Riot police clashed with protesters in Minsk on Wednesday evening, using water cannon and stun grenades, hours after the inauguration of Alexander Lukashenko for another term as president.
Several thousand protesters, many carrying the red-and white opposition flag, took to the streets of the capital Minsk and other cities following a surprise announcement that Lukashenko had been sworn in for a sixth term in office following disputed elections in August.
The Viasna rights group said that more than 150 people had been arrested in the capital, as well as the south-western city of Brest and other cities.
Lukashenko held the ceremony without announcements or publicity earlier in the day, apparently to avoid it becoming a magnet for protesters. Opposition leaders and European politicians immediately denounced his inauguration as illegitimate.
“The day in which the president takes office, the day of the inauguration, is the day of our joint victory – a convincing and momentous victory,” Lukashenko told those gathered, in video footage published by his press service. Army generals, MPs and others were invited to the ceremony.
“We haven’t just elected a president, we’ve defended our values, our peaceful life, our sovereignty and our independence, and we have a lot more to do in this regard,” he said, as he swore his oath for a sixth term in office.
Lukashenko’s claim to have won elections on 9 August with 80% of the vote sparked massive and ongoing protests in the country, which continued on Wednesday night.
The rights organisation Viasna reported that police detained 200 people in Minsk and other cities, and there was footage of riot police using water cannon and smashing cars with their batons as they spread out across various parts of Minsk.
A broad coalition has mobilised in opposition to Lukashenko, with daily protests and huge gatherings on Sundays, but he still appears to retain the support of the police and army, as well as backing from the Kremlin.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who officially received just 10% of the vote and was forced to flee the country after being threatened, released a video appeal saying the inauguration meant Lukashenko’s term was now officially over.
“This so-called inauguration is a farce, of course. What actually happened today is that Lukashenko is now retired,” she said in a video address. “I, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, am the only leader who was elected by the Belarusian people and our task now is to build a new Belarus together.”
Tikhanovskaya has promised to be an interim leader while new, free elections are arranged.
Although about 700 people attended the inauguration, news it would happen was kept quiet until the final moment. Earlier on Wednesday morning, rumours were circulating in Minsk that the inauguration could take place over the weekend, and Lukashenko’s press secretary told a Russian news agency that she would give information about when it would take place “closer to the date”. In fact, the ceremony was just a couple of hours away.
Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister who is one of seven leaders of a coordination council meant to oversee a transition of power, said the secrecy of the inauguration proved Lukashenko had no legitimacy.
“Where are the happy citizens? Where are the diplomats? To be honest, it looks more like a mafia gathering to crown a new godfather,” he said. Latushko has also fled Belarus, along with others involved in the council. Many other opposition figures have been arrested and some are facing lengthy prison sentences.
Although Lukashenko has promised constitutional reform, a process backed by Russia, the opposition believes this is mere window dressing, and Lukashenko has made it absolutely clear he does not plan to step down.
The EU has refused to recognise the elections as legitimate, and neighbouring Lithuania said on Wednesday it no longer considered Lukashenko the president.
“Such a farce. Forged elections. Forged inauguration. The former president of Belarus does not become less former. Quite the contrary. His illegitimacy is a fact with all the consequences that this entails,” tweeted Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius. The Slovak foreign minister, Ivan Korčok, wrote that Lukashenko “has no legitimacy to lead his country”. Other EU foreign ministries released similar statements.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has congratulated Lukashenko on winning the election and received him at his residence in Sochi. Putin is known to dislike the Belarusian leader but appears to have decided to back him for now.