EU boycotts inauguration of Belarusian president

Authoritarian leader Aleksander Lukashenko was sworn in on 21 January as Belarusian president as European Union ambassadors stayed away to protest the rigged vote that gave him a fourth term in office.

The ambassadors of Poland, Germany, Lithuania and nine other EU nations with legations in the capital Minsk left Belarus on 20 January. Also absent from the ceremony were the ambassadors of the US and Ukraine, the Belapan news agency reported.

The diplomats were protesting the 19 December poll in which Lukashenko claimed to have gotten 80% of the vote, as well as the subsequent crackdown on the opposition and media. More than 20,000 Belarusians took to the streets to protest Lukashenko's victory on election day. Police used force to break up the demonstrations, arresting more than 600 people.

A wide-ranging crackdown against government opponents has continued through January, with police raiding opposition homes and offices almost daily. Thirty-three opposition leaders and journalists are now awaiting trial in connection with the December demonstrations.

International groups, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have been virtually unanimous in their criticism of the election and the continuing crackdowns.

Lukashenko has ordered the OSCE to close its office in Belarus and has threatened the EU with sanctions of his own.

Lukashenko, lashed out at his critics as was sworn in. "We will protect our security and stability from threats, whether they come from inside the country or outside," he said. "I would like to remind people who do not wish Belarus well one of our old folk sayings: 'Don't start a fire at your neighbour's house. It might just spread to yours'," he said.

Lukashenko described his election victory as a matter of life and death. "It wasn't a question of electing a president," he said. "In reality the fate of our country was being decided, whether to be independent and strong or to fall into slave-like dependency," he was quoted as saying by the press on 21 January.

A day earlie, Lukashenko openly accused neighboring Poland and Germany of planning a coup against him. "There were (in Germany and Poland) plans worked out for an overthrow of the constitutional order," Lukashenko said in Minsk.

It was the first time that Lukashenko, who since 1996 has single- handedly ruled Belarus, had charged Berlin and Warsaw with ordering their secret services to attempt to remove him from power. "This is not an invention of our intelligence agencies," he said.

Belarus officials were last week dropped from the guest list of next month's prestigious Munich Security Conference because of human rights violations by the Eastern European regime.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described Lukashenko's statements as "baseless allegations" to distract attention from his own wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Poland also dismissed his accusations as absurd and said that relations with Minsk would not be normalized unless all political prisoners were released.

Lukashenko also lashed out at the European Union, threatening the "hardest possible reaction" should the bloc impose sanctions against his country.

The European Parliament on 20 January adopted a resolution supporting economic sanctions against Belarus.

Human rights activists have long complained of brutal methods of interrogation and torture used in Belarus to extract false confessions. Lukashenko has defended the crackdown and his human rights record, saying his government will prosecute any person who participates in illegal gatherings or attempts to defame the state.


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