President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus assumed his sixth term of office on Wednesday 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, politicians, 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 percent of the vote. His strongest opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, got 10 percent.
Tikhanovskaya has not accepted the outcome of the election as valid, and neither have the thousands of her supporters who demanded Lukashenko’s resignation during more than six weeks of mass protests.
The United States and the European Union have also criticised a violent police crackdown on post-election protests in Belarus.
Protests demanding that Lukashenko resign 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, demonstrators faced a brutal crackdown, with police using truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died.
The time and location of the inauguration ceremony were not publicised in advance. Law enforcement officers blocked off central areas of Minsk on Wednesday morning and public transport services were suspended.
“The secret inauguration illustrates the level of trust of the leader to the official results of the election and to the people. Those who officially got 80 percent of the votes don’t act like that,” Alexander Klaskousky, an independent Minsk-based analyst, told The Associated Press.
“Lukashenko received rebelling people as a gift from who he needs to hide during the inauguration, fearing mass protests,” Klaskousky said.
Lukashenko has bristled at suggestions of dialogue with the opposition. Amid international outrage, Belarusian authorities switched to prosecuting top activists and mass detentions, avoiding large-scale violence.
Many members of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power that was formed by the opposition to push for a transition have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
Germany said it still does not recognise Lukashenko as president of Belarus even after his inauguration on Wednesday.
A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin wanted to agree on EU sanctions against Belarus as quickly as possible.