In Secret Ceremony, Embattled Belarus Strongman Is Sworn In as President


MOSCOW — Aleksandr G. Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term as president of Belarus in a secret ceremony on Wednesday — and used the occasion to declare victory over protesters who have gathered in large numbers for more than a month to contest a re-election that they call fraudulent.

“This is the day of our victory, a convincing and fateful one,” Mr. Lukashenko told about 700 guests invited to his inauguration, according to a transcript published on the presidential website. “We didn’t just elect the country’s president. We defended our values, our peaceful life, our sovereignty and independence.”

An opposition leader, Pavel Latushko, denounced the president’s move and called on the public “to immediately start a civil disobedience campaign.” And Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election, denounced the ceremony as a “farсe” and said in a statement that she was “the only leader that was elected by the Belarusian people.”

The inauguration, which would typically be announced in advance as a major state occasion and by law must be broadcast live on television, was conducted under wraps at the Independence Palace, Mr. Lukashenko’s grand residence in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

The decision to keep the ceremony out of public view was clearly made to avoid setting off mass demonstrations of the sort that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets of Minsk for seven Sundays in a row since the election on Aug. 9.

Footage of the ceremony, published online, showed Mr. Lukashenko’s motorcade driving through the city, which had been cleared of pedestrians and cars.

Despite the inauguration, Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, still faces the deepest crisis of his political career. No longer recognized as a legitimate leader of Belarus by Western nations and many Belarusians, his fate is now largely in the hands of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. That country and China were the only major powers to recognize the August election.

During a recent visit to Russia, Mr. Lukashenko, 66, secured a $1.5 billion loan from Mr. Putin, who had earlier promised to send a Russian security force if things got out of control.

In addition to some international pressure, Mr. Lukashenko continues to be cornered at home by protesters who have turned up in such numbers that riot police officers have been unable to disperse them. Over all, more than 10,000 people have been arrested during the protests. Hundreds more have been tortured, particularly in the early days of the demonstrations, according to the United Nations.

Tens of thousands of people marched through Minsk’s main thoroughfares last Sunday, waving the traditional white and red flag that became an opposition symbol after Mr. Lukashenko replaced it with a Soviet-looking one soon after coming to power.

“From what I see every Sunday, people are ready to persist,” said Aleksei Chumakin, 24, an electrical engineer who attended the demonstration. “For the first time, I can say that I am proud to live in Belarus.”

Mr. Lukashenko initially brushed off the protests, trying to quash them with torture, tear gas and rubber bullets, and calling them a foreign-born plot to weaken his grip over Belarus and carve up slices of its territory.

Mr. Latushko — Mr. Lukashenko’s former ambassador to Washington and Paris who joined the opposition in the first stages of the protests — called the inauguration on Wednesday “a special operation.”

“Since today he is no longer the president of Belarus, he is just the head of the riot police who without any insignia operate on the streets,” Mr. Latushko said in a statement. “For us, the citizens of Belarus, and for the world community, he is a nobody.”



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