MINSK (Dispatches) -- President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was sworn in for a sixth term on Wednesday after an election that the West has characterized as rigged and lent weight to a spate of riots.
The ceremony was held without prior announcement following Lukashenko’s landslide victory in the Aug. 9 election.
The Western-backed opposition, which has staged more than six weeks of mass protests demanding his resignation, denounced the inauguration as illegitimate and called for more demonstrations on Wednesday evening.
The United States and European Union are drawing up sanctions against officials involved in the election and the security forces trying re-establish calm.
The official news agency Belta said Lukashenko placed his right hand on a copy of the constitution and swore the oath of office at a ceremony attended by several hundred people.
The 66-year-old leader said the country needed safety and consensus "on the brink of a global crisis”, an apparent reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. "I cannot, I have no right to abandon the Belarusians,” he said.
Rumors had swept Minsk that the 66-year-old leader was preparing for a snap inauguration ceremony when a motorcade swept through the center of the capital earlier on Wednesday.
Germany reiterated that it did not recognize Lukashenko as president and called for EU sanctions to be agreed as soon as possible.
Lukashenko, taking the oath for a new five-year term, promised to "faithfully serve the people of the Republic of Belarus, respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the person and of the citizen” and defend the constitution.
He has so far withstood the riots with backing from his ally, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Despite its population of only 9.5 million, Belarus matters to Russia as a buffer state against NATO and a conduit for Russian exports of oil and gas.
At a summit last week, Putin granted Lukashenko a $1.5 billion loan, and the two countries are holding "Slavic Brotherhood” defence exercises in Belarus.
As part of those drills, Russian paratroopers parachuted into Belarus on Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the swearing-in was "absolutely the sovereign decision of the Belarusian leadership”. Asked if Putin was invited, he said it looked as though the presence of foreign leaders had not been envisaged.
The United Nations agreed last week to step up monitoring of reported human rights abuses in Belarus. Belarus authorities have said the police are humane and professional.