Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday flew to Russia for one-to-one talks with his counterpart Vladimir Putin as Moscow has offered security aid while urging closer integration with its neighbour.
The talks are the first meeting between the long-serving leaders and close allies since Lukashenko's disputed win in August 9 polls prompted mass protests against his rule, with tens of thousands taking part in the latest demonstration in Minsk on Sunday.
Lukashenko arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin has a residence, making his first foreign trip since the election.
He smiled as he stepped down from his plane in a short-sleeved shirt into the bright sunshine, not wearing a facemask.
A reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, Dmitry Smirnov, wrote that Lukashenko who "hasn't particularly accepted the threat of coronavirus" nevertheless had to undergo anti-virus measures before the meeting.
The leaders were expected to hold a televised press conference after their talks.
While Lukashenko's harsh crackdown on demonstrators has prompted international condemnation and sanctions, Russia has remained a firm ally.
Putin congratulated Lukashenko on election victory and the leaders have exchanged frequent calls as Russia has stepped up political and military contacts in recent weeks.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims she was the true winner in polls, condemned Putin for negotiating with "illegitimate Lukashenko."
"I really regret you decided to hold dialogue with a usurper and not with the Belarusian people," Tikhanovskaya, who has taken shelter in Lithuania, said in a statement.
As the position of the Belarusian strongman in power for 26 years has weakened, Russia is likely to seek concessions.
Putin has long called for full unification with Belarus, while Lukashenko has previously ruled this out.
The Kremlin said the talks would cover the "prospects for moving forward integration processes."
It added that the leaders would discuss the countries' strategic partnership as well as trade and energy ties.
- Not simple -
The talks could cover issues including restructuring Belarus's debt to Russia, political analyst Georgy Bovt wrote in a comment for Business FM radio station.
"The talks do not promise to be simple," he said.
Russia dwarfs Belarus, with a population of around 9.5 million, and provides it with cheap fuel, while Belarus is strategically important to Russia as a buffer zone, bordered to the West by EU and NATO members.
The two countries have already formed a close relationship as a "union state" with strong military and economic links and an open border until the coronavirus outbreak.
Lukashenko said ahead of the talks that he planned to "dot all the i's on issues that are very sensitive and delicate for the two states".
While opposition protests have focused on domestic issues, not foreign policy, protesters are waving the country's historic flag of independence and slogans at a mass demonstration on Sunday including calls not to let Lukashenko "sell the country."
The latest mass protest, called the March of Heroes, saw police detain more than 500 demonstrators in Minsk as well as more than two hundred in other cities, according to the Belarusian interior ministry.
The most brutal crackdown came in the days after the August 9 election when police detained nearly 7,000 people and three people died on the streets or in custody and detainees gave accounts of beatings and torture.
The United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Monday that the huge number of allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees "should be documented and investigated, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice."
Speaking to reporters last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun asked how Moscow could "back such a regime and such violence against peaceful citizens."