Belarus has a unique method of fighting the coronavirus. It is, besides Sweden, the only country in Europe that did not impose a state of emergency, curfew, or any limitation of basic human rights. Its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, encourages Belarusians to stick to their daily routines and refuses to implement any form of social distancing.
The Belarusian president has argued that a full scale preventive lockdown was not necessary, and he called the coronavirus pandemic a product of psychosis, sending a clear message that he plans to keep his country open, in spite of a strong pressure to shut down the economy, and implement draconian measures that can be seen all over the globe. Critics suggest that Lukashenko is refusing to lockdown his country because it would have severe repercussions for the Belarusian economy. However, other nations are facing enormous economic consequences caused by the lockdown due to implementation of draconian measures such as curfew, mass surveillance and restricting freedom of movement. This means that Belarus is one of the few countries that managed to preserve its sovereignty.
“We have our own country. We are sovereign and independent. What we have earned was thanks to our brains and hands. We continue building our country. Sovereignty and independence of Belarus are inviolable”, Lukashenko said on January 24, almost two months before the COVID-19 epidemic spread all over Europe.
His speech was in the context of the oil dispute between Belarus and Russia. Moscow refused to provide cheap oil to its only ally in Europe, and suspended oil supplies to Minsk. However, Belarus found alternative ways of buying fossil fuel. They were imported from Norway, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Lukashenko’s determination not to accept Russia’s request for deepening integration into Russia – Belarus Union State in an exchange for cheap oil — has led to the Kremlin’s de facto capitulation. On April 6 Russia’s major oil companies, Rosneft, Lukoil and Gazprom announced they would resume crude supplies to Belarus. This was Lukashenko’s victory over Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Russia fully supported Belarus’ terms for crude supply in 2020.
Belarus has been under Western sanctions for decades, as it was accused of violating human rights. Recently, the European Union extended sanctions on Minsk for one year. The restrictions were introduced back in 2004 and are prolonged every year. Sanctions apply to the full embargo on the sale of weapons and equipment that can be used for repression. Over the years Lukashenko has demonstrated that he is not willing to make any significant concessions neither to the West nor to Russia. Even though Belarus has pretty good relations with China, Lukashenko did not implement the so called Chinese model in a battle against COVID-19, unlike some other European countries. He recently met with the Chinese ambassador in Minsk and they discussed the coronavirus pandemic. It is very unlikely that Beijing is pressuring Lukashenko to flow with the tide and lock down the country, but yet again he is demonstrating that he is capable to resist major world powers and preserve the country’s sovereignty.
When it comes to the pandemic, it is not very probable that Lukashenko will obey the World Health Organization recommendations to shut down the entire economy in order to stop the spread of the virus. However, some light measures were already taken. Reportedly, In Minsk the streets are noticeably less crowded with many companies, especially those in the country’s thriving IT sector, electing to switch to working remotely. Thermal cameras to check the temperature of fans as they enter stadiums, which are disinfected twice a day, have been installed. Also, school holidays were extended this week, and Belarus recently banned export of some staple foods which indicates that the government is quite aware of the situation, although, comparing to the total lockdown that can be seen in the rest of Europe, it is implementing very liberal measures. It is worth mentioning that, in the West, Belarus was called “the last European dictatorship”. Since almost all European countries are now locked down, it would not make much sense to keep labeling the former Soviet state this way. This is why some Western mainstream media try to portray the Belarusian president as a clown who “does not care about his own people”.
Time will show whether Lukashenko’s approach to COVID-19 was correct. For the time being, Belarus seems to remain the last bastion of sovereignty in Europe. Since the coronavirus is bringing radical changes to globalization, and society in general, it remains to be seen to what extent the global crisis will affect Belarus once the pandemic is over.
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