Defiant Lukashenko begins new term in Belarus

The authoritarian ruler, in power since 1994, was declared victor in a presidential election in December, a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. The EU is considering sanctions against the government.

Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Saying that Belarus has exhausted the limits of upheavals, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday took the oath of office for the fourth time amid accusations of fraud in the December election and a crackdown on the opposition.

The 56-year-old Lukashenko, who has run the country for 16 years and now begins a new five-year term, said his reelection was a legitimate outcome in a democratic state. His government will "safeguard security and stability against plots from within and outside the country," he said, and stop political movements such as the one in Georgia in 2003, known as the Rose Revolution, and another in Ukraine in 2005 known as the Orange Revolution.

"The people have spoken, confirming once again that Belarus is a free and democratic state, and the choice made by the people is sacred and indisputable," the president said. "The virus of color revolutions defeats only weak nations."

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But the inauguration was boycotted by ambassadors from the European Union and the United States. The Russian ambassador attended.

The Dec. 19 election, which Lukashenko won with nearly 80% of the vote, was widely seen by international monitors as severely flawed and fraudulent.

On election night, protesters said police brutally dispersed an opposition demonstration in downtown Minsk, the capital.

More than a thousand protesters were arrested that night, including seven presidential candidates. Dozens of leading opposition figures still remain in custody in the KGB prison in Minsk facing up to 15 years for organizing "mass disturbances."

Human rights organizations and political observers say that opposition activists and liberal journalists are harassed and arrested every day by plainclothes agents with the republic's secret police, still called the KGB after its Soviet predecessor. The police also conduct searches of their homes and offices.

When European Union observers refused to accept the results declaring Lukashenko the victor, he closed the Minsk office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and accused the West of assisting the opposition in a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The Soviet Belarus daily published at Lukashenko's request accusations that Poland and Germany played "a hand in the events of Dec. 19" and planned, organized and funded the election campaign of the opposition, which it said "was meant to become a new opposition force capable of changing the power in the country."

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said any alleged conspiracy must have been conceived in the offices of the president and his special services.

"It was a provocation in which the government used special agents in the square who broke windows and doors [in the government headquarters], provoking the crowd and creating a chance for the authorities to crack down on us," Milinkevich said in a telephone interview.

Some observers say Belarus is under a dark cloud reminiscent of the rule of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.

"The country lives in fear and people are arrested every day on fake charges as Lukashenko is preparing the nation for big political trials of the opposition leaders," Svetlana Kalinkina, editor in chief of the independent Narodnaya Volya newspaper, said in an interview. Kalinkina fears that authorities may arrest her or close down her newspaper any day.

Among those arrested was Irina Khalip, a journalist with the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper who has written about the deaths and disappearances of Lukashenko's political opponents. Her husband, former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, was also detained. Khalip's mother, Lyutsina Khalip, cares for the couple's 3-year-old son and says she worries that the government will take him away as a form of intimidation.

The EU parliament has voted to urge member nations to impose sanctions on Belarus. At a meeting scheduled Jan. 31, foreign ministers are expected to consider sanctions that could include barring visas for Lukashenko and his officials, freezing their bank assets in Europe and curbing economic assistance and cooperation programs.

The U.S. supports the EU action and is also considering sanctions against Belarus, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday.


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