Belarus leader to take office after flawed poll

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will be sworn in Friday in a ceremony boycotted by Western envoys after being re-elected last month in what the opposition and international monitors said was a rigged vote.

The move follows a diplomatic spat with Germany and Poland whose security services Lukashenko accused of plotting a coup against him, implying their involvement in huge street protests after the poll where hundreds were arrested.

The European Union and the United States have said their envoys to Belarus would not attend the ceremony, scheduled for 1050 GMT.

Many observers had expected an inauguration in mid-February and some have explained the earlier timing by Lukashenko's desire to legitimise his December 19 victory as quickly as possible.

Western governments have demanded Lukashenko frees opposition activists, including four challengers for the presidency rounded up during the protests.

EU lawmakers urged the bloc's governments Thursday to impose sanctions against Lukashenko to pressure him to release the political detainees and do more to bolster civil society.

Sanctions will likely include a travel ban against 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 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.

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.

Belarus is also involved in a spat 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 at a meeting on January 31. Diplomats say there is growing consensus in the bloc for action, although Italy had initially opposed it.

In parallel to imposing sanctions, EU governments plan to strengthen assistance to victims of repression in Belarus and students and spend more money on civil society programs.

Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 in an autocratic style that led the U.S. administration of former President George W. Bush to describe him as Europe's last dictator.

His opponents denounced his landslide election win as fraudulent and an OSCE monitoring team said the count carried out at many election centres had been "bad or very bad."

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov)


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