A DEFIANT Alexander Lukashenko has been sworn in for a fourth term as president of Belarus, in a ceremony clouded by EU and US threats to punish him with sanctions for a crackdown on opponents.
Major European states joined Brussels and Washington to condemn last month's re-election of Mr Lukashenko, in a vote that western monitors called badly flawed and which was followed by the heavy-handed arrest of some 600 opposition demonstrators by riot police.
About 30 people are still in custody and could face 15 years in jail for "organising mass unrest" after the ballot, in what Belarus's main state-run newspaper called an attempt to topple Mr Lukashenko organised by European governments, predominantly Germany and Poland.
"The people have spoken, confirming once again that Belarus is a free and democratic state, and the choice made by the people is sacred and indisputable," Mr Lukashenko (56) said at the inauguration, which was boycotted by western ambassadors to Minsk.
The former collective farm boss, who has run Belarus for 16 years, pledged to quash any attempt in Belarus to replicate Ukraine's Orange Revolution and Georgia's Rose Revolution, which brought pro-western leaders to power after waves of huge and mostly peaceful street protests.
"The virus of colour revolutions defeats only weak nations," he said, insisting that Belarus had "exhausted the limits of revolutions and upheavals" and that his government would "safeguard security and stability against plots from inside and outside the country".
Despite suppressing opposition groups and free media while in power, Mr Lukashenko vowed to "respect and preserve the rights and freedom of people and citizens" and "seek the best results from co-operation with Russia, Ukraine, China, Venezuela as well as the EU and the US". Washington and Brussels have threatened to reimpose a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and his top allies unless he frees those arrested after the election, which include several opposition leaders, journalists and activists. The EU is expected to decide on the issue at a January 31st meeting.
The EU and US could also oppose the extension of financial aid to Belarus from organisations such as the IMF. Mr Lukashenko warned this week that Belarus would react to sanctions "immediately and prepare countermeasures including the toughest ones".
A fifth of Russian gas supplied to Europe transits Belarus, as does a significant portion of Russian oil.