2/2 © Reuters. Russian President Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenko in Sochi 2/2
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko thanked President Vladimir Putin on Monday for the financial support his country received from Russia when it faced massive protests last year. Russia granted Belarus a $ 1.5 billion loan last September in a gesture of support for Lukashenko when protesters took to the streets in Belarus after the Aug. 9 elections that opponents said were rigged. Lukashenko denies election fraud and has clung to power with the backing of the Kremlin, which said at the time that the money would go to refinance previous loans. “Of course, I am very grateful for the financial support they provide to Belarus,” Lukashenko told Putin during talks in the southern Russian city of Sochi. “I must inform you that this has not been in vain. The money has not been wasted.” The Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted government sources this month as saying that Lukashenko would ask Putin for another $ 3 billion loan, but the veteran Belarusian leader denied he was seeking additional money. Lukashenko responded to the protests with a violent crackdown. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is based in Lithuania, told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps last week that the opposition had lost the streets for now because protesters were unable to counter the force used by the police. On Monday, a court in the Belarusian city of Homiel sentenced 17-year-old Mikita Zalatarou to five years in prison for allegedly experiencing the riots in August. Two other protesters were sentenced to six and eight years, respectively. Authorities are also prosecuting Viktor Babariko, a former bank executive who was arrested on corruption charges that his team said were fabricated to prevent him from running in last year’s presidential election.