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Lukashenko says Prigozhin is in Russia, as Wagner mystery deepens

Mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin is in Russia and is a “free man” despite staging a rebellion against military rulers in Moscow, the Belarus leader said Thursday, delving into the mystery of Mr. Prigozhin and his Wagner group and what will happen. become of them.

President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus told reporters that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday morning, then “maybe he went to Moscow, maybe somewhere else, but he doesn’t is not on the territory of Belarus”.

It was Mr Lukashenko who brokered a deal between Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Mr Prigozhin to end the brief mutiny. He said a few days later that the Wagner executive had visited Belarus, although it was unclear whether this actually happened.

Mr Prigozhin is at large at the moment, Mr Lukashenko said, although he admitted he “didn’t know what would happen later”, and he dismissed the idea that Mr Putin would simply have Mr. Prigozhin, until recently an Allied lifeblood, killed.

“If you think Putin is so malicious and vindictive that he will kill Prigozhin tomorrow, no, that won’t happen,” he said.

If Mr. Prigozhin – vilified as a traitor in state media – is, in fact, free and in Russia less than two weeks after staging what the Kremlin has called a coup attempt, that would be the one of the most confusing twists in a story full of them. On Wednesday, a major current affairs television program aired video of what it claimed was a police search of her lavish St. Petersburg mansion, where she said large amounts of cash, firearms , passports, wigs and drugs had been found. A spokesman for Mr Prigozhin denied that the house was his.

Some Russian media reported that Mr. Prigozhin was in St. Petersburg on Wednesday or Thursday. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said the Wagner leader had been in Russia since the mutiny, but the official said it was unclear whether he had been in Belarus, in part because Mr. Prigozhin apparently uses body doubles to disguise his movements.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov deflected a question about Mr. Prigozhin’s whereabouts, saying the government had “neither the ability nor the desire” to track his movements.

In a rare press conference with local and foreign journalists at the marble presidential palace in Minsk, Mr Lukashenko, ever eager to be seen as an international statesman, clearly enjoyed the spotlight given to him. given the most dramatic challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority in his 23 years in power. But days after offering sanctuary to Wagner fighters and their leader in his country, Mr Lukashenko did not say where they would go or what role they would play.

While Mr. Lukashenko, an autocrat who ruled his country for 29 years, continued to boast of his mediation and peacemaking, he also made clear his deference, even submission, to Russia and Mr. Putin, whom he has repeatedly called “big brother.”

“The main question of where Wagner will be deployed and what he will do — it’s not up to me; it depends on the leadership of Russia,” he said. He added that he had spoken to Mr. Prigozhin on Wednesday and that Wagner would continue to “fulfill his duties to Russia as long as he can”, although he did not elaborate.

Mr Putin has long sought to drag Belarus deeper into Russian political, economic and military orbits. For years, Mr Lukashenko, whose power depends heavily on managing this relationship, has been quite successful in maintaining some independence and has even attempted to forge business ties with the West.

But that faded after Mr Putin helped him brutally suppress opposition protests in 2020, beginning a period of heightened repression in which government critics were jailed or fled into exile. Under Western sanctions and increasingly treated as an international pariah, Belarus – with a population of nine million – has become increasingly dependent on Russia – with a population of 143 million – for aid. economy, energy, high-tech imports and diplomatic support.

In February, when Mr Putin thanked him for traveling to Moscow for a meeting, Mr Lukashenko, in a remark captured by television cameras, replied: “As if I could not agree “.

A year earlier, Mr Lukashenko had allowed Mr Putin to launch a push for his invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian soil, and this year he has allowed Russia to station short-range nuclear missiles there. But he has so far resisted efforts to drag the Belarusian military directly into the war.

During the Wagner uprising, Mr. Lukashenko played the role of intermediary, conferring with Mr. Prigozhin and Mr. Putin. He later bragged about having made peace between them, persuading Chief Wagner to stand down and the Russian president “not to do anything rash”, such as having Mr Prigozhin killed or crushing the mutiny so bloody. His claims could not be verified.

Wagner’s mercenaries were some of the most brutal and effective units fighting in Ukraine for Russia and took the lead in capturing the town of Bakhmut after a long and very brutal battle. But Mr Putin and his government chose to end Wagner’s independence, forcing his fighters in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry – a main cause of Mr Prigozhin’s mutiny.

Mr Lukashenko said all Wagner units in Belarus could be called upon to defend the country and that the group’s agreement to fight for Belarus in the event of war was the main condition for granting him permission to relocate in the country.

“Their experience will be in high demand,” he said.

Mr Lukashenko also praised the group and signaled that at least some of Wagner’s fighting strength could remain intact.

He positioned himself as a power broker who had helped solve a crisis, and not for the first time. At the start of his Thursday press conference in an ornate, high-ceilinged meeting room, he reminded the dozen or so journalists present that it was in the same room that he had greeted the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine for peace. talks in 2015.

In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, and Moscow-backed proxy forces unleashed a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, which Russia now claims as its own. A 2015 agreement in Minsk set out steps – largely ignored in subsequent years – that were supposed to produce a lasting peace, and the fighting in the Donbass, though diminished, has not stopped.

During the first weeks of last year’s full-scale invasion, Mr Lukashenko invited delegations from Kyiv and Moscow to Belarus, but they found no common ground for further talks, much less peace.

Speaking to a small group of reporters at the Independence Palace on Thursday, Lukashenko may be hoping to establish some independence from his benefactors in Moscow and credibility with the West, while eventually getting a boost at home, with a population more interested in peace than joining Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

It also presented a patina of normality in a country where independent journalism is effectively criminalized. Accreditation for Western journalists is unusual and can often only be obtained when Mr Lukashenko sees fit to speak to them.

Their presence – and their interest in Mr. Lukashenko’s role in negotiations between Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin – have made national news in Belarus, where state-controlled media regularly tout the president’s international stature.

Despite the formality of the stage, where attendants in white gloves were pouring tea, Mr. Lukashenko, who had a seating chart with all the reporters present, behaved mostly informally, addressing many reporters by their name and making jokes.

Those in Belarusian state media posed friendly questions, asking how Belarusian society should prepare to resist information campaigns organized by the US State Department or urging it to talk about the government’s efforts to bring children from Russian-occupied Ukraine to summer camps in Belarus – which Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating a possible war crime.

Mr Lukashenko mostly dodged much tougher questions from foreign journalists, as if he regretted allowing Russia to invade Belarus. Instead, he blamed the invasion on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

He also ridiculed journalists who asked about domestic repression, especially in recent years. Viasna, a human rights organization whose founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialatski, is behind bars in Belarus, has nearly 1,500 political prisoners.

Ahead of the 2020 election, Mr Lukashenko’s government jailed potential candidates for running against him or barred them from appearing on the ballot. After the government claimed that Mr Lukashenko had won 81% of the vote, opponents cried fraud and mass protests began.

Belarusian media that covered the protests have been criminalized as “extremist” and simply following them or sharing their information on social media can result in a prison sentence.

Despite its small population, Belarus ranks fifth in the world for the number of imprisoned journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Association of Belarusian Journalists, itself banned as an “extremist” organization, has 33 journalists detained.

When asked on Thursday why jailed opposition figurehead Sergei Tikhanovsky had not been heard from for months or granted access to his lawyer, the Belarusian leader appeared to stumble over his surname , as if unfamiliar.

Anatoly Kurmanayev contributed reporting from Berlin, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

nytimes Eur

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