Putin says opposing forces in Belarus need to resolve crisis via talks

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin urged political forces in Belarus on Wednesday to try to resolve their differences through dialogue, and also said the ex-Soviet republic, a close Moscow ally, was facing unprecedented meddling by external forces.

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Belarus has been rocked by mass protests since an Aug. 9 presidential election which veteran incumbent Alexander Lukashenko said he won - an assertion contested by his opponents, who say the vote was rigged and want him to quit.

Russia’s backing is seen as vital for Lukashenko’s chances of staying in power and its statements are closely scrutinised for changes in tone or any sign that Moscow could be pushing for some kind of managed power transition.

“I really hope the Belarusian people have the political maturity to calmly and without any sharp movements build a domestic political dialogue with all political forces and resolve all its internal questions themselves without any kind of external pressure and outside interference,” Putin told an online meeting of a Russia-led security bloc attended by Lukashenko.

Russia has ostensibly backed Lukashenko throughout the turmoil, but signs have begun to emerge that it wants him to de-escalate the situation, enter talks with his opponents, and embark on long-promised constitutional reforms, a process that could culminate in him stepping down.

Lukashenko has so far only spoken of possible change, while using force to quell the continuing large street protests. Most prominent opposition leaders have been jailed or fled abroad.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a country of 9.5 million that Russia sees as a security buffer against NATO, for 26 years. He has often played Moscow off against the West to extract political and economic dividends from the Kremlin.

Russia last week sent its foreign minister to Minsk to tell Lukashenko to press ahead with constitutional reform to defuse the crisis, an initiative the president himself had previously promised but which had stalled.

The following day, Lukashenko said he would quit as president once a new constitution was adopted but gave no timeline.

Protesters dismiss the reform promises as a stalling tactic.

Speaking at Wednesday’s online meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Lukashenko blamed the unrest on outside meddling, singling out neighbouring Poland and the Baltic states in particular.

Later, without providing evidence, Lukashenko accused NATO powers of creating a military force to seize territory in the west of Belarus, Russia’s Sputnik Belarus media outlet reported.

Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin; additional reporting by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones