Updated at 17:11,20-07-2018

Belarus' Lukashenko at his swearing-in ceremony rejects calls for economic reforms

By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press

At his swearing-in ceremony Friday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko rejected calls for economic reforms, shattering hopes for a liberalization inspired by the release of political prisoners and a rapprochement with the West.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, was elected for his fifth term in office last month in a vote boycotted by the opposition but mildly welcomed by international observers.

The Belarusian president, once dubbed Europe's last dictator, has skillfully maneuvered between Russia and the West since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014. He has not recognized the annexation and has sought to act as a peacemaker, brokering talks between Ukraine, Russia and Russia-backed separatist rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The European Union last week suspended sanctions against Belarus following the government's decision to release political prisoners.

But Lukashenko on Friday slammed the painful free market reforms that neighboring Russia and Ukraine conducted in the 1990s as erroneous policies that could provoke a "revolution or a civil war."

"Too many people talk about structural reform these days but nobody has mentioned what these reforms are," Lukashenko said Friday. "This would mean smashing the political system, the entire government of Belarus, in pieces, divide and give away state, people's property."

Lukashenko has largely preserved his nation's state-controlled, Soviet-type economy, which has been surviving thanks to cheap Russian gas and Western loans. Thanks to state support and subsidies, it still puts the bread on the table for pensioners and workers at unprofitable, unmodernized factories.

About 80 percent of the country's economy is in government hands, and the under-development of private businesses has been named as a serious impediment to Belarus' economic growth.