President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus assumed his sixth term of office Wednesday during an inauguration ceremony that officials did not announce in advance after weeks of mass protests against the authoritarian leader’s reelection, 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, lawmakers, representatives of media organizations, and other prominent figures present.
Mr. Lukashenko 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 Aug. 9 presidential election had him winning 80% of the vote. His strongest opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got 10%.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile after being forced to leave Belarus, has not accepted the outcome of the election as valid. Neither have the thousands of her supporters who continued demanding Mr. Lukashenko’s resignation during more than six weeks of mass protests.
On Wednesday, protesters carrying red-and-white opposition flags began gathering in small groups in the capital, including outside at least three universities, local media footage showed. Calls circulated on social media for mass protests for the evening, according to Reuters.
The Belarusian opposition movement called for an immediate civil disobedience campaign after the inauguration, according to Reuters. Pavel Latushko, a member of the opposition’s coordination council, said on social media that he and his allies would never accept what he called Mr. Lukashenko’s falsified election victory and demanded a new presidential election be held.
“We call on everyone to immediately start a civil disobedience campaign,” said Mr. Latushko.
The United States and the European Union have questioned the election and criticized the brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters during the first few days of demonstrations.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius called Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony “such a farce.”
“Forged elections. Forged inauguration. The former president of Belarus does not become less former. Quite the contrary. His illegitimacy is a fact with all the consequences that this entails,” Mr. Linkevicius said on Twitter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, called the fact that the ceremony was prepared in secrecy “very telling.”
“Even after this ceremony today, Mr. Lukashenko cannot claim democratic legitimization, which would be the condition to recognize him as the legitimate president of Belarus,” Mr. Seibert said Wednesday.
Protests demanding Mr. Lukashenko to step down 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, police used truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Several protesters died, and more than 7,000 were detained.
Mr. Lukashenko has so far withstood the protests with backing from his ally, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Despite its relatively small population size, Belarus matters to Russia as a buffer state against NATO and a conduit for Russian exports of oil and gas.
At a summit last week, Mr. Putin granted Mr. Lukashenko a $1.5 billion loan, and the two countries are holding “Slavic Brotherhood” defense exercises in Belarus. As part of those drills, Russian paratroopers parachuted into Belarus on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
The time and location of the inauguration ceremony were not publicized in advance. Law enforcement officers blocked off central areas of Minsk on Wednesday morning and public transportation services were suspended.
The Viasna human rights group said several protesters were detained near the Palace of Independence, where the ceremony took place, holding banners saying “The king has no clothes” and “The victory [will belong to] the people.”
Alexander Klaskousky, an independent Minsk-based analyst, said the secrecy surrounding the president’s inauguration illustrated the threat the ongoing unrest poses to Mr. Lukashenko’s grip on power.
“The secret inauguration illustrates the level of trust of the leader in the official results of the election and in the people. Those who officially got 80% of the votes don’t act like that,” Mr. Klaskousky said.
“Lukashenko received rebelling people as a gift from who he needs to hide during the inauguration, fearing mass protests,” he said.
Mr. 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 that was formed by the opposition to push for a transition of power have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
A prominent Coordination Council member, Pavel Latushko, compared the inauguration to a “gathering of thieves” and refused to recognize Mr. Lukashenko as the president of Belarus.
“For us, the citizens of Belarus, for the international community, he is a nobody. An unfortunate error of history and a disgrace of the civilized world,” Mr. Latushko said on the messaging app Telegram. “We will never agree with the falsification [of the election] and are demanding a new vote. We urge everyone to engage in indefinite civil disobedience!”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Reuters writer Andrei Makhovsky and AP writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow; Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania; and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.