Belarusian security forces stood firm and detained protestors and fired water cannons to disperse the crowds that formed as thousands took to the streets of Minsk in order to protest against the abrupt inauguration of veteran President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday.
Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term after an election that the opposition and several foreign governments claim was rigged, with him ignoring calls to end his 26-year firm hold on power.
Whilst the ceremony would normally be publicised as a major state occasion, it was instead held without prior notice after Lukashenko’s claim of a landslide victory in the vote done on August 9.
The former Soviet republic’s opposition, which has conducted more than six weeks of constant mass protests, has demanded his resignation, claiming that his inauguration was illegitimate.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival to power, who fled into exile after the election, said that “His secret inauguration is an attempt to seize power”.
The United States and the European Union are currently weighing sanctions to impose on Belarus officials that were involved in the election and in the following crackdown on protestors by the security forces.
In a ceremony attended by several hundred people, Lukashenko placed his right hand on a copy of the constitution and swore the oath of office.
The 66-year-old leader said that Belarus needed safety and consensus as they stand “on the brink of a global crisis”, making reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that “I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians”.
The ceremony had more than a hundred people attending, with none of them apparently wearing masks and no respect to social distancing was observed.
In the streets, thousands of protestors marched with red-and-white opposition flags, with passing cars also honking their horns as a sign of their solidarity.
One particular placard read “If you have 80%, why are you afraid of us?”, a reference to Lukashenko’s stated 80% vote share.
Protestors gathered to form human chains to block off certain streets, causing traffic snarls, with occasional scuffles also breaking out with demonstrators trying to stop others getting detained.
Local media footage showed several helmeted riot police holding protestors to the ground, and taking them away into detention.
With the water cannons being fired, several people were left injured, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
The official Belta news agency also reported that more than ten people were taken into custody, whilst the human rights group Spring 96 stated that it was more than 116.
The final figure of detainments is usually released by the government the following day.
Protestors started gathering in small groups in the capital earlier on in the day, including outside at least three universities, local media footage showed.
Another opposition politician, Pavel Latushko, claimed that the swearing-in was like some secret “thieves’ meeting”.
He added “Where are the jubilant citizens? Where is the diplomatic corps?”, with him also saying that “It is obvious that Alexander Lukashenko is exclusively the president of the OMON (riot police) and a handful of lying officials.”
The EU has not responded well to the way that Lukashenko has allegedly been brought to power once again, with Germany reiterating that it does not recognise Lukashenko as president and called for EU sanctions to be agreed against Belarus as soon as possible.