Clampdown: Government Repression and Coronavirus in Belarus

In a photo opportunity that would have landed any western politician on their arse, the current Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, pulls up to the side of an ice rink, outfitted in extremely fetching National ice hockey garb, to proclaim ‘there are no viruses here.’ ‘Sport’ and ‘Ice’ he believes are the ‘best actual anti-virus remedy.’ This butch, confrontational and completely fallacious statement well sums up the Belarusian approach to Coronavirus.

The eastern European nation of 9.5 million has adopted a Swedish style strategy to fight coronavirus – only with less of an emphasis on there being any real danger to worry about. Alongside Ice and Sport Mr Lukashenko has also recommended Vodka as a powerful anti-viral treatment (this claim is not supported by scientists). The Belarussian government cited ‘economic and social costs’ as reasons for not calling a lockdown similair to those that have been implemented in other countries. 

Far from closing down – Belarus is very much alive. The Belarusian Vysshaya Football league for instance has been one of the only sporting fixtures to go ahead anywhere in Europe during recent months. The private and public sectors alike are going around as if nothing has happened – especially the police. A report by the Human Rights Watch have reported that up to 120 journalists and activists have been arrested in May so far (as of the 13th). Those detained on various charges of unlawful assembly include climate and human rights activists, prominent journalists Sergei Piatrukhin, Roman Kislyak and Ales Asiptsou amongst others. Whilst most were released soon after their arrests, their suffering was far from over. Within days of release several detainees fell ill of Coronavirus. 

FC BATE Borisov in action at the Borisov Arena

But why should Belarus care so greatly for the suppression of these dissidents at a time when the nation faces a far bigger threat? Amongst those arrested were supporters of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger who happens to be standing to be president in the upcoming August presidential election. His task is a formidable one. Not only does he and his supporters face opposition from the police but they also face the formidable track record of Mr Lukashenko. He has enjoyed an astonishing vote share of above 80% in 4 of the 5 elections he’s stood in and has been President since the creation of the Republic back in 1994. 

With elections less than three months away, dissent, however futile, is being fiercely repressed. Meanwhile, Coronavirus, whether Lukashenko believes in it or not, is ravaging the nation. Coming quite late to the epidemic, with only 215 cases at the start of April, Belarus now has over 34,000 cases with 900 new cases reported every day. For such a small country, Belarus is still third in Europe for most new cases (as of the 25 May), behind Russia and the UK. Far from passing the peak, the worst maybe yet to come. If only Mr Lukashenko had the same concern for the very real threat of Covid-19 as he has for opposition, the future would look brighter for Belarus.

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair //

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