The EU's foreign-policy chief has reiterated the bloc's stance that it refuses to recognize Alyaksandr Lukashenka as president of Belarus following his surprise inauguration, which sparked large demonstrations across the country.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since the August 9 presidential election that handed Lukashenka, in power since 1994, a sixth term in office despite claims the election was rigged.
Thousands of people have been detained, hundreds beaten by police, and opposition leaders either arrested or forced to flee the country in the brutal postelection crackdown.
Police were out in force and central streets blocked off on September 23 as Lukashenka, who claims to have won 80 percent of the vote, took the oath of office before what appeared to be a few handpicked Belarusian officials.
State media reported the news, but did not cover the event, which is usually an elaborate affair, live. Internet access in Minsk was also cut or limited for much of the time.
"This 'inauguration' directly contradicts the will of large parts of the Belarusian population, as expressed in numerous, unprecedented and peaceful protests since the elections, and serves to only further deepen the political crisis in Belarus," Josep Borrell said in a statement issued on September 24, adding that Brussels was reviewing its relations with Minsk.
"The European Union's position is clear: Belarusian citizens deserve the right to be represented by those they freely choose through new inclusive, transparent and credible elections,” Borrell added.
As people took to the streets to protest Lukashenka's swearing in, police intervened with truncheons and a water cannon to disperse the crowds. The Interior Ministry said on September 24 that a total of 364 people were detained by police in Minsk and elsewhere.
"We are impressed and moved by the courage of the Belarusian people who continue to demonstrate peacefully for democracy and for their fundamental rights despite the brutal repression of the Belarusian authorities. We stand in solidarity with them and fully support their democratic right to elect their president through new free and fair elections," Borrell said.
The EU is preparing sanctions against around 40 people deemed responsible for the repression and also looking at punishing Lukashenka himself, diplomatic sources told AFP.
But the unanimity of the 27 EU members is required, and Cyprus is linking its agreement to the adoption of steps to force Turkey to stop exploring for natural gas in the waters of its economic zone.
Two other countries, Sweden and Finland, are refusing to place sanctions on Lukashenka to allow for mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that will be chaired by Stockholm, the sources told AFP.
The issue will be debated during an EU summit on October 1-2 in Brussels.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow that President Vladimir Putin had not congratulated Lukashenka on his inauguration, but added this was not unusual.
Peskov told reporters on September 24 that Putin had already congratulated Lukashenka after the August 9 election by telephone and in person during their September 14 meeting in Sochi.
With Belarus facing a shaky future after the disputed election, Russia appears eager to keep the smaller country, a longtime ally, firmly in its orbit.
In a sign of that goal, Putin and Lukashenka agreed in their September 14 meeting to a $1.5 billion state loan to keep his regime in Belarus afloat.
Meanwhile, the United States added its name to the growing list of Western countries that responded to the swearing in by saying they won't recognize Lukashenka's presidency.
"The elections on August 9 were neither free nor fair. The announced results were fraudulent and did not convey legitimacy," a State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL on September 23.
"The United States cannot consider Alyaksandr Lukashenka the legitimately elected leader of Belarus."
The State Department called for a "national dialogue" culminating in "a free and fair election under independent observation."
The spokesperson added, "Release of those unjustly detained and an end of repression against peacefully protesting citizens is a first step toward genuine national dialogue."
After the swearing-in ceremony, the opposition, led by his exiled main challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said it would never accept Lukashenka's "falsified" victory and called for an immediate campaign of civil disobedience and open-ended protests.
"This so-called inauguration is certainly a farce. In fact, today Lukashenka just retired," Tsikhanouskaya wrote on her Telegram channel. "This means that his orders for security agencies are not legitimate anymore and must not be fulfilled.
Tsikhanouskaya, who officially finished second to Lukashenka but claims to have won, added that "I, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, am the only leader recognized by the Belarusian people."
Lukashenka faces the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule amid the unprecedented nationwide protests, and has answered peaceful protests and demands for him to leave office with violent arrests and the alleged torture of detainees.