Speaking in front of an audience of largely expressionless officials on Wednesday morning, the moustachioed, 26-year ruler described his moment as a day of “decisive and momentous victory”.
“We didn’t just elect the country’s president,” he said. “We defended our values, our peaceful life, our sovereignty and our independence.”
By the end of the day, it was not clear who he had convinced. Various European powers, including Germany, reiterated their refusal to recognise his presidency. Even the Kremlin said the ceremony had taken them by surprise.
In Minsk, as in towns and cities across the country, thousands of demonstrators turned out to protest the inauguration. Some wore crowns, ridiculing their ruler’s auto-coronation. Others formed human “solidarity chains.” The regime responded with blunt force, including using water cannon for the first time in six weeks. Serious injuries were reported.
It has been 45 days since Mr Lukashenko declared an 80 per cent landslide in the obviously rigged vote of 9 August. Those incredible claims – and the witheringly violent response of the state – have been the drivers of weeks of protest. At least five people have died in the clashes, with many thousands also arrested and beaten.
With a two-month legal deadline on the inauguration, Mr Lukashenko had another two weeks to officially register his “victory”. But concerns that a public ceremony would lead to a significant uptick in protest seem to have fuelled a decision to conduct the inauguration now, and in secret
From early morning on Wednesday, Minsk was awash with rumours about the impending inauguration. Observers noted Mr Lukashenko had surrounded his palace with soldiers and military vehicles. By around 10am local time, dignitaries in suits were spotted entering the grounds.
In the event, it was left to Belarus’s official state news agency to confirm the news approximately an hour later.
“Placing his hand on the constitution, Alexander Lukashenko pronounced his oath in Belarusian and signed the act of taking the oath,” the agency reported. “Then elections chief Lidiya Yermoshina presented him with presidential credentials.”
Commenting on the surprise move, Mr Lukashenko’s press secretary said that the process was “anything but secret” – reasoning that 700 guests had been invited.
Mr Lukashenko’s bold inauguration move is unlikely to change the fundamentals. The former collective farm manager still retains the loyalty of his security state, which is bound in bonds of blood. But he still faces the biggest challenge of his political life. He has lost most parts of the Belarusian electorate, including the working class which he once considered his own.
Essentially, Mr Lukashenko’s only source of power is Moscow, where relations remain far from perfect. Vladimir Putin has promised certain security guarantees, but wants much in return.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who almost certainly won the 9 August election comfortably, dismissed Mr Lukashenko’s inauguration as a “farce”. In a video released on social media, she urged officials to ignore “illegitimate” orders.
“I am the only leader who has been elected by the Belarusian people,” she said.
“The only thing that actually happened today is that Lukashenko retired.”
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