit to private security jobs in South America.
The Kremlin warned against “destructive forces that want to damage the two countries’ mutually beneficial co-operation,” and said the two men had expressed “certainty that all the problems that have arisen will soon be resolved.”
There was no immediate confirmation from Moscow of Mr Lukashenko’s claim about security assistance.
Since the protests began, some Kremlin proxies — including the Russian nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky — have floated the idea of dumping Mr Lukashenko.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it was “concerned by the incidents of violations of public order on the streets of several Belarusian cities” but condemned “clearly discernible attempts to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state with the goal of splitting society and destabilising the situation,” which it blames on western governments.