The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 250,000 people worldwide, ravaged the global economy, and even forced the Kremlin to relent on one of the important holidays of the year.
But Belarus’s longtime, strongman leader will be damned if it’s going to stop him from going forward with World War II Victory Day celebrations on May 9.
“I have to say that we cannot cancel the parade. We just can’t. I thought about it for a long time,” President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told government officials on May 3. “Of course, this is an emotional, deeply ideological thing.”
Even as the number of infections and related deaths have ticked upward in Belarus, Lukashenka has minimized the dangers posed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
He has ignored advice to impose social distancing and other precautions and has described outside reactions to the pandemic as “corona psychosis.” He declared that it was “better to die standing than to live on your knees” and lock down the country like Russia and most European countries have. He suggested that people go work outdoors in farm fields as a way to avoid falling ill.
The day has been a hallowed event for decades throughout the Soviet period, observed by many former Soviet republics with varying enthusiasm.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to make this year’s Red Square parade a major international event. After weeks of mounting pressure, however, he announced on April 16 that it would be postponed until a later date due to the coronavirus. Instead, Russian Air Force jets will fly over the city in formation.
Aside from Belarus, Turkmenistan is now the only other ex-Soviet republic planning to go ahead with its parade.
It’s unclear how big a parade the event in Minsk will be. Military units have been seen rehearsing on roads in and outside of the Belarusian capital. It is not known if authorities might allow spectators, or how many officials would be allowed on the reviewing stand. Lukashenka has said that older veterans were being encouraged to not attend.
For longtime watchers of Belarusian politics, Lukashenka’s insistence on holding the parade is in step with his authoritarian style of rule. But it also appears to be a roll of the dice at a time when his regime is under severe strain.
“The war victory, like in Russia, is a key regime prop and going ahead with it means the ceremony is more important than any ‘false’ COVID threat,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus who is now a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.
Lukashenka “is a survivor and likely reckons he can tough this out,” he said.
Central to Lukashenka’s longevity is the dynamic between Minsk and Moscow
Like with Putin, Lukashenka has embraced the legacy of the Soviet victory in World War II as a way to burnish his popularity with his electoral base, much of which is elderly and nostalgic for the Soviet period.
But while Soviet war triumphs are for Putin a chapter in the larger rewriting of 20th-century political history, Lukashenka’s embrace is part of the larger Soviet-style, central-command economy he’s overseen since the early 1990s.
The economy is heavily reliant on agriculture exports to Russia, and, more importantly, cheap imports of oil from Russia that Belarusian refineries then process and resell at a significant markup to European markets.
For years, Moscow has pushed Minsk to integrate more closely with Russia, fleshing out a Union State that exists largely on paper. Lukashenka has shown little enthusiasm, mainly because of expectations he would lose his job, or worse. His wariness apparently increased after 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Last year, the Kremlin signaled a new push for integration and, in December, Lukashenka and Putin met to sign documents to that effect.
Lukashenka ended up walking away from the deal, and Moscow has since tried to ratchet up the pressure by cutting back on subsidies and slowing oil deliveries, a move that has idled many of Belarus’s refineries.
The Belarusian currency, the ruble, had weakened by around 20 percent before the economic fallout from coronavirus began to be felt, according to Kateryna Bornukova, academic director and researcher at the independent Economic Research Center in Minsk. Unemployment in the landlocked country of around 9.5 million officially stood at 4.1 percent in February, but that was before the dual shocks of the oil crisis and the coronavirus.
That may have made it even more difficult to sound the alarm on the coronavirus danger, or to impose restrictions such as those instituted by the Kremlin, which announced “nonworking” weeks in late March and recently extended them through May 11.
Restaurants, stores, and even factories have stayed open in Belarus, and sporting events — such as the country’s professional soccer league — have continued, with spectators. Thousands of Orthodox believers attended Easter services in person, something that even the Russian Orthodox Church tried to discourage
“It’s a sensitive issue,” Bornukova told RFE/RL. “Total economic lockdown would not be acceptable.”
In other countries — for example, Sweden — she said, “We see much more open and honest communications about coronavirus and constant explaining why they have chosen this or that step, the government ensuring that people take measures.
“There is nothing like this happening in Belarus,” she said.
A survey conducted April 17-22 by the Economic Research Center found that more than half of those polled in Belarus had seen a drop in income.
Lukashenka has at times appeared to taunt Moscow, most notably in February when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the highest-level U.S. official to visit Minsk in two decades. Pompeo offered to sell Lukashenka U.S. oil to replace reduced Russian supplies.
If going ahead with the Victory Day parade was seen by Lukashenka as a way to thumb his nose at Putin, then he doubled down on May 5 by inviting other ex-Soviet leaders to attend. Going ahead with the event in Minsk, he said, was the “right thing to do.”
“Our republic was wiped off the face of the Earth and was the first to bear the brunt” of the Nazi invasion in 1941, he said.
He also reiterated his belief that Belarusians will withstand the coronavirus problems.
“The parade will pass, we will survive it all, and the wave will ebb,” he said. “That’s how it always is.”
Belarus had recorded more than 19,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and at least 112 related deaths as of May 6. Some experts fear the situation is much worse than the official data suggests.
Belarusians’ nervousness about holding the parade was reflected in part in an online petition signed by more than 7,000 people calling for it to be put off.
In Moscow, Lukashenka’s invitation was criticized by several influential Russian lawmakers, many of whom are closely tied to the Kremlin. One Communist lawmaker in the lower house of parliament said his party would discourage its members from traveling to Minsk, while another, the firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called Lukashenka a “narcissist.”
“The parade is a mistake and a crime on the part of Lukashenka, and we should not participate in this crime,” Zhirinovsky told the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy. “Lukashenka wants to draw attention to himself, a narcissist who has been in power for almost 30 years. It puts thousands of people in danger. We are strongly against it.”
Within Belarus itself, the local representative of the World Health Organization voiced concern about the possibility of elderly veterans attending a mass gathering and being exposed to the coronavirus. And several prominent political figures voiced outrage.
“I think that, aside from stupidity, this decision to hold the parade also borders on a crime, because it is about the health of the nation,” Miachyslau Gryb, who was Belarus’s leader before Lukashenka became president, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.
“There is a lot of unnecessary bravery we hear: ‘This is not important. We will survive this just like our ancestors survived the world war. They died for us,’ and so on,” Bornukova said. “The rhetoric is not helping.”