Russia has criticized a decision by the European Union to not recognize Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus as an opposition leader called for renewed mass protests after Lukashenka held a secretive inauguration this week following a disputed election.
Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was inaugurated on September 23 in a secretive ceremony after weeks of mass protests. He declared a landslide win at an election last month that was marred by vote-rigging allegations he denies.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 25 that the decision to not recognize him as the head of state would complicate the EU's dialogue with Belarus, and have no effect on Belarusian ties with Moscow.
In reaction to Lukashenka’s move, opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement posted on the Telegram messaging network that Belarusians should take to the streets on September 27 to push for the "goal of new, honest elections and, as a result, an official, lawful inauguration."
Russia has backed Lukashenka since the election with a $1.5 billion loan and vows of possible military help, including support from a police brigade.
Peskov’s comments come a day after the EU’s foreign policy chief reiterated the bloc’s stance that it refuses to recognize Lukashenka as Belarus’s legitimate leader.
“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 United States has also said it does not recognize Lukashenka.
"The elections 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 EU and United States have increased contacts with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled opposition candidate, who is now in Lithuania and says she won the election.
Lukashenka has directed a brutal postelection crackdown in response to protests, including thousands of arrests, beatings, and other mistreatment of peaceful protesters, and the expulsions of foreign journalists.
A Minsk court in a closed-door hearing on September 25 rejected an appeal to release opposition leader Maryya Kalesnikava pending her trial.
Kalesnikava, a former leader of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team and member of the Coordination Council to facilitate a political transition in Belarus, is facing charges of threatening Belarus’s national security.
According to the Minsk court ruling, the 38-year-old Kalesnikava will remain in custody until her planned trial at the beginning of November.
Her lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, went missing on September 24, with police confirming later that she had been detained.
Kazak's lawyers said on September 25 that she faces administrative charges of participating in an unauthorized rally and resisting a police officer.
Kalesnikava and two of her staff were snatched from the streets of Minsk on September 7 by masked men. The three were driven the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into small pieces after they arrived in a no-man’s-land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates continued on and are now in Ukraine.
A dozen human rights watchdogs based in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release from custody.
The United States, Canada, and Britain are expected to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials for the crackdown as early as September 25.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said ON September 24 that the United Kingdom was initiating its own sanctions, in coordination with the United States and Canada, after the European Union's measures were delayed by Cyprus.
Raab said London was working with Washington and Ottawa "to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency" against Belarusian authorities.
The United States is consulting with the EU on its sanctions list, but the timetable for announcing them may differ from Brussels due to different approval procedures in the bloc.
The passage of EU sanctions needs unanimous approval from all 27 member countries and Cyprus has so far refused to vote, insisting that the EU must also extend sanctions over Turkish gas-drilling operations in its waters at the same time.
The United States has been pressing Cyprus to lift its veto on the proposed EU sanctions against Belarus to allow a coordinated response to the crisis.