Belarus President inaugurated despite election protests

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus assumed his sixth term of office yesterday during an inauguration ceremony that officials did not announce in advance after weeks of mass protests against the authoritarian leader’s re-election, which opposition activists maintain was rigged.

State news agency Belta reported that the swearing-in ceremony took place in the capital of Minsk with several hundred top government officials, lawmakers, representatives of media organisations and other prominent figures present.

Lukashenko, 66, took an oath in Belarusian with his right hand on the country’s Constitution, and the head of the country’s central election commission handed him the official ID card of the President of Belarus.

“The day of assuming the post of the president is the day of our victory, convincing and fateful,” Lukashenko said at the ceremony. “We were not just electing the president of the country — we were defending our values, our peaceful life, sovereignty and independence.”

Lukashenko has run Belarus, an ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, with an iron fist for 26 years. Official results of the country’s August 9 presidential election had him winning 80 per cent of the vote. His strongest opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10 per cent.

Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile after being forced to leave Belarus, has not accepted the outcome of the election as valid. Neither have the thousands of her supporters who continued demanding Lukashenko’s resignation during more than six weeks of mass protests.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes oath of office during the inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Independence in Minsk. PHOTO: AP

The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have questioned the election and criticised the brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters during the first few days of demonstrations.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius called yesterday’s inauguration ceremony “such a farce”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert called the fact that the ceremony was prepared in secrecy “very telling”.

“Even after this ceremony today, Lukashenko cannot claim democratic legitimisation, which would be the condition to recognise him as the legitimate President of Belarus,” Seibert said yesterday.

Protests demanding Lukashenko to step down have rocked the country daily since last month’s election, with the largest rallies in Minsk attracting up to 200,000 people.

During the first three days of the protests, police used truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, and over 7,000 were detained.

The time and location of the inauguration ceremony were not publicised in advance. Law enforcement officers blocked off central areas of Minsk yesterday and public transportation services were suspended.

The Viasna human rights group said several protesters were detained near the Palace of Independence, where the ceremony took place.

Independent Minsk-based analyst Alexander Klaskousky said the secrecy surrounding the President’s inauguration illustrated the threat the ongoing unrest poses to Lukashenko’s grip on power.

“The secret inauguration illustrates the level of trust of the leader in the official results of the election and in the people. Those who officially got 80 per cent of the votes don’t act like that,” Klaskousky said.