Fearing mass protests, Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko held an inauguration for himself in secret to complete the legal process of winning the disputed August 9 presidential election.
According to the Belarusian constitution Lukashenko needed to be inaugurated by October 9, within two months of the presidential election, where the authorities claim to he won over 80% of the vote.
The residents of Minsk knew that something was up when the entire perimeter surrounding the presidential palace in Minsk was closed to traffic. Some companies told their employees not to come in, as the roads were closed. Police trucks and army vehicles also surrounded the venue ahead of the ceremony.
The ceremony was not announced in advance and it was not covered by state television.
“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,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who has been amongst the most outspoken critics of Lukashenko, said in a tweet.
The Belarusian government denied that the ceremony had been held in secret and said that more than 700 people attended. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin knew nothing about the inauguration and the Russian ambassador to Belarus had not been invited to the ceremony, a breach of diplomatic protocol.
BelTA reported that among the guests were “senior officials, deputies of the House of Representatives and members of the Council of the Republic, heads of state bodies and organisations, local executive and administrative bodies, republican mass media, scientists, culture and sports figures.”
The ceremony was so low-key most of the state-controlled press were not there either. The leading state broadcaster didn't show any footage of the proceedings, only offering a short factual report, saying the event had taken place.
The news was quickly met by calls to protest against the event. Opposition Telegram channels “lit up like a Christmas tree,” reported Anders Ostlund, a Swedish observer of Belarus, and called for immediate protests as well as sharing information about those that were already in progress.
“Belarus Happening right now in #Minsk. People reacted quickly and came out to the streets." "The king is naked" and "Victory belongs to people" are among the first banners that appeared today. #Lukashenko fears the protests, that's why he has inaugurated himself secretly,” Hanna Luibakova, a local journalist, tweeted.
The announcement of the secret ceremony caused widespread scorn on social media, playing on the theme that this was not the way someone that claimed to have won a massive landslide victory would act.
Former English teacher and nominal victor in Belarus’ presidential election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania, reacted to the news with sarcasm, saying there was no inauguration.
“I didn't go anywhere. I was at home all day. I didn't go to any ceremony or palaces,” said Tikhanovskaya.
The protesters that gathered on the road outside the presidential palace displayed a similar cutting humour. “You didn't invite us to the party,” says one poster held up by a woman on the road outside.
The presidential press service released the text of Lukashenko's inauguration speech where the one-time collective farm boss said he had no right to “abandon his people” and went out of his way to praise the staff of the government and security services, who are the only thing keeping him in power.
Lukashenko announced the transition of the Belarusian people to “a new level of self-awareness”, promising not to abandon those who defended the state, first of all, officials and the military. Lukashenko has managed to alienate almost the entire population, including his core supporters, the blue collar workers at the state-owned enterprises that in the past accounted for a genuine half of the votes in elections.
“Once, by divine providence, the people of Belarus easily and, frankly, unexpectedly gained their independence. And for a long time we took it for granted. Sometimes we did not value it. Today, having suffered this victory, we have risen to a new level of self-awareness. Cooling down from the fever of electoral battles, we saw how our whole nation is growing up. And even if Belarus is a very young independent state by world standards, the Belarusians as a nation are no longer children, we are the people," Lukashenko said at his inauguration ceremony as cited by the state agency BelTA.
“I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians, who linked not only political preferences to the state course, but also their fate, the future of their children, everyone who remained loyal to the country and people in such a difficult period for Belarus,” Lukashenko said. "Civil servants and people in uniform have shown steadfastness, courage and solidity,."
“An unprecedented challenge was thrown down to our statehood – the challenge of repeatedly worked out reliable technologies for the destruction of independent states. But we were among very few – even, perhaps, the only ones – where the “colour revolution” did not take place. And this is the choice of Belarusians, who by no means do not want to lose the country," Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko also included references to the “external threats” that he is using to try to rescue some measure of support and as a justification for the police violence he has unleashed, but his claims have been so ludicrous that they have found little traction with the population.
"Unprecedented external pressure only hardened us, made us more decisive and uncompromising in the struggle for our own – we do not need someone else's," the president added.
He expressed confidence that Belarus can count on the rapid flowering of new economic, logistic, technological and other solutions. "It is necessary to enter this "renaissance", to take full advantage of its opportunities," Lukashenko said.