Alexander Lukashenko has been sworn in for a sixth term as president of Belarus in a secretive and tightly guarded ceremony, which opposition leaders and European Union states decried as a farce that only highlighted his lack of legitimacy.
Without any prior public announcement, police and soldiers sealed the centre of the capital, Minsk, on Wednesday morning and Mr Lukashenko’s convoy of cars sped through empty streets to the city’s Palace of Independence, where he took the oath of office before loyal officials and members of the security services.
His claim to have won last month’s election with an implausible 80 per cent of votes sparked the biggest crisis of his 26-year rule, as huge crowds marched to demand that he step down and to denounce a brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters, in which at least three people have died, hundreds have been hurt and more than 10,000 detained.
The EU says it will not recognise the election results or Mr Lukashenko’s presidency. He has accused the West of trying to oust him and turned for help to Russia, which has backed his regime and offered financial and security assistance.
When state media announced that the inauguration had taken place, small groups of protesters quickly appeared on the streets of Minsk, and opposition leaders called for bigger demonstrations on Wednesday evening and for workers to intensify strike action.
“I cannot – I have no right – to abandon Belarusians who have tied not only their political preferences but their own fate and the future of their children to government policy,” Mr Lukashenko(66)said during the inauguration.
“We didn’t just elect the country’s president – we defended our values, our peaceful life, our sovereignty and independence. And in this regard we still have much to do,” the former Soviet state farm boss added.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to be the rightful winner of the election and the legitimate president of Belarus, called the ceremony a “farce” that only served to bring the veteran autocrat’s time as president to an end.
“In fact, today Lukashenko simply went into retirement,” she said from neighbouring Lithuania, to which he fled after the election amid alleged threats from the regime,” she said.
“It means that his orders to the security services are no longer legitimate and need not be obeyed. I ... am the only leader elected by the Belarusian people. And our task now is to build a new Belarus together.”
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said “the fact that this ceremony was prepared secretly and carried out away from the public eye is very telling”.
“Even after today’s ceremony, Mr Lukashenko cannot evoke democratic legitimacy which would have been the condition for him to be recognised as a legitimate president,” he said.
Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod wrote on Twitter: “Lukashenko confirms his own lack of legitimacy by arranging secret inauguration ... Fraudulent elections should not lead Lukashenko to the presidential palace, but to the EU sanctions list.”