Belarus leader delays inauguration

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election sparked opposition protests, on Tuesday abruptly postponed his inauguration without explanation, but declared "all political battles" over.

Lukashenko, branded "Europe's last dictator" by U.S. officials, had been scheduled to be sworn in on Friday. Opposition activists had hoped to mark their disapproval with a campaign of stickers showing a skull on a black background.

Nikolai Lozovik, secretary of the Central Election Commission, said a new date would be set and the ceremony might take place in early April. He gave no reason for the delay.

"We are now working on the new date which we will inform you of later," Lukashenko's spokesman, Pavel Lyogky, told Reuters.

The veteran leader's win has been called fraudulent by the United States, the European Union and international observers.

The delay in his swearing-in was unexpected as the workings of Belarus's state machinery tend to be very predictable.

Lukashenko failed to appear in public for several days after saying, on the morning following his victory, that a Western-inspired attempt to stage a revolution had been averted.

On Tuesday, despite switching his inauguration, he bounced back into the public eye, chairing a government meeting.

Looking forceful, he urged ministers to stick to production programmes and said he saw good prospects for the next "five-year plan", a Soviet-style policy formula still in use.

"All political battles are over," official news agency BelTA quoted Lukashenko as telling ministers. "Despite some disturbances, we have put the country back in order, just as it used to be before."


"Maybe the main reason (for the postponement) is Lukashenko's psychological mood," main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told reporters after chairing an opposition meeting.

"The authorities were shocked, seeing how many people went out on the street." The protests drew around 10,000 people at their peak.

That view was shared by some ordinary citizens.

"I believe the dust of those protests has not settled yet, plus these quick trials. He probably thinks that it'll get quieter in mid-April," Vladimir, 53, a taxi driver, said.

Opposition activists had invited backers via the Internet to protest on Friday by placing "black marks to Lukashenko" stickers in public places. The stickers bore a skull, with features resembling those of Lukashenko, on a black background.

Milinkevich said the opposition would focus on attracting supporters. New rallies were planned for April 26 -- the 20th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant over the border in Ukraine and a traditional day of protest.

"We are by no means pessimistic. I believe we have made the first step to victory," he said. "(But) I don't see much sense in standing in a square if a rally does not grow and no new people join in."

The opposition also plans to contest the validity of the election result in the nation's Supreme Court. Election officials say Lukashenko won 83 percent of the votes.

The protests ended when police broke up a march and detained many protesters, including at least one opposition leader.

Local rights group Vyasna said that on Monday local courts had jailed around 200 opposition supporters for up to 15 days.

Second opposition leader Alexander Kozulin, arrested at the weekend, could face six years in jail for malicious hooliganism.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov)