While Belarusians speak about hospitals full of people with Covid-19, the official statistics hide the scale of the crisis. Lithuania is now worried about the virus spreading from its eastern neighbour, writes journalist Dzmitry Mitskevich in Minsk.
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Alexander Lukashenko’s “bravado,” as the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda called it, made Belarus famous all over the world.
On March 16, during the meeting with heads of regional state administrations, Lukashenko said “the tractor” and work in “the field will cure everyone”.
This statement was picked up in the Washington Post, where Belarusian ruler was compared to his Brazilian and American counterparts. The Belarusian leader later claimed that visiting sauna and drinking 100 grams of vodka a day could protect everyone from the virus.
On March 29, he played a hockey match with his amateur team. During the game the arena was full of people – usually, the authorities make officials, teachers and schoolchildren visit such matches. After the final whistle, Lukashenko gave an interview to a journalist of state media, asking her whether she “can see the virus”. “I can’t see it either,” said Lukashenko. “The ice will heal everyone here”.
“Why was he walking in the streets and even working?” said Lukashenko in response to the death of Viktar Dashkevich, the first official victim of Covid-19 in Belarus.
Dashkevich, 75, was a famous and state-decorated actor of Yakub Kolas Theatre in Viciebsk. The words of the ruler of the state about the death of an honoured person – who was 10 years older than Lukashenko – were met with anger by the society.
It is impossible to imagine that another head of state in Europe would react to tragedy in such a way.
This fact is one of the signs that the Belarusian ruler will never take responsibility for the actions, or a lack of response, in fighting Covid-19. Now it’s obvious that he will blame the government, the media or the people themselves.
For Lukashenko, it is extremely important to save face in the year of the presidential election, scheduled for summer 2020. That’s why he is playing the strong leader who is not afraid of any virus and is acting as usual.
On the brink of economic disaster
However, it is not only public ignorance that can influence Lukashenko’s ratings in the Belarusian society. Covid-19 has already had a negative impact on the Belarusian economy. In March, the value of the Belarusian ruble (BYN) decreased by 13 percent against the US dollar.
One of the main taxpayers in the country, Belaruskali, still has no contract with China (its main client) on exports of potash fertilisers.
Meanwhile, there is still no agreement on Russian oil supplies for the current year, while the gas price for Belarus is higher than that for the rest of the world. The development of the IT sector is also slowing down due to a lack of orders from foreign companies, especially the US.
On March 30, the official state media reported about Belarus seeking negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of about 900 million US dollars. This looks quite ironic against the background of the failure to negotiate with the IMF in September 2018.
Back then, Lukashenko personally gave an order to the government to refuse the loan. He wouldn’t accept the terms that included economic reforms, like the abolition of state-ordered loans to unprofitable enterprises (especially in agriculture) and the privatisation of several large state-owned companies. Lukashenko told that the implementation of the programme “will be a shock for the people”.
Lithuania and the EU
The preservation and development of cooperation with neighbouring states is really important for Belarus.
The Lithuanian authorities are already expressing fears about Belarus’ lack of reaction to Covid-19, which can endanger the whole region and bring even more harm to the economy of the neighbouring states, especially taking into consideration the importance of Belarus as a transit country.
Potentially, this can cause problems in bilateral relations which will only aggravate the situation for both states.
“We cannot trust the information we receive formally from Belarus, as I believe that the Belarusian leader is assessing the situation with a certain bravado,” said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda on April 1, adding that the true number of infected people and lethal cases may be much bigger.
“If the risk is really sensitive, we should limit any contact with a country that is currently a little too relaxed in assessing the coronavirus outbreak. It is possible that it will have dire consequences in that regard,” he said.
Taking into consideration that political relations between Belarus and Lithuania are far from friendly, there can be further aggravation if the Belarusian authorities continue to hide information about Covid-19.
This will result in the worsening of relations with other European states and the European Union as a whole, which is definitely not the goal of Lukashenko – he needs economic support from the EU against the background of worsening economic situation and aggravation of relations with Russia.
State propaganda against ‘fake news’
At the end of March, officials and representatives of Belarusian state media initiated a discussion of a laws to punish the press for the “dissemination of fake news” on Covid-19.
It is easy to guess that “fake news” mean the actual information on Covid-19 in the country that the authorities are trying to hide.
Doctors have already been telling independent media that the authorities are preventing medical workers from writing Covid-19 diagnosis in reports to improve the country’s statistics.
That’s why the number of ‘pneumonia’ cases is expected to grow enormously in the near future.
The Belarusian society traditionally doesn’t trust the authorities. For example, Belarusians often use the famous meme with Piotr Prakapovich, who was the head of the National Bank of Belarus back in 2011. On March 17, 2011, he said that “there will be no devaluation” of the Belarusian currency. On May 23, 2011, the Belarusian ruble was devalued by 56 percent.
Thus, if the authorities say that the situation with Covid-19 in Belarus is under full control and there are no reasons for panic, the Belarusians understand that the opposite is the case – the state can’t cope with the problem and the situation is worsening.
People are already practicing self-isolation and working from home, while there are many crowdfunding projects to help doctors, hospitals and social services cope with Covid-19 and its consequences.
The Belarusian people often compare the current situation with the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine when a large proportion of the nuclear fallout descended upon Belarus, and the Soviet authorities did not report about the catastrophe in order to preserve its image and full control over the population.
One can easily see the parallel between behaviour of the USSR nomenclature and the Belarusian higher officials.
Just like in 1986, when people were marching in the parade on May 1 without knowing about the tragedy, the Belarusian authorities are now preparing for a military parade on May 9.
One can only hope that the consequences will not be as disastrous for Belarusians.
Dzmitry Mitskevich. Journalist of Belsat TV, analyst of Belarus Security Blog project. In 2012, he graduated from the Faculty of Intercultural Communication of Minsk State Linguistic University. Fields of interest: international relations, international terrorism, information warfare and propaganda.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.