(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin met his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko on Monday in his latest show of support for the leader of the former Soviet republic who’s a pariah in the West after a brutal crackdown on protests.
“We are very close to each other -- our nations, culture, languages, history are close to each other,” Putin said as he held talks with Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. “We have a whole range of subjects on our agenda,” he said in a broadcast of the Rossiya 24 state TV, noting that Russia is the single largest investor in the Belarusian economy and its largest trading partner. Putin invited Lukashenko to ski together after the formal talks.
Lukashenko thanked Putin for joint work on 33 so-called road maps aimed at closer integration of the two countries. “Out of those 33, only six or seven are left” to be updated by the governments of the two nations, he said. Belarus is grateful to Russia for supplies of the coronavirus vaccine and resumption of direct air flights, he said.
The Belarusian president, in power since 1994, faced down unprecedented mass unrest last year after his disputed re-election in August, which was condemned as fraudulent by the opposition and the West. The U.S., European Union and U.K. imposed sanctions over the Belarus authorities’ violent response, while Russia shored up Lukashenko with loans of $1.5 billion and agreements on oil and gas supplies through 2021.
Ahead of the meeting, the two governments agreed on exports of Belarusian oil products to third countries via Russian ports, allowing the country to circumvent the Baltic states that have been the strongest critics of Lukashenko.
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