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More than 100,000 protesters flooded the streets of the capital Minsk on Sunday in ongoing protests calling for Belarus’ authoritarian president to resign.
Sunday’s protests come on the eve of President Alexander Lukashenko’s planned meeting on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. It will be the first time the two leaders will meet face-to-face since unrest erupted in Belarus following the Aug. 9 election. Government officials said Lukashenko won a sixth term with 80% of the vote, but outside observers including the European Union and U.S. State Department say the results were rigged.
The prolonged turmoil puts Lukashenko into a weak position going into the meeting with Putin. Lukashenko has expressed concern that Putin could use the political unrest as a reason to annex Belarus like it did with Crimea in 2014.
Protesters in Minsk took to the streets in large numbers Sunday for the fifth weekend in a row, defying riot police and masked security forces who roughly detained dozens of protesters and carted them off in vans. Demonstrations also took place in 16 other cities across the country.
The Interior Ministry told The Associated Press more than 400 people were detained Sunday in Minsk. More than 7,000 people have been arrested since the election sparked protests against Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Lukashenko’s security forces have also sought to quell unrest by detaining or exiling members of an opposition group called the Coordination Council.
Despite the police crackdown, the opposition seems unwilling to back down. Police on Sunday blocked off the city center with barbed wire fences and prisoner transport vehicles, so the protesters marched a different way. They headed toward Lukashenko’s residence on the city’s outskirts.
Signs held by protesters on Sunday reflected similar fears among the opposition that Russia could absorb Belarus.
“The source of power in Belarus is the people, not Lukashenko and the Kremlin,” read signs held by protesters in Minsk, the AP reported. The slogan for Sunday’s protest was “we won’t let him sell the country.”
While Lukashenko is expected to seek security guarantees in his meeting with Putin, he says he will not give away the country’s sovereignty. Lukashenko has also accused Western powers of instigating the revolt in order to overthrow his government.
Political experts warn that Putin’s backing of Lukashenko could turn Belarusians against Russia. Opposition leaders have said their movement is not explicitly pro-Russian or anti-Russian, but pro-democratic.
As Nigel Gould-Davies, the U.K.’s former ambassador to Belarus, told The Guardian, there’s a risk that “Russia will turn the most friendly neighbor they have into a population that sees them as an accessory to Lukashenko and his authoritarianism.”
Charles Maynes contributed reporting.