Natalia Fedosenko/Natalia Fedosenko/TASS
With the coronavirus forcing much of Europe to tone down public celebrations this week marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the small nation of Belarus is raising eyebrows — and concerns — by going ahead with a mass military parade in the capital Minsk on Saturday.
The move reflects the business-as-usual approach of the country’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm director leading what the U.S. once dubbed the last dictatorship in Europe.
As the coronavirus has raced across the globe, Lukashenko has dismissed the pandemic as mass “psychosis” — a disease easily cured with a bit of vodka, a hot sauna or time spent playing hockey or doing farm work on one of country’s legendary Soviet-designed tractors.
The country’s soccer league still competes. Belarus’ schools opened after a short delay. And annual Victory Day celebrations will go on.
The government “simply cannot cancel the parade,” the Belarusian leader said in a cabinet meeting this week. “It’s an emotional, deeply ideological event.”
In a rare concession to at least some social distancing measures, Lukashenko has urged Belarusian men to spend time with their families, rather than their mistresses. But behind the theatrics sits a wily politician who plays to his base in the country’s towns and villages, analysts say.
“Lukashenko prioritizes combating panic rather than combating the pandemic,” Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst with Sense Analytics, tells NPR. “He downplays the threat, and of course he’s very concerned about [the] state of [the] economy.”
Shraibman notes similar echoes coming out of the Trump White House.
Belarus has reported over 21,000 suspected coronavirus cases and more than 120 deaths — comparatively low in the global count, but one of the fastest-growing infection rates in Europe, the World Health Organization says.
Amid the growing crisis, Belarusian civil society is rallying to fix what Lukashenko will not. With many Belarusians now self-isolating by choice, even the country’s health ministry has endorsed some public distancing measures over Lukashenko’s advice.
Volunteers have raised money to buy personal protective gear for hospitals. Restaurants have donated food. Hotels provide rooms pro bono to medical workers. Private businesses have raised funds.
“People who normally don’t talk to each other are working together to help,” says Andrej Stryzhak of #ByCovid19, a group of volunteer activists leading crowdfunded efforts to equip health workers across the country. “It’s been magical and I don’t use that word lightly.”
Stryzhak says many are bracing for the aftershocks of Saturday’s Victory parade — where attendance isn’t required but there are reports of pay bonuses given to those who show up.
“We believe in statistics. And the experts and doctors tell us that if there’s a crowd, then expect a new spike in cases a week or two later,” says Stryzhak. “Belarus isn’t Mars,” he adds, noting that the country is as susceptible to the virus as any other.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s contrarian approach has also fueled a rift with Belarus’ big brother to the east. Russia has embraced lockdowns amid its own soaring coronavirus infection rates.
This week, the Belarusian leader ordered the expulsion of a journalists from Russia’s Channel 1 state television network, after it aired a report criticizing Lukashenko for risking lives and ignoring the pandemic.
“Leave us alone and don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” said the Russian leader. “Later we’ll sit and find out who was right.”