Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election in a disputed poll last month led to weeks of mass protests, has been inaugurated for a sixth term in an unannounced ceremony.
State media said several hundred people attended the ceremony at the Palace of Independence in central Minsk.
Streets were sealed off as Mr Lukashenko’s motorcade raced through the city, witnesses said.
One opposition politician likened the event to a secret “thieves’ meeting”.
Presidential inaugurations are normally publicised well in advance as major state occasions.
Instead, state news agency Belta reported on Wednesday: “Alexander Lukashenko has taken office as President of Belarus. The inauguration ceremony is taking place in these minutes in the Palace of Independence.”
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic for 26 years, said Belarus needed security and consensus “on the brink of a global crisis”, an apparent reference to the coronavirus pandemic, Belta reported.
“I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians,” he added.
Lukashenko busses in the party faithful
Analysis by Jonah Fisher, BBC News
This was not the confident inauguration of a man who really believes he has 80% of the country behind him. Everything about it was aimed at avoiding a public reaction.
There was no prior warning that the ceremony would take place, and even when proceedings were under way there were no live broadcasts on state television or radio. An audience of loyal officials was bussed in and there appear to have been no foreign dignitaries. Not even the Russian ambassador was invited.Belarus’s opposition immediately called for fresh demonstrations. But there are valid questions about where Belarus’s protest movement is going.
Though the anti-Lukashenko demonstrations still muster large crowds, particularly at the weekend, they have not led to major fissures in the president’s support base. The security forces and army are still loyal and events (like the weekend rallies) that were once incredible and unprecedented are now regular and almost routine.
It is clear that Russia – Belarus’ most important ally – sees President Lukashenko as the “least worse” option at the moment. While that remains the case Belarus’s leader seems determined to ignore the protests and carry on.
How has the opposition reacted?
His main political rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania amid mass arrests, said Mr Lukashenko “after today is neither a legal nor a legitimate head of Belarus”.
Fellow opposition politician Pavel Latushko posted on social media: “Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?”
“It is obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the Omon (riot police) and a handful of lying officials.
“He called for “an indefinite action of civil disobedience”.
The opposition Nexta Live channel on the Telegram messaging app called for street protests from 18:00 local time (15:00 GMT) and urged drivers to block roads and create traffic jams.”Starting from this very day, he [Lukashenko] officially becomes a bandit and fraudster who is not recognised anywhere in the civilised world,” the channel said.Meanwhile, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius described the inauguration as a “farce” and “illegitimate” on Twitter.
What is the background?
Mr Lukashenko, 66, claimed a sixth term as president in the widely disputed election of 9 August. He insisted that he had won fairly with 80% of the vote and depicted the protests against him as a Western-backed plot. Earlier this month, he secured a $1.5bn (£1.2bn) loan from Russia.
Ms Tikhanovskaya claims to have won 60-70% in places where votes were properly counted.
Many opposition figures are now in self-imposed exile in neighbouring countries amid a wave of arrests.
Despite the crackdown, anti-government protests show no signs of diminishing. On Sunday, a crowd of about 100,000 people staged another rally in the capital, demanding that Mr Lukashenko step down.
Photo: Reuters – President Lukashenko’s motorcade swept through Minsk