Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition.
Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
The victory parade in Minsk went ahead on Saturday. Lukashenko, in uniform, addressed the crowds from a rostrum. Armoured vehicles and military battalions spent an hour filing past. There were thousands of spectators, including veterans in their eighties and nineties. Masks were few. A week earlier, observing that the heroes of 1945 hadn’t been daunted by mere viruses, the president had dismissed calls to cancel the parade by warning his compatriots that people might think Belarusians were ‘scared’.
Political calculation clearly underpins the decision. Lukashenko is seeking re-election in three months’ time for a sixth term in office. Recalling the Great Patriotic War promises to boost his credentials as a champion of anti-fascism, especially since Vladimir Putin cancelled the even more spectacular show he’d lined up for Moscow.
Viruses flourish in parades. On 28 September 1918, with a second wave of Spanish flu about to break across the United States, complacent officials in Philadelphia authorised a street parade to raise funds for the national war effort. Every hospital bed in the city was occupied within three days, and 12,000 infected people were killed in a month. In St Louis, where a similar event was cancelled, the peak death rate was eight times lower. Within a month of Mardi Gras this year, Covid-19 deaths in New Orleans were accelerating twice as fast as in New York; one parish had the highest per capita mortality rate in the United States.
Statistics may one day establish the lethality of Saturday’s festivities in Minsk. But Lukashenko is focused on another cost. Like Donald Trump – whose approach to Covid-19 (and business acumen) he has invoked to justify his refusal to close factories and businesses – the Belarusian president is concerned that a severe economic contraction would carry a greater political price than allowing thousands to die of the coronavirus.
It would take an unparalleled catastrophe for him to lose the election in August. He has never won less than 77 per cent of the vote, and men who’ve ruled for a quarter-century don’t often let landslide majorities shrink into defeats. There’s unhappiness at large, for sure. Football fans have been boycotting their clubs, angry that games haven’t been stopped. Volunteer activists are crowdfunding to equip health workers. On Telegram and Facebook, thousands of Belarusians are expressing anger, incredulity or shame. But the president has one great advantage. The campaigners for social distancing and lockdowns aren’t about to organise mass protests. The only demonstration I’ve heard about involved four masked Minskers carrying a coffin past a shopping mall. Lukashenko will probably survive.