Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko was abruptly sworn in for his sixth term as president on Wednesday, as mass protests about his disputed election victory last month continue to roil the country.
In an unannounced ceremony at the Presidential Palace in the country's capital Minsk, around 700 guests looked on as Lukashenko placed his right hand on a copy of the constitution and swore the oath of office, state news agency Belta reported.
“There is a lot of pride in Belarusians who have honorably passed the test of strength of, above all, their convictions,” Lukashenko, who has maintained his grasp on power in the former Soviet nation for the last 26 years, was quoted as saying by Belta.
“This is the day of our collective victory, convincing and fateful. We did not just elect the president of the country - we defended our values, our peaceful life, sovereignty and independence. And in this regard, we still have a lot to do."
The ceremony, which was not aired on state television, took place amid an accumulation of equipment and military personnel in central Minsk, according to a report Wednesday from the Belarusian news agency tut.by. It said the capital’s main roadways were also blocked, except for the presidential cortege, which drove to the Palace of Independence, where the ceremony was later held.
It came against the backdrop of mass protests by hundreds of thousands of people about the Aug 9. election result, which continue to take place on a regular basis in cities across the country, including Minsk, every weekend.
The demonstrations were met with a violent crackdown and mass arrests. Many of the detained alleged they had been mistreated in detention — a claim that Lukahenko's government has refrained from directly commenting on.
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Opposition leaders were quick to condemn his inauguration.
Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, who protesters claim defeated Lukashenko at the polls, said that he was attempting to "recognize himself as legitimate" in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
"The people did not give him a new mandate," added the former English teacher, who emerged from obscurity several months ago after her husband was prevented from running and thrown in jail. She has since fled to Lithuania for security reasons.
"This means that his orders to power structures are no longer legitimate and cannot be executed," her message continued. "I, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, am the only leader elected by the Belarusian people. And our task now is to build a new Belarus together."
Another opposition figure, Pavel Latushko, who also fled from the country, said that Lukashenko's inauguration resembled a secret “thieves’ meeting.”
“Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?” he posted on social media. “It is obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the OMON (riot police) and a handful of lying officials.”
He also called for a civil show of disobedience.
Lukashenko has dismissed alleged violence towards protesters at the hands of police while accusing protesters of being manipulated by foreign powers.
While trying to stoke fears of NATO build up on the country’s western border, he has looked for support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who granted Lukashenko a $1.5 billion loan last week.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that the swearing-in was “absolutely the sovereign decision of the Belarusian leadership."
Asked if Putin was invited, he said it looked as though the presence of foreign leaders had not been envisaged.