The leader of Belarus is using the coronavirus crisis to troll Putin
Strongman's country has emerged as the Sweden of the post-communist world.
Vijai Maheshwari is a writer and entrepreneur based in Moscow. He tweets at @Vijaimaheshwari.
MOSCOW — Belarus’ football team Dinamo Brest was, until recently, a minor squad in an obscure Eastern European nation, whose only claim to fame was winning the local Premier League title last year. However, with the country’s league still playing games while the rest of the world has shut down, interest in the team — and Belarussian football — has spiked globally.
India, Israel and a host of other countries, including Belarus’ neighbor Russia, have bought rights to air matches. The enterprising team has even begun selling virtual tickets online for €25, with fans rewarded with having their pictures pasted on top of a mannequin inside the stadium.
It’s a sharp contrast with what’s happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Belarus’ eccentric dictator Alexander Lukashenko has not been shy about highlighting the differences.
While Putin has followed the rest of the world in imposing a lockdown as coronavirus cases have surged there, Lukashenko has scoffed at such restrictions as “coronapsychosis” and kept his country open for business despite criticism from the World Health Organization.
And while his nemesis in Moscow has holed up in his country estate and retreated from public view as the crisis has intensified — prompting Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov to dismiss rumors that Putin was “waiting out the pandemic in a bunker” — pugnacious Lukashenko has sought out the spotlight instead.
Lukashenko is relishing his role as a COVID-19 denier and has claimed that drinking vodka, having saunas and driving tractors will keep the virus at bay.
He has continued playing ice hockey in front of fans, and upstaged Putin by holding a live military parade — with thousands of soldiers and elderly veterans of the war — to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, while neighboring Russia canceled its celebrations.
“In this insane, disoriented world there will be people who condemn us … but we had no choice,” Lukashenko declared defiantly at the parade, as thousands of spectators without masks thronged the bleachers. “Let the parade in Minsk today be the only one in the post-Soviet world.”
And while Putin has taken the sane course and recommended that Russians “stay home” to save lives, Lukashenko is relishing his role as a COVID-19 denier and has claimed that drinking vodka, having saunas and driving tractors will keep the virus at bay.
For now at least, Lukashenko’s exhortations that it’s better to “die on your feet than live on your knees” seems to be reaping dividends.
The Belarussian ruble has strengthened 10 percent against the dollar since March, while the Russian ruble has fallen by more than 20 percent. Unemployment in Belarus still stands at just 4 percent, while more than 1 million Russians have lost their jobs in the last two months.
Experts predict that Russia might lose almost 10 million jobs because of the coronavirus crisis. And while the Kremlin has earmarked more than 2 trillion rubles ($27 billion) to support the Russian economy, economists say that’s just a drop in an ocean of economic suffering.
“Russia has outlined no comprehensive aggregate economic policy response,” wrote Gunter Deuber, head of economics at Raiffeisen Bank in a recent report. “Hence, it can be concluded that Russia’s political priorities lie elsewhere.”
Fear and confusion have gripped Russia as the country has recorded more than 260,000 coronavirus cases, with infections rising by more than 10,000 a day. Three Russian doctors died in falls from hospital windows, reportedly after they expressed serious frustration about their hospitals’ response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, panicked Muscovites have been locked in their apartments for more than six weeks in a harsh lockdown that won’t be eased until the end of May at the earliest.
As Putin has taken a back seat and delegated responsibility to regional governors, his popularity has hit a historic low of 59 percent in early May, according to the independent Levada Center. Its polls found that more than a third of Russians disapproved of Putin’s handling of the corona crisis.
With falling oil prices adding to the Kremlin’s woes, this crisis might be the greatest challenge to Putin’s rule in his 20 years at Russia’s helm. The vote on the constitutional amendment that would let him rule for another two terms until 2035 has been put on hold indefinitely.
But as Putin frets, it’s business as usual across the border in Belarus: Lukashenko has not backed down from holding presidential elections in early August, despite criticism from the country’s opposition. A likely victory there would hand the former pig farm director his sixth term as president of Belarus, and extend his iron rule until 2025.
The idiosyncratic Belarussian dictator, who is fiercely competitive with the Russian leader — and even claims to be a better ice hockey player — can be seen as the Joker to Putin’s Batman. And during these scary corona wars, the Joker’s nihilistic, live-and-let-die attitude seems to be triumphing against Batman’s respect for human health and decency.
Though Russia is doing the right thing by imposing strict lockdowns, and for once being forthcoming with its citizens about the dangers of the coronavirus, the Kremlin’s still getting booed for its efforts. Frustrated Russians would rather shoot the messenger, and there are legitimate issues with the country’s handling of the crisis.
Russian-built ventilators short-circuited and caught on fire in a hospital in St. Petersburg, killing six patients. Doctors are working overtime and don’t have enough PPE. Small businesses are suffering. Many people are afraid to go outside, even for exercise, and domestic violence has been on the rise.
Meanwhile, Belarus has emerged as the Sweden of the post-communist world, and its devil-may-care attitude threatens the legitimacy of Russia’s harsher response.
As Moscow’s lockdown extends into the summer, and Belarus stays defiant and free, tensions are sure to reach boiling point.
No wonder an enraged Kremlin is keen to strike back. Russia has closed its borders with Belarus, even though they’re part of a union state. And the Kremlin’s main television station, Channel One, recently cast doubt on Belarus’ low official death count of 112, running a report from a cemetery near Minsk that had supposedly seen a spike in fresh graves in late April.
It also claimed that Belarus now has one of the highest per capita infection rates in Europe. Lukashenko dismissed the dispatch as fake news and expelled the Russian journalists responsible for the report. “Everyone is figuring out how to bite Belarus because we’re not following suit,” he barked back.
As Moscow’s lockdown extends into the summer, and Belarus stays defiant and free, tensions are sure to reach boiling point. With Russian’s frontiers closed indefinitely, and some driving to Minsk’s still-functioning international airport to exit the country, Belarus’s stance risks setting off a wave of rebellions against lockdowns across the border.
Already Kaliningrad, Yaroslavl and other regions are lifting restrictions early against advice from Moscow. Expect more trolling and propaganda out of the Kremlin against Lukashenko’s corona-denying regime in the coming months.
However, unless a huge surge in deaths destabilizes the country and leads to street protests against Lukashenko’s rule, there’s precious little that Moscow can do for now. If the trajectories of the two countries don’t change, the Joker could end up having the last laugh.