By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in as president in a surprise, secretive ceremony held Wednesday amid tight security and with no announcement beforehand.
The ceremony was held without a live broadcast on state media and most Belarusians only learned of it after Lukashenko’s press service announced he had already been sworn in. Troops and riot police sealed off the main avenues of the capital in Minsk and the Independence Palace, where the ceremony took place.
A photo released by Lukashenko’s press service showed him addressing a small audience in a marble hall in Minsk’s Independence Palace. It was captioned with the words: “Lukashenko has taken up the position of President of Belarus.”
Belarusian state media also confirmed Lukashenko’s inauguration.
Videos on social media showed Lukashenko’s small presidential cortege speeding through empty streets flanked by motorcycle outriders.
At the ceremony, Lukashenko said his inauguration was “a day of convincing and fateful victory.”
“We not only elected a president of the country- we protected our values, our peaceful life, sovereignty and independence,” he said.
A presidential election in August gave Lukashenko over 80% of the vote, amid allegations of massive ballot fraud, which triggered weeks of historic protests demanding he step down and new elections be held. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have protested for seven weeks.
Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has declared herself “national leader” and pledged to hold new elections, dismissed his inauguration as illegitimate.
“Today, secretly from the people, Lukashenko tried to hold his own inauguration. We all understand what’s going on. This so-called inauguration is, of course, a farce. In fact, today Lukashenko has simply retired,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement.
“This means that his orders to the power structures are no longer legitimate, which means they are not subject to execution. I, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, am the only leader elected by the Belarusian people. And our task now is to build a new Belarus together,” she said, adding that European countries are ready to support the protest movement.
The United States and European countries have refused to recognize Lukashenko’s reelection and have said they are preparing sanctions against top officials in his regime.
Russia, which has thrown support behind Lukashenko, has recognized him as president, as has China and a number of authoritarian former Soviet countries.
Inaugurations, as in other countries, are normally major events, held with pomp and announced weeks in advance.
Lukashenko’s secretive inauguration could likely anger the protesters who have been pushing for weeks to force Lukashenko to step down and hold new elections and who consider him illegitimate.
“Today, we became witnesses of an unprecedented situation. The outgoing president, who claims that he took more than 80% of the vote at the election, conducted a special operation for his own inauguration. Under the security of riot police, in a setting of secrecy and concealment in a narrow circle of hurriedly summoned bureaucrats. Where are the celebrating citizens? Where’s the diplomatic corps?” Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and leading member of the opposition’s coordination council, who is now in exile, told Tut.by media.
“It’s obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the riot police and a handful of lying officials,” Latushko said.
“From today he is no longer Belarus’ present. For us, the citizens of Belarus, for the international community, he is now no one. A regrettable mistake in history and a disgrace to the civilized world,” he addded.
Lithuania and Slovakia’s foreign ministers on Wednesday said they didn’t recognize Lukashenko’s inauguration.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, called the inauguration “a farce.”
“Forged elections. Forged inauguration,” he wrote on Twitter.
There were calls on opposition social media for people to protest on Wednesday evening. Last Sunday, tens of thousands again peacefully filled Minsk and in other cities across Belarus.
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