MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in Friday in a ceremony boycotted by Western ambassadors after his re-election last month in what the opposition and international monitors said was a rigged vote.
The former Soviet republic has brushed off all criticism of the elections, which were followed by huge street protests when hundreds of people were arrested.
“The people have spoken... Their choice is sacred and undisputable,” Lukashenko said after taking oath.
“The ‘colour revolution’ virus only strikes weak countries,” he said, referring to events that led to change of power in ex-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005.
His opponents denounced his landslide election win as fraudulent and an international monitoring team said the count carried out at many election centres had been “bad or very bad.”
Lukashenko has been embroiled in row with Germany and Poland after accusing their security services of plotting a coup against him, implying they were involved in the demonstrations.
Envoys of European Union member states and the United States did not attend the ceremony.
Many observers had expected the inauguration to be held in mid-February and some have explained the earlier timing by Lukashenko’s desire to legitimise his December 19 victory as quickly as possible.
Witold Jurasz, charge d’affairs of the Polish embassy to Belarus, who together with other EU diplomats was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, told Reuters:
“This is basically a message to show dismay towards what had happened on December 19,” he said.
Western governments have demanded Lukashenko free opposition activists, including four challengers for the presidency rounded up during the protests. The opposition said it would hold another rally later Friday.
Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 in an autocratic style that led the administration of former U.S. President George Bush to describe him as Europe’s last dictator.
EU lawmakers urged the bloc’s governments Thursday to impose sanctions on Lukashenko to pressure him into releasing the political detainees and do more to bolster civil society.
Sanctions will probably include a travel ban on Lukashenko and his supporters. The bloc may also agree to oppose any future financial support for Minsk from the International Monetary Fund and block talks on a financial assistance program for reforms.
Lukashenko said Thursday that Belarus would reply to any sanctions with measures of its own. “If someone tries to introduce economic or other sanctions against (our) country we must react immediately and prepare countermeasures including the toughest ones,” he said.
Friday, however, he said Minsk would seek cooperation with the West. “We will seek the best results from the cooperation with Russia, Ukraine, China, Venezuela as well as the EU and the US,” Lukashenko said.
The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed poll in 2006 but suspended them in 2008 to encourage democratic reforms in the country of 10 million, which is a transit route for Russian gas and oil products to the EU.
Minsk is also involved in a dispute with Russia over the price of oil supplies to Belarus. The prime ministers of the two countries met Thursday, but failed to end the standoff.
EU governments are expected to take a decision on any punitive measures on January 31. Diplomats say there is growing consensus for action, although Italy had initially opposed it.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Vilnius; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Maria Golovnina