In an apparent bid to dodge protests, Belarus on September 23 covertly inaugurated its long-term, authoritarian leader, 66-year-old Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for his sixth term in office.
For a presidential candidate who allegedly won Belarus’ August 9 presidential election with over 80 percent of the vote, it might seem an unusual move. But after over a month of nationwide demonstrations and threats of international sanctions over election fraud, Lukashenka, in power since 1994, maintains that he is a president under siege.
In a September 23 speech to guests at Minsk’s Independence Palace, he described the day of his inauguration as “the day of our victory, convincing and fateful,” over supposed outside attempts to stage the overthrow of his rule with a so-called “color revolution.”
“We did not just elect the president of the country - we defended our values, our peaceful life, sovereignty, and independence,” Lukashenka claimed, according to the official news service BelTA.
By law, the inauguration of Belarus’ president-elect must occur within two months of the August 9 election. No official date, however, had been announced.
Amidst widespread voting violations and intimidation of independent observers, the European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom have rejected Lukashenka as Belarus’ duly elected president. The United States, which was expected to dispatch its first ambassador to Minsk in 12 years, has called for an international investigation of election “irregularities.”
International sanctions are under consideration for vote fraud and rampant police violence against protesters.
Lukashenka made no mention of such concerns during his inauguration.
Taking his oath in Belarusian, with his right hand on the constitution, he swore to “serve the people of the Republic of Belarus, respect and protect human and civil rights and freedoms, observe and protect the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, sacredly and conscientiously fulfill the high duties entrusted to me. "
Following the ceremony, police near Independence Palace detained one man and two solo picketers holding posters denouncing Lukashenka, RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service reported. University students also are staging impromptu protests in Minsk.
In comments posted by the Telegram channel Pul Pervoi (Pool of the First Woman), former presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who, according to official results, finished second to Lukashenka with 10.1 percent of the vote, denounced the inauguration as "a farce."
"In fact, Lukashenka has simply retired today," and his orders "are no longer legitimate and cannot be executed," she wrote. "I, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, am the only leader elected by the Belarusian people. And our task now is to build a new Belarus together."
Terming the inauguration “unprecedented,” an angry Paval Latushka, a leader of the Coordination Council of Belarusians who support Tsikhanouskaya, charged on Facebook that Lukashenka had conducted “a special operation for his own self-inauguration.”
“From this moment, he is no longer the president of the Republic of Belarus,” but “just the head of the OMON (riot police)” and of “a bunch of bureaucrats,” Latushka, a former Belarusian ambassador and minister of culture, charged.
“Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps? To be honest, this is more reminiscent of a thieves’ meeting for the coronation of another thief-in-law,” he wrote, referring to organized crime bosses.
The government’s BelTA news service reported that “a few hundred people,” including parliamentary deputies, senior officials, state media bosses, athletes, scientists, and cultural figures, were invited to the ceremony.
But parliamentary deputies, ministers, and ambassadors contacted on September 23 by the independent news service TUT.by stated that they had not received any invitation to an inauguration.
That list included Dmitry Mezentsev, the ambassador of Russia, Lukashenka’s closest ally in the international dispute over his election.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told TASS that he had no information about the inauguration, but added that presidents do not attend such ceremonies. He declined to comment further, though termed the inauguration "the absolutely sovereign decision of the Belarusian leadership."
Rumors about an inauguration or inauguration rehearsal began circulating on Belarusian Telegram channels in the morning, when military equipment and soldiers began gathering in front of Minsk's Independence Palace.
These channels later posted a video showing the presidential cortege driving with a motorcycle escort along a closed-off Independence Avenue en route to the Palace.
The European Union, the most outspoken international proponent for holding fresh presidential elections in Belarus, has not yet commented on the surprise inauguration. Senior officials from EU members Germany, Lithuania, and Slovakia, however, all have denounced the ceremony.
"The former president of Belarus does not become less former," tweeted Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, a firm advocate for Tsikhanouskaya's rights. "Quite the contrary. His illegitimacy is a fact with all the consequences that this entails."
Despite a failed first attempt to introduce sanctions against Belarus for its election conduct, the EU has declared Lukashenka a persona non grata. Belarus’ Baltic neighbors -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- have introduced their own travel bans.
For Lukashenka, however, such measures apparently carry little significance.
“[W]e ourselves will sort out our problems without any external participation,” he told inauguration guests on September 23.