Belarus has always been an oddity in Europe, and this trend has continued during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As much of Europe shuts down in the face of the deadly virus, Belarus – often described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ – has remained opened.
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Much criticism will undoubtedly be laid upon leaders across the world for their handling of the coronavirus. However, due to the uniquely peculiar and passive approach that Belarus has undertaken in the face of this pandemic, the criticism could lead to serious ruptures in the social and political fabric of the nation and may even lead to the first change of leadership in a generation.
The country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, has been running the small eastern European state of about 9.4 million people since 1994. In the past weeks, the intrepid President has taken it upon himself to provide Belarussians with some interesting and dubious tips for how to avoid illness.
President Lukashenko has described the pandemic as “yet another psychosis,” and has suggested that his citizens work outside in the promise that “the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone.”
Other questionable yet equally intriguing preventative measures that President Lukashenko has suggested have been to drink 50ml of vodka daily, and to visit the sauna house “two or three times a week” followed by washing your hands and drinking 100ml of vodka after coming out of the sauna for extra effectiveness.
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Another antidote suggested by the President is sports, which he claims is the “best anti-virus remedy.” Lukashenko, an avid ice hockey fan, responded to a concerned reporter’s coronavirus-related question after having played a game of hockey by stating “there are no viruses here… Did you see any of them flying around? I don’t see them too.”
Silly remedies aside, to this day Belarus has still not implemented any sort of lockdown and has given no explicit social distancing advice. The Belarussian football (soccer) season continues as planned – to the delight of football fans everywhere, seeing as how it’s the only operational league in Europe – and President Lukashenko continues to downplay the pandemic.
Most recently, Lukashenko has even claimed that “no one will die of Coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this.” Which is a strange declaration on his behalf, especially considering dozens of people have already died of coronavirus in Belarus according to his own government.
The issue with Belarus is not so much that they have decided not to lock down the country – in fact, Sweden has taken a similar step – the major difference comes in the form of leadership and guidance. Sweden has advised its people to follow social distancing and has put some measures into place. Swedes know the hazardous potential of the virus and its spread and are taking precautions.
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In Belarus, no advice has come. On the contrary, the President has even given inaccurate and detrimental medical advice and has consistently and publicly played down the harmfulness of the virus.
Apart from skeptical medical advice, President Lukashenko is a serious man. He’s managed to stay in power for so long by keeping a tight grip on the country in order to maintain stability and present himself as a powerful ruler, and by managing the meager economy well enough for the economic elites and political insiders, as well as a large segment of the population, to accept near-total control of the electoral process by Lukashenko and his allies.
However, with his very public assertions on the coronavirus and his complete unwillingness to implement any precautionary measures, President Lukashenko may be jeopardizing one of the key pillars of his rule: stability.
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In fact, coronavirus cases have recently spiked in Belarus. The first case in the country was reported on February 28th, and it took a full month before Belarus recorded its 100th case on March 31st. In the past 15 days though, the number of cases has grown dramatically and at this time stands at nearly 3,300.
Against the optimistic and precipitous advice of their leader, many Belarussians are already taking precautions against the virus, and have begun to self-isolate and take social distancing measures – as can be seen by the rapidly diminishing attendance at the still ongoing football matches.
Although the total number of cases in the country is by no means at a critical level yet, continued growth at a high pace could lead to a further rise in dissent towards the government and upset the very precious sense of stability that Lukashenko needs in order to remain in power.
President Lukashenko has gambled that the situation will blow over soon, and his predictions of a virus not to be worried about will be proven correct. If he remains on this course, he’d better hope he’s right, or else his high-risk gamble may cost him his job.
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Accurate opinion polls on Lukashenko’s popularity are hard to come by due to the severe censorship resulting from the authoritarian disposition of the country. What is certain, however, is that dictatorships are prone to revolutions and a poorly managed healthcare emergency could well be the catalyst for instability and change; the geopolitical landscape of the world could shift because of it.
Why is Belarus Important?
Although Belarus is a small state with a relatively inconsequential economy, the geopolitical relevance of the country is enormous. Few states walk the line between East and West as well as Belarus does, and due to its geography, the country attracts attention from various world powers.
Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has been seen as one of the closest allies of Russia. The country is also a member of many of Russia’s integration projects, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization military-alliance and the Eurasian Economic Union.
In 1997 and 1998, agreements were signed between Russia and Belarus with the goal of one day forming a so-called Union State. Although Belarus was once interested in this goal, they have backed away from the idea, seeing as how it would result in the de facto absorption into Russia. In recent times, Russia has been increasing the pressure on Belarus to make good on their past promises to form the Union State.
On the other hand, Belarus is also a member of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative and has been seen as a potential EU accession candidate if the political dynamic of the country were to change. Belarus often uses this half-way position to gain concessions from both Russia and the EU, and they especially emphasize their potential western-orientation path in times of Russian pressure for further integration.
Belarus also forms a critical part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China looks to use Belarus as a ‘transport gateway’ linking themselves with the EU, and due to the war in Ukraine, Belarus stands as the only viable land-route between Eurasia and the borders of the EU. China has invested heavily in Belarus and has set up tax-free industrial parks such as the Great Stone Industrial Park outside of Minsk which already hosts important Chinese firms such as ZTE, Huawei, Zoomlion, and Chengdu Xinzhu.
In the past year, China also announced the building of a 33,000-capacity football stadium and 6,000 seat Olympic pool facility in Minsk seemingly free of charge in order to further build their relationship with Belarus.
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Considering its size, Belarus plays a disproportionately large role in the geopolitical layout of Eurasia. But with Lukashenko having been in power for so long, and with Belarus having no real political-party system and no clear successor, many observers wonder what would happen if Lukashenko were no longer around, and what the country would then look like.
De facto annexation by Russia? Reorientation towards the West? An economic colony of China on the borders of the EU? No one can know for sure. What we do know, is that if the coronavirus outbreak in Belarus continues to be mishandled by President Lukashenko, and the political stability in the country breaks down, we just might find out.
(Michael Belafi is a Political-Military Analyst based in Brussels) VIEWS PERSONEL