Belarus Strongman Sidesteps Protests With Secret Swearing In

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had himself sworn in for his sixth term in a secretive ceremony Wednesday that caught his opponents by surprise and earned him more censure from Europe.

As police cut off most of the city center, the presidential motorcade headed down deserted avenues toward the imposing Palace of Independence where Lukashenko took the presidential oath extending his 26-year rule.

The stealthy swearing-in was the latest move by the longtime leader to shore up his power even as hundreds of thousands of opponents continue to turn out across the country for weekly demonstrations against his regime. Lukashenko has blamed the unrest on foreign powers, calling protesters rats and puppets and refusing to engage with the opposition.

“We have become one of the few -- if not the only -- where a color revolution has failed,” Lukashenko told a gathering of several hundred of his officials Wednesday in the capital Minsk, referring to popular uprisings that have unseated presidents in several former Soviet republics including Georgia and Ukraine.

Daily demonstrations began after Lukashenko’s claim of a landslide victory in elections Aug. 9 that opponents and Western governments say were rigged. Violent police crackdowns on protesters in the ensuing weeks have drawn broad international criticism. Authorities have forced some opposition leaders to flee the country and jailed those who stayed.

But Lukashenko has been able to hold on thanks in large part to staunch backing from Russia, his closest ally, which has publicly endorsed his victory, promised security support and agreed to provide $1.5 billion in loans.

Secret Ceremony

“The fact that this ceremony was prepared secretly and excluding the public is already very significant,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a news conference in Berlin. “Even after today’s ceremony, Mr. Lukashenko cannot invoke democratic legitimation, which would be the precondition to recognize him as legitimate president.”

Foreign ministers from European Union members such as Lithuania and the Czech Republic similarly refused to recognize Lukashenko’s legitimacy in statements on Twitter.

As the news of the inauguration spread, protesters began creating human chains along the streets of the capital, while police moved in to make detentions. Popular opposition Telegram channels called for people to take to the streets Wednesday evening while preparing for a big rally on Sunday for the seventh straight week.

The clandestine inauguration means Lukashenko’s previous term expired without him getting a mandate from his people, thus making his orders to the security services illegitimate, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in a video address published on her official Telegram channel. She said she remained the only leader elected by the Belarusian people.

“In reality, Lukashenko has simply retired today,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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