Russian leader Vladimir Putin is carefully watching unfolding events in neighbouring Belarus, where riot police have been deployed and used rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at furious protestors.
Clashes between police and protestors spilled onto the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, following the results of what opposition candidates branded a rigged election.
Following the August 9 presidential ballott, there have been mass arrests of opposition candidates, bloggers, journalists and protestors.
Incumbent president Alexander Lukashenka claimed to have won with 80% of the vote, with his closest rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya reportedly nabbing only 10%.
The Human Rights Watch organisation’s Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson said: “Belarussian authorities have unleashed brute force in an effort to crush peaceful protests and stifle public discontent.
“The response to the protests shows the country is on track for a new low point on human rights during Alexander Lukashenka’s 25-year rule.”
Across the border to the east, Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to keep watch on the ongoing protests which he fears could meddle with his plans for his neighbour and his homeland.
The Russian has cultivated his hardman image over the past two decades and has managed to maintain his tight grip on power.
Putin even managed to extend the time he could sit in office by two additional six-year terms after he won a highly-controversial referendum on the subject earlier in the summer.
But, there was backlash to the proposals with thousands of protestors taking to the streets and some 140 people – including top Kremlin critics – being arrested.
Russia’s president has long feared huge marches against his increasingly-blatant power grabs and fears the upheaval in Belarus could dent his hopes for more integration between the two nations and challenge his authority in the region.
Putin hopes that by propping up embattled President Lukashenka, he will be able to see off the hurdles that will stop deeper integration between the two nations, which would lead to a greater encirclement of his rivals.
Oleksiy Goncharenko of The Atlantic Council, an NGO think tank focusing on global events, said: “Russia looms large over the crisis in Belarus. Ever since Lukashenka first came to power in 1994, he has cultivated close ties with Moscow.
“For more than two decades, the two countries have been committed to creating a 'Union State'.
“While the specific details of this planned merger have always remained somewhat vague, most observers understand it to mean the gradual loss of Belarusian sovereignty as the country is absorbed into a Soviet-style union dominated by Moscow.
“Lukashenka’s ability to remain publicly friendly with Russia while resisting Putin’s appeals for greater integration has earned him a reputation as a crafty politician. However, the relationship has become markedly less cordial in recent years, with the Kremlin withdrawing economic favours and becoming increasingly vocal in its demands. Putin was one of the few world leaders to congratulate Lukashenka this week, but his message read more like a list of demands for deeper cooperation and integration.
“If Lukashenka is able to cling onto power but finds himself cut off from the outside world, he will have little choice but to accept Putin’s terms. Moscow’s demands would likely include the establishment of Russian military bases inside Belarus and the sale of the country’s strategic industrial assets to Kremlin-friendly Russian oligarchs.
“This would transform the geopolitical landscape in Eastern Europe, cutting off the Baltic States and bringing the Russian military to Poland’s eastern border in a far more comprehensive manner than the current limited threat posed by Moscow’s Kaliningrad enclave.
“The country most immediately in danger would be Ukraine. If Putin is able to complete the informal occupation of Belarus, he will significantly extend the ongoing Russian encirclement of Ukraine and enable the deployment of Russian troops along the approximately 1,000km Ukrainian-Belarusian border.
“This makes the struggle for democracy in Belarus a national security issue for Ukraine.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Daily Star Online: “The UK calls on the Government of Belarus to refrain from further acts of violence following the seriously flawed Presidential elections.
“The violence and the attempts by Belarusian authorities to suppress protests are completely unacceptable.
“There has been a lack of transparency throughout the electoral process in addition to the imprisonment of opposition candidates, journalists and peaceful protestors. We are deeply concerned that Belarus’ failure to issue a timely invitation prevented the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe from observing the electoral process.
“It is also unacceptable that British Embassy staff and other members of the diplomatic community were obstructed from carrying out their duties as fully accredited independent election observers.
“Throughout this election campaign we have witnessed the demands of the Belarusian people for democracy, for fundamental freedoms and for the right to determine their futures in an independent, sovereign Belarus.
“The UK, along with our international partners, calls on the Government of Belarus to fulfil its international commitments and the aspirations of its people.”
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