The under-fire Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for his sixth term in power amid virtual secrecy Wednesday, in a surprise ceremony that experts say was unannounced to avoid mass protests.
While a presidential inauguration would usually be a highly-publicised affair of state, the swearing-in of Lukashenko – the autocratic ruler known as “Europe’s last dictator” – took place in Minsk on Wednesday without any prior notice.
Lukashenko has faced six weeks of mass demonstrations calling for him to stand down following an election on the 9th of August which the opposition says was rigged. He has responded with a brutal crackdown on protesters, with thousands reportedly beaten and unfairly arrested, hundreds allegedly tortured, and opposition leaders threatened into exile or forcibly deported.
Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE News that the secretive nature of the ceremony reflected Lukashenko’s tenuous claim to power.
“It’s pretty telling in terms of his mandate and legitimacy – he has neither at this point.”
Rumors had circulated through the Belarusian capital Minsk that the swearing-in was underway Wednesday as Lukashenko’s motorcade rolled through the central city, where many streets were closed off and soldiers and military vehicles surrounded his palace.
Belta, Belarus’s official state news agency, then confirmed the inauguration had taken place in the Palace of Independence, with several hundred senior officials present, formally beginning a new five-year term for the leader who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.
News of the furtive ceremony was immediately dismissed by the opposition and from abroad as an illegitimate bid to cling to power.
Pavel Latushko, a former government minister and member of the so-called Coordination Council calling for a peaceful transfer of power, likened the rushed ceremony to a “thieves’ meeting,” posting on social media that Lukashenko was “exclusively the president of the [riot police] and a handful of lying officials.”
“Where are the jubilant citizens?” he wrote, calling “an indefinite action of civil disobedience.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country has taken in the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and recognises her as Belarus’s elected president, tweeted: “Such a farce. Forged elections. Forged inauguration.”
Meanwhile German government spokesman Steffen Seibert reiterated Wednesday that his government did not recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus, and called for the EU to agree on sanctions against his regime.
“The minimum requirements for democratic elections were by no means met. They were neither fair nor free,” said Seibert. “Even after today's ceremony, Lukashenko cannot evoke democratic legitimacy which would have been the condition for him to be recognised as a legitimate president.”
Bindman told VICE News that Lukashenko had clearly been hoping to avoid mass demonstrations against the inauguration by “rushing through” the inauguration, which had not been expected until the weekend. But she expected the now customary Sunday mass protests to take to the streets again this weekend.
“It’s pretty desperate behaviour, and won’t do anything to assuage people’s anger,” she said. “But, as before, we can see he is determined to cling on to power for as long as he can.”