Belarus's Lukashenko inaugurated in secret as EU states deny recogition

·3-min read

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko held his presidential inauguration in secret on Wednesday after claiming victory in disputed polls that his opposition rivals have described as massively rigged.

A number of European countries including Germany responded by refusing to recognise him as the legitimate president of the ex-Soviet state, as the EU has proposed sanctions over vote violations and police violence.

His opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya reiterated her claim to be the true winner of the elections in a statement, saying that the "so-called inauguration is of course a farce."

Lukashenko has faced massive demonstrations against his rule since claiming victory with more than 80 percent of the vote in a presidential election on August 9, with tens of thousands marching at the latest protest in the capital Minsk on Sunday.

The date of his inauguration had not been announced, but on Wednesday, the Belta state news agency broke the news that he had "taken office as President of Belarus."

Belta said the ceremony was taking place in the Palace of Independence, which houses the president's offices, while it was not shown live on state television.

"If the inauguration had been announced in advance, 200,000 demonstrators would have gathered outside his palace," said Ales Belyatsky, head of the Viasna rights group.

He predicted Lukashenko's assuming office while seen by many as an "illegitimate president" would trigger "even larger mass protests."

- 'Ruled by usurper' -

Lukashenko's pushing ahead with inauguration despite elections described by the EU as not free or fair prompted many countries to refuse to acknowledge his presidency.

Germany does not recognise Lukashenko as president of Belarus, declared government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, saying his re-election lacked "democratic legitimacy."

Officials including the Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok and Danish counterpart Jeppe Kofod made similar statements, as did the Baltic states and the Czech Republic.

On the streets of Minsk, people also rejected Lukashenko's right to rule.

"From today we are officially ruled by a usurper," said 38-year-old businessman Igor Kukharsky.

"No one took this inauguration seriously," said Valentina Svyatskaya, a 64-year-old pensioner, while 20-year-old student Yulia Kulakova said: "He's a nobody now."

The furtive way the inauguration was held prompted mockery from political foes. 

"Such a farce. Forged elections. Forged inauguration," tweeted Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius.

"Where are the rejoicing citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?" questioned opposition activist and former minister Pavel Latushko on social media. 

While unannounced, the ceremony featured the usual pomp and several hundred guests, according to the presidential website.

- 'Devilish' tactics -

Belta published photographs of the 66-year-old leader, in power since 1994, swearing the oath of allegiance at a podium in a blue suit with his hand on a copy of the Constitution.

In his address, Lukashenko prided himself on overcoming the political crisis, saying he and his allies had "prevented a catastrophe."

Belarus has faced an "unprecedented challenge" from "devilishly sophisticated" tactics directed from abroad, he said.

But "the colour revolution didn't work out," he said, hailing this as "the choice of the Belarusians who don't want to lose their country."

Riot police have harshly detained thousands of protesters who have reported torture and abuse in custody, prompting international condemnation and proposed EU sanctions.

- Never 'abandon' nation -

The authorities have rolled out military vehicles including armed personnel carriers and used water cannon and tear gas during protests.

Lukashenko's main opposition rival, Tikhanovskaya, has taken shelter in EU member Lithuania, while the strongman has jailed or driven out other key opposition figures.

In his inaugural address, Lukashenko said: "I can't, I don't have the right to abandon Belarusians."

He blamed the protests on "disorientation of society" and thanked law enforcement for showing "firmness."

Lukashenko has sought support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has promised law enforcement backup if needed, as well as a $1.5 billion loan.

European Union foreign ministers on Monday failed to agree sanctions over the political crisis, despite a plea for support from Tikhanovskaya.

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