Thousands of Belarusians staged mass demonstrations Wednesday night to denounce the secret inauguration of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Security forces in the capital, Minsk, turned water cannons on protesters and dragged scores of them away after news broke on state Belta news agency that the 66-year-old Lukashenko was sworn in for his sixth term, defying mass demonstrations demanding an end to his 26-year rule in the wake of controversial elections last month.
Lukashenko insists he won the August 9 election in a landslide — garnering 80% of all ballots — despite widespread claims at home and abroad the vote was heavily rigged to keep him in power.
“We didn’t simply choose a president. We defended our values, our peaceful life, our sovereignty, and our independence,” said Lukashenko in addressing a grim audience of several hundred officials bussed in for the occasion.
“I cannot, I have no right to abandon Belarusians.”
Yet for all Lukashenko’s insistence on a mandate, there were few signs of celebration.
Authorities shut down Minsk for Lukashenko’s motorcade in advance of the event, which was not broadcast on state television.
Neither were foreign dignitaries — including representatives from Russia, Lukashenko’s closest ally — on hand.
In an interview with VOA’s Igor Tsikhanenka, U.S. Senator Jack Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said the clandestine ceremony is another indication that Lukashenko has lost the support of the Belarusian people.
“The Belarusian people have really demonstrated great courage and great commitment,” Reed said. “They've been undaunted by terror, by oppression, assaulted by the police forces. And they keep coming back. And they really recognize that Lukashenko must go and they're doing all they can peacefully to get him to go.”
Within hours, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — Lukashenko’s main rival in the election — issued her own statement rejecting the event as a “farce.”
“Today, hidden from the people, Lukashenko tried to carry out his own inauguration,” said Tikhanovskaya, calling him neither the “legal nor legitimate head of Belarus.”
“I -- Svetlana Tikhanovskaya -- am the sole leader who was elected by the Belarusian people. And our goal is now to build a new Belarus together.”
Tikhanovskaya has said she would call for free and fair elections once Lukashenko had been removed from power.
Several European nations — including Germany, Denmark, and the Baltic nations — announced they would no longer recognize Lukashenko’s government.
“The fact that this ceremony took place secretly and without the participation of society — is very telling,” said Steffen Seibert, the German government's official spokesperson in a statement first reported by the Interfax news agency.
“After that, Lukashenko can no longer count on any democratic legitimacy,“ added Seibert.
The sentiment was echoed by the European Union Thursday, which dismissed the event as a “so-called inauguration” in a written statement from Brussels.
“This ‘inauguration’ directly contradicts the will of large parts of the Belarusian population, as expressed in numerous, unprecedented and peaceful protests since the elections, and serves to only further deepen the political crisis in Belarus.”
The EU has called for sanctions against those responsible for vote manipulating and subsequent violence against peaceful protesters.
Russia — which has been Lukashenko’s main backer amid the political turmoil — made no formal statements but has previously said it recognizes Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of the country for now.
For six consecutive weeks, hundreds of thousands have rallied to demand Lukashenko’s resignation over what they argue was a deeply flawed election.
Key candidates were arrested ahead of the vote — including Tikhanovskaya’s husband — which prompted her surrogate candidacy.
Public anger has also stewed over a crackdown in the wake of the vote that has seen more than 7,500 arrests and police violence against protesters.
Hundreds have emerged from police custody with searing bruises and tales of torture at the hands of Lukashenko’s security agents.
Lukashenko’s response has been to target any remaining leaders of the opposition in recent weeks. He has also labeled the democratic uprising a western-backed plot aimed at expanding NATO’s presence eastward in a bid to secure Russian backing.
In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi earlier this month, Putin offered a degree of support to his beleaguered Belarusian counterpart — including $1.5 billion in loans and the presence of Russian paratroopers.