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COVID-19 – a crash test for the Belarusian system?

The sudden surge in infections is quickly changing life in Belarus, turning earlier calmness into tension and uncertainty.

April 20, 2020 - Maxim Rust - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Entrance to the "Dynamo" stadium in Minsk. Football games were still being played in front of crowds in Belarus despite the suspension of all other European leagues. Photo: Hanna Zelenko (cc) wikimedia.org

At the time of the publication of this text the number of people infected with COVID-19 in Belarus passed 4,779. The situation is very dynamic – thus we encourage you to follow our special report.

The course of the pandemic in Belarus is quite different not only from other Western states, but also in comparison to for example Ukraine or Russia. When we take into account all restrictive measures that other European states have undertaken to counteract the spreading of the virus, Belarus indeed comes across as an exception, to put it mildly. First, one can have an impression that Belarus operates in some kind of surrealistic reality. At the time when all other states have announced a state of epidemiological emergency, introduced lock-downs and closed borders, the authorities in Minsk have been pretending that nothing is going on. In March of this year all enterprises, offices, and institutions worked on as if nothing had happened. There was no ban on gatherings and numerous cultural and sport events took place.

Some analysts even started to joke that out of the most closed countries in the world, Belarus will become the most open one. There is some truth to that: Belarus’s borders remain open. A different example of the irresponsible behaviour of the Belarusian authorities is that there are still massive sport events taking place in the country, even though they are dangerous to public health as evidenced elsewhere. For example, the national football league has not been called off as of yet.

When restrictive measures were introduced in other states, Belarusian media presented them as a massive panic and psychosis, while Belarus was portrayed as a “responsible and moderate state” – such as United Kingdom or Sweden. Now we know how things ended up in the United Kingdom, while comparisons between Sweden and Belarus should for sure be avoided, at all cost. There are huge differences between the two countries with regards to their political systems, social sense of responsibility and trust in the government. That is why, even though the Belarusian government has not announced a state of epidemicc, the society started to self-isolate by its own decision.

What surprised the public opinion the most was the arrogant, irresponsible and inadequate reaction to the situation by the highest authorities. This was especially true in regards to the spreading of the virus and information of its first fatal victims. The whole world was then taken aback by the statements by president Lukashenka who presented physical work on a tractor, a shot of vodka, relaxation in sauna or the inhalation of bon fire smoke as the best remedies against the virus. Not to mention grazing goats.

The test in social responsibility during the initial stage of the epidemic was also failed by the ministry of health and state media. The latter, especially, manipulated with statistical data, while the topic of the virus was artificially marginalised and belittled by the biggest state broadcasters.

The Belarusian leader outdid himself when he publically blamed the first victims of the virus for their deaths. The “they are themselves to blame” rhetoric resulted in a mass social protest action during which people started to write their own obituaries, as if the president had instructed them to. It was only after a rapid – as for Belarus – increase in the number of cases recorded in early April, Lukashenka stopped making such scandalous comments. Some offices also changed their approach, after the relatives of some victims started showing up in the media. But the bitter taste stayed.

At the moment, it is clear that the coronavirus threat is real. This is true, but has not been publically pronounced. The mobility of the Belarusian society might be lower than that of their western neighbours, but the economic relations that Belarus has with Russia (tens of thousands of Belarusian workers live in Russia) and China are very intense. There is also the issue of the Belarusian students who study in the EU and who started coming back home on a massive scale. Many of them had earlier made low-cost trips to such destinations as Italy, Spain or France. Their return home is mostly the case of western Belarusian regions, as the situation in Minsk and eastern parts of the country is quite different.

Minsk is in fact home to a quarter of the whole population. Many of them, however were not born here, but relocated for work. Thus, when the lock-down is introduced one day, and everything shuts down, there is a chance that a significant number of people will return home to their villages and stowns. This obviously would increase the threat of the virus spreading to other parts of the country.

At the moment, however, majority of the institutions operate in a normal, business as usual, mode. Some restrictions are introduced in schools, universities, but the stores and shopping malls are all open.

In Belarus the biggest threat seems to be the lack of any cohesive and introduced at the national level decision in regards to the pandemic. The results of the “let’s rush but at a slow pace” policy of the Belarusian government can indeed bring very bad results.

Thus a question remains: will the authorities introduce restrictions to ensure people’s safety once the situation gets worse?

The actions undertaken by the government so far show that for now the economy matters more than public health. The pandemic can also work well for the authorities because all of their economic failures can now be explained by the virus, even though the stagnation has been in place for quite some time and the recession started long before anyone heard about COVID-19.

The Belarusian gold reserves significantly decreased in January and February of this year. In 2019 the GDP increased only by 1.2 per cent instead of the planned 4 per cent. In addition there is the dramatically decreasing price of the Russian oil and no contracts for Belarusian potassium nitrate fertilisers from China. The export of the latter is no less important to Belarusian economy than is the price of oil. The authorities have been doing everything possible not to limit the work of the enterprises, as even a temporary “freezing” of the economy can turn into an economic catastrophe. That is why, the policy choices they are faced with are very hard indeed: an economic collapse or social turmoil and a public health crisis. To respond to the pandemic, some firms have already transferred to telework, but – as Lukashenka put it plain and simple “cows won’t milk themselves remotely”.

The spreading of the virus influenced the socio-political life of the country, turning the earlier calmness into tension and uncertainty. On top of that are the presidential elections which are scheduled for August of this year. In their light, the Belarusian opposition has once again made an attempt to unite and run primary elections which would allow it to nominate one democratic candidate. Representatives of different opposition groups were travelling across different Belarusian cities and meeting there with residents. However, in March they stopped their campaign activities, explaining it by the public good at the time of the epidemic. Some candidates gave up on running altogether and the old disputes and fights came back to the fore. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Belarus. Even more, it can be said that with all certainty the epidemic will have an effect on the even greater divisions within the opposition.

President Lukashenka could even gain politically from the current crisis situation. However, his first reactions to the health threat were a huge image failure. The Belarusian system does not need, as is the case in Poland or Hungary, restrictions to limit the political activity of its citizens. Here the field for manoeuvre in political activities is minimal regardless of the circumstances.

An important group, from the perspective of the elections, are the retirees. An introduction of restrictive measures, comparable to those that are in place in many other states, could have an impact on their voting activity. And it is precisely this group that Lukashenka counts greatly on. They are his strong base.

Clearly, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Belarusian system is yet to be seen and for the moment remains the biggest unknown. Surely, the authorities can, under any pretext of fighting with the pandemic, introduce new restrictions to eliminate any mass protest. And they are fully aware that such actions of discontent will not be driven by political, but social and economic motives.

Summing up, the Belarusian state has clearly failed to meet the challenge of the pandemic in its early phase. This is true, even though the selection of preventive measures in Belarus is much wider than it is the case in majority of its neighbours. The main reason for this first reaction failure was lack of a clear and well-argued COVID-19 strategy and the arrogance of the authorities in regards to the public health threat. The situation started to change, but this was caused by a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and social pressure. Available research suggests that majority of the society does not yet consider the measures introduced to be sufficient and supports an introduction of greater restrictions, assessing the further development of the situation in pessimistic terms. The pandemic will surely be a real crash-test for the Belarusian system in the months to come and more importantly, it may become the greatest drive force for social activities. One that is much stronger than the work of the weak opposition and pro-democratic movements.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Maxim Rust is a political analyst and researcher of political elites in post-Soviet area. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Warsaw. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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