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2020.04.03 09:38

Vilnius and Minsk in war of words over coronavirus handling

LRT.lt 2020.04.03 09:38

Lithuania’s concern that Belarus is not handling the coronavirus outbreak well has led to a spat between the neighbouring countries, with Minsk telling Vilnius not to spread “speculations and rumours”.

Lithuanian leaders suggested this week that Belarus was purposefully downplaying the epidemic and failing to take proper action, indicating it might stop all communication across the border.

Read more: Belarus ‘too relaxed’ about coronavirus outbreak

“Public officials downplaying the situation [and] not publicly releasing information about movement restrictions [...] are worrying us,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius told LRT English on Thursday.

Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis also said on Wednesday that the neighbouring country could be “an uncontrolled hotspot” of the disease, posing a threat to Lithuania.

As of Thursday evening, Belarus has reported 254 cases of Covid-19 and four deaths. Corresponding figures in Lithuania are more than twice as high, despite a population only a third of Belarus’.

Both the Lithuanian prime minister and the president suggested that Minsk was misrepresenting the situation in Belarus.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said on Wednesday that “we cannot trust the information we officially receive from Belarus, as I see that the Belarusian leader is acting with a bit of bravado”.

“It's quite possible that the true figures are much worse as we know about certain outbreaks in the Belarusian territory and registered deaths,” said Nausėda.

Closing the border

Belearus has refused to impose restrictions on public life seen in other European countries, including cancelling sporting events.

President Alexander Lukashenko has previously said that tractors and work in the fields can be the answer to the coronavirus and has continued attending sporting events.

Read more: Tractors and fields will 'heal everybody', says Belarusian leader

Minsk remains one of the few European capitals accessible by air from Vilnius. The Belarussian airline Belavia continues to operate regular flights from Minsk to Vilnius, and “a few” people still cross the border by land between the countries, according to Prime Minister Skvernelis.

Unless there is an “adequate” response to the coronavirus crisis on the Belarusian side, Lithuania will stop those “few” remaining people from crossing the border, Skvernelis.

The Lithuanian government decided on Wednesday to impose a ban, effective from Saturday, on all passenger travel by air and ferry, except for the ferry line between Kiel in Germany and Klaipėda.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Anatoly Gaz criticised Lithuania’s statements, calling on Vilnius not to spread “speculations and rumours”.

Belarusian President Lukashenko also said on Thursday that his country could fight the virus more effectively than Lithuania, and told President Nausėda to “take care of your own virus”.

“You have many issues to deal with over there,” Lukashenko was quoted by the state news agency BelTA.

"Why do I insist on the economy to continue working? Because I am thinking about what will happen to us afterwards if we stop like many: Lithuanians, Latvians and others,” Lukashenko said.

More serious measures

Commenting on the war of words between Vilnius and Minsk, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linkevičius thanked for the “humanitarian corridor” that allowed Lithuanians to return home via Minsk after most European countries closed their borders.

However, the Belarusian government’s approach “make us worried”, he told LRT English.

“We have to take [...] more serious measures,” he noted, adding that Lithuania would still continue trading with Belarus, “which is very important”.