In Belarus, Lukashenko Bets on No Lockdown
The iron-fisted president has downplayed the coronavirus to shield the economy and project control.
Belarus is one of the only European countries that has not implemented strict coronavirus containment measures. Its daily rate of new cases is now among the highest in Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The country has conducted its fair share of diagnostic tests—more than 240,000, or around 2.5 percent of its citizens. Belarus has officially confirmed 21,101 cases and 121 deaths as of May 8.
But health care professionals suggest that the number of deaths in Belarus has been intentionally underreported, with independent media outlets and social media users reporting that hospitals are under pressure to register deaths from COVID-19 as cases of pneumonia or heart failure. “The Health Ministry is hiding the real number of cases and especially the real number of deaths,” said Alexander Loban, an ophthalmologist. “Additionally, the ministry doesn’t want to cross the psychological threshold of 1,000 new cases a day.”
The Belarusian regime isn’t known for its transparency. In power for 25 years, President Aleksandr Lukashenko runs the country with an iron fist and oversees a repressive state apparatus. In recent months, he has downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus, calling it a “psychosis.” On April 21, Lukashenko attributed deaths in the Mogilev region, south of the capital of Minsk, to chronic diseases rather than to COVID-19. The president continued to play hockey on an amateur team amid the crisis. In March, he challenged a journalist in a crowded arena: “There are no viruses here. Did you see any of them flying around?” (A player on Lukashenko’s team later tested positive.)
Lukashenko’s “don’t panic” policymaking and absolute power are an insidious combination. Belarus almost equals Germany in its number of intensive care unit beds per capita. With its obedient citizens and extensive free public health care system, it could have been a role model in flattening the curve. So why does Lukashenko keep downplaying the coronavirus?
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The president wants to project himself as in control and demonstrate that the coronavirus shouldn’t interrupt Belarusians’ lives—nor the country’s fragile economy. He is also campaigning for reelection, scheduled for Aug. 9—a plan that did not account for the coronavirus. “Lukashenko wants to show he’s a strongman, and it’s difficult for him to acknowledge he was wrong,” said Andrei Yeliseyeu, the research director of the EAST Center, a think tank focused on Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries. In denying the threat of the virus, he is “moving forward with a narrative that other officials have to follow.”
So even though the coronavirus may soon reach its peak in Belarus, commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in World War II on May 9 have been kept on the national agenda. The official obstinance echoes the May 1 parade held by the Soviet authorities in Belarus in 1986—in total denial of the Chernobyl explosion five days earlier.
But with 80 percent of the Belarusian population now online, it is hard to hide the pandemic. The Health Ministry’s response has been strikingly different from the president’s. The ministry reports on the situation daily—though its own messaging has been overshadowed by Lukashenko’s televised statements. “The Ministry of Health is working hard to ensure that stricter measures to contain the epidemic are taken,” Yuri Tsarik, the head of Russia studies at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, said in an email. But Lukashenko has “severely limited the powers of the ministry expected to ‘treat the patients’ instead of promoting a lockdown,” he wrote.
Some authorities—out of step with Lukashenko—have taken precautions. The Belarusian national train service rearranged passenger seats to enable social distancing. The Health Ministry has discouraged people from attending Mass—though Lukashenko himself attended an Orthodox Easter Mass on April 19.
Knowing Lukashenko wouldn’t act to slow the spread of the coronavirus, members of the public did not wait to enact their own proactive containment measures. The private sector has largely switched to remote work. Fewer people are on the streets or public transport, and those who do venture out wear face masks. Some bars and restaurants have closed on their own. Unfortunately, at-risk older adults are the most likely to watch state television channels, which broadcast misleading or conflicting messages about the coronavirus and how to contain it.
The response of Belarusian civil society organizations has been applauded by the Health Ministry and WHO. “Of course the spread of the coronavirus depends on the authorities, but it depends a lot on all of us,” said Andrej Stryzhak, a volunteer for #ByCovid19, a grassroots support group that has raised more than $210,000 for personal protective equipment for health care workers across the country. It has shared its database of needs across the sector with the Health Ministry.
Having tamped down the Belarusian opposition for years, Lukashenko is certain of another landslide victory in this year’s election. No election held since 1996 has been free or fair. While he may be unaccountable to his public, he is still dependent on his neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus has long relied on Russian energy subsidies to prop up its ailing economy. But Russia’s invasion of their mutual neighbor Ukraine in 2014 prompted Lukashenko to rethink that dependence, and he began to make overtures toward the West. To tighten the screws on Minsk—an important buffer between Russia and Europe—Moscow is looking to dust off a 20-year-old “union state” treaty signed by the two countries that would see them form a supranational union, undermining Belarus’s sovereignty.
“A potential serious epidemiological situation on the eve of the elections would pose a big risk for the political and internal situation,” Yeliseyeu said. “If Russia deals more successfully with the epidemic, the Kremlin could try to play this card too to push its ‘integration’ project ahead with Belarus.”
Lukashenko is also diminishing the coronavirus threat to shield the precarious Belarusian economy, which is highly dependent on Russian markets. Without a full lockdown, the economy faces a crisis: It has suffered from a dispute with Russia over crude oil, which Belarus used to import at a subsidized rate to refine and sell on the European market. The value of the Belarusian ruble has plunged as oil prices crashed, increasing hardship.
Belarus already has extremely low unemployment benefits—less than $23 per month. “A proper lockdown would mean that thousands of people would lose their salaries,” said Lev Lvovskiy, a senior research fellow at BEROC, a Belarusian think tank. And Belarus doesn’t have any emergency state funds to support the unemployed, meaning that in the case of a lockdown there would be little additional financial aid.
So Lukashenko insists that the economy should run without interruption. “We are in a more complicated situation than Russia,” he said on April 17. “They are on vacation, but their pipelines continue operating. Even though the price [of oil] has fallen, the foreign currency continues to come into the country. We do not have such a safety net.” And because of its bad credit rating, Belarus cannot access international loans at a preferential rate. “Other post-Soviet countries either usually have some savings for emergencies, like Kazakhstan or Russia, or some can borrow at a better rate, such as Ukraine,” Lvovskiy said.
But increased social distancing measures short of a lockdown aren’t likely to have any further negative effect on the economy. And Belarus still may decide to implement them as the coronavirus crisis worsens. “The authorities are just losing time,” Yeliseyeu said. “They will have to accept measures later anyway as the situation escalates.”
An online survey taken in Belarus between March 20 and April 5 showed that 86 percent of respondents disapproved of Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus. But discontent alone will not change the nature of his regime. The president’s iron grip has not eased since 1994, and there are no opposition representatives in the rubber-stamp National Assembly. While the awakening of Belarusian civil society is remarkable, it is likely to disappear again when the coronavirus outbreak slows. “It’s like during natural disasters, we work on adrenaline. Then everything is likely to vanish,” Stryzhak said.
It seems the political structure Lukashenko has built will resist the growing discontent, but it could face severe pressure if the death toll is devastating and cracks appear in the establishment. Putin, who has silently waged an economic war against Lukashenko, is also looming—and he could interfere if the coronavirus further weakens Belarus.
Helene Bienvenu is a multilingual journalist who specializes in Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @bienvenuLN