From Vedomosti, Sept. 24, 2020, p. 1. Condensed text:
Aleksandr Lukashenko began his sixth term as president of Belarus on Sept. 23 in Minsk [see Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 3‑7 for coverage of the 2020 Belarussian presidential election – Trans.]. The Belta news agency reported that the inauguration ceremony took place in the Palace of Independence. The date and time were kept secret until the very end, according to the Tut.by news portal. Photographs from the ceremony were shown on the Belarus 24 television channel after the procedure was complete, and foreign ambassadors were not invited. . . .
Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press secretary, said on Sept. 23 that choosing a date for Lukashenko’s inauguration was the country’s own domestic affair. The first foreign leader to congratulate Lukashenko was Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. But the [inauguration’s] legality and Lukashenko’s legitimacy as the country’s president were rejected that same day by Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Steffen Seibert, official spokesman for the German government, said that [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel was unlikely to congratulate Lukashenko on his new term, and that the inauguration itself had no “democratic legitimacy.” According to a Vedomosti diplomatic source, all European Union countries will likely issue such statements in one form or another, because the decision to declare the election illegitimate has already been made. Not recognizing the election and inauguration does not in and of itself mean a break in diplomatic relations, but several countries leading the charge against Lukashenko may recall their ambassadors, says Vedomosti’s source.
Valery Karbalevich, an expert with the Strategy analytical center in Belarus, believes that Lukashenko’s secret inauguration was a result of the peculiarities of the Belarussian political process. The public accepts neither the legality of the election nor the legitimacy of the president. Lukashenko faced a problem: A public inauguration ceremony would have been marred by clashes between protesters and security forces, creating an ugly media backdrop for assuming his presidential duties. “But this kind of inauguration also looks very odd. An inauguration is a public procedure; a means of achieving legitimacy. The state is not a Masonic lodge. But when he found himself in this situation, Lukashenko chose the lesser of two evils [a secret inauguration – Ed.],” says Karbalevich. He believes that the political crisis, along with conflict between the authorities and the public in Belarus, will continue regardless of the ceremony. “The very fact that the inauguration was held in secret tells us that Lukashenko does not place much hope in public support. He is relying on brute force and Russian support,” he says.
Nikolai Mezhevich, the director of the Center for Belarussian Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Europe and an expert with the Valdai International Discussion Club, believes that holding the inauguration in the way Lukashenko chose was a means to avoid escalating the confrontation. In his opinion, Lukashenko made the right decision, given that only a surprise move could have provided a way out of his situation. “He couldn’t not take office, but taking office by the standard procedure would mean triggering even more fire and wrath from the opposition – and worst of all, demonstrations on the streets, which are the last thing he needs. And so they made a completely reasonable, albeit clumsy, decision,” he said, as quoted by TASS.
A former special services officer says that by failing to announce the inauguration ahead of time, it was possible to avoid protests during the event, but not after. The ceremony may only strengthen the protests, this source believes. Evidently, Lukashenko hopes that officially taking office will increase his legitimacy in the eyes of government bureaucrats and security service personnel, says Vedomosti’s source. Resignations in the government or law-enforcement agencies because of disagreements with Lukashenko’s policies are few and far between, so the protesters’ chances of victory remain slim for now, the officer believes.
Andrei Suzdaltsev, an associate professor of international economics and politics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, believes that Lukashenko’s secret inauguration will only intensify street protests. Suzdaltsev says that people had hoped that Lukashenko’s visit to Russia would help to overcome the crisis. Protesters expected that a dialogue would begin, along with constitutional reforms. “A closed, secret inauguration confirms that Lukashenko has no public support. If he truly won 80% [of the vote – Ed.], the inauguration would have been a celebration for Minsk,” says the expert. Suzdaltsev also notes that Belarussian netizens’ response to the inauguration was extremely negative. People on discussion forums are saying that Lukashenko is “secretly stealing power.” “This is a split, an irreconcilable split, and no agreement can be reached. There are no constitutional reforms, only an attempt to preserve power for himself,” says the expert, describing the state of affairs in Belarus. He says that Lukashenko’s secret inauguration only betrayed his supporters by demonstrating that he has extremely low popularity among the public. The expert says that Lukashenko “considers himself to be the Belarussian state.” Suzdaltsev believes that the protest movement will respond to the inauguration with large-scale demonstrations on the streets this weekend.