Coronavirus and Dictatorial Dementia: Aleksandr Lukashenko and His Fight Against the Reality. A Lesson for Us (Too)

[ANALYSIS Bulletin No 5] Dan Nicu |The global crisis we are experiencing, caused by the CoVID-19 pandemic, got various responses from various countries. Now, two months after the epidemic went beyond Chinese borders and more than one month after its strong debut on the European arena, we can notice examples of countries that had an exemplary mobilisation and managed to keep the infection under control (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Georgia) and some countries where authorities chose a different strategy than the almost unanimously accepted one, of limiting the virus spreading as much as possible, or refused to accept the reality of the pandemic and the gravity of the situation.

It is hard to believe, but there are countries where authorities choose to behave like children, who cover their eyes and shout that they have hidden, believing that no one sees them. One of them is Turkmenistan, where it is prohibited to speak publicly of the CoVID-19 virus. Another country is Belarus, where the authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko is making a number of public statements that are apparently shocking to anyone who believes that presidents should be interested in protecting public health. This is what we will discuss further on.

The case of Belarus is important for the Republic of Moldova, as we have politicians, some of them ruling or holding important positions, who believe that Aleksandr Lukashenko and his anti-democratic regime are an example worth following. The aforementioned politicians include both the President of the Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon, and Renato Usatii, the Mayor of Balti municipality – the second biggest city. Even though the two of them seem to be in a fierce political confrontation, they have in common, among other things, an admiration for the dictator from Minsk.

An admiration that is absolutely groundless, at least given the Belarus President’s actions during the last weeks. To be precise, the authoritarian President of Belarus, in his statements, derided the fight against coronavirus and claimed, pretending to be all-knowing, that his country could not be hit by this threat. Thus, in late March, Aleksandr Lukashenko turned down the concerns about the virus spreading in his country saying: ‘Despite some criticism, I call this coronavirus nothing but a psychosis, and I will never change my opinion, because we have undergone many such situations together, and we know what the results were. I am sure that this is yet another psychosis that will benefit some people and will harm others.’[1] Please notice the scent of conspiracy theory at the end of his statements, as well as him not believing in the threat of the virus – these are ideas promoted by followers of ‘alternative’ currents and ‘hidden truths’ from all over the world.

The dissemination of such opinions is very dangerous, as it lowers citizens’ vigilance and makes them not to take precautionary measures, which, in turn, can lead to sad consequences. However, there is probably no one in the political leadership of Belarus that could convince the President to stop embarrassing himself, because he continued with more ‘bright’ ideas. ‘I don’t drink alcohol, but lately I’ve been saying that vodka is good not just for washing hands, but also to fight the virus if you drink 40-50 ml per day (...) Go to the sauna two or three times per week – it is useful. The Chinese suggested that the virus does not survive in temperatures of over +60°C. (...) It’s a pleasure to watch the television – people driving tractors, no one talking about the virus. Tractors will cure everyone, the fields will cure everyone[2] boasted Lukashenko during a press conference. Demonstratively, after a hockey match where he played, the leader of Belarus asked the journalist who asked him if there was anything to stop him playing hockey: ‘There’s no virus here. You didn’t see any of them flying around, did you? Neither did I.[3] He has also stated repeatedly that sport strengthens immunity, therefore sport competitions have not been suspended and take place as planned.

These grotesque statements make derisory every attempt at seriousness that the leader of Belarus might undertake. They put him on the same team with former and current dictators, known for their eccentricity, such as Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi or Rodrigo Duterte. At first sight, there is no logical explanation for this behaviour. However, if we recall that Lukashenko planned for August 2020 one more overwhelming victory in the presidential election – with the support of the populace – the meaning of this smokescreen comes into sight. President Lukashenko hopes that, by ignoring the coronavirus, the country will somehow survive the crisis and everything will pass without any damage to his image, without raising discontent among the people up to the point where it would be necessary to stop protests forcefully, as it happened in 2010. Putting a hold to economic activity might lead to a decrease by over 30% in exports and by 20% in the GDP, which would affect significantly the standard of living, thus putting the leadership in trouble – this is the opinion of the Belarusian political analyst Dmitry Bolkunets.[4]

Taking into account the current regional geopolitical situation, the fact that after 2014 we have been living in a different world compared to 2010, with a different power balance and a much greater interest of Russia towards stemming any domestic unrest that might take Belarus out of its control, Lukashenko has realised that he might lose power much easier than ever in the past.

However things developed in a predictable way and the number of Belarusians infected with coronavirus increased up to 2,600 in less than two weeks, with 300-400 new cases every day during 11-13 April, while the number of deaths got to 26.[5] Despite President’s bravado in late March and early April, the health facilities from Belarus started to act on their own, taking specific measures, which means that Lukashenko did not go out of his mind, but rather tried to test the depth of the water, to see of he could pass through. But he could not. On 9 April, the Belarusian authorities established lockdown conditions and made them public. These measures were taken under circumstances when the people have already self-organised and started not to go out into the streets massively and not to attend public events, and Minsk started to look as empty as any other city in European Union. After students of Belarusian universities got into conflict with university leadership in early April, demanding their right to on-line courses, the authorities have placed recently all educational institutions under quarantine.

The tone of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s speeches has also changed. On 7 April, the President of Belarus stated ‘I am not saying we should be fine with people dying. We need to fight for every person. Especially when it comes to the elderly people.’[6] Nonetheless, he still emphasises that it is inadmissible to let the economy be affected by measures like declaring a state of epidemic or emergency at national level. Other statements followed on 9 April, where the leader from Minsk said that looking at the situation in Europe, one could see that the virus was declining, started to leave, but the economy stayed, that’s why it had to be protected. That was said despite thousands of cases of infection registered in his country and tens of deceased people, with the situation still unfolding. We just have to see how the behaviour of the Belarusian President will change over the following weeks, as the epidemiological situation of the country is worsening. It is worth mentioning in this context that the first case of coronavirus was registered in Belarus on 28 February, while the first collective anti-infection security measures started to be implemented only after 7 April. In most European countries quarantine measures started to be taken since early March. Belarus lost one month and the consequences are now visible in the fast increase in the number of cases of coronavirus infection.

We can see similarities between the behaviour of Aleksandr Lukashenko and the behaviour of the Moldovan President, Igor Dodon, who also made some memorable statements, like the one where he compared the coronavirus to a simple flu ‘that goes through you and you don’t feel it’. Actually on 9 April Lukashenko said something very similar: ‘We have all got the flu, but they invented a new name for it – novel coronavirus’.[7] The difference between Lukashenko and Dodon is that the latter only tries to pretend being an authoritarian leader and dictator, knowing very well that he does not have an own majority in the Parliament and that the Government he created with the Democratic Party is less stable than he would like it to seem, especially in the context of the coronavirus, when the Prime Minister Ion Chicu made, repeatedly, statements with a content that was opposite to what Igor Dodon was saying, particularly with respect to church service, which Chicu supported and Dodon disapproved, or the support from the EU, which Dodon declared inexistent in the morning, while Chicu described it in detail in the evening and expressed official gratitude to the European authorities. As opposite to Belarus, the Republic of Moldova has an independent civil society and press, who are not keeping silent and they can cause, by joining their efforts, severe image damage even to the seemingly indestructible Igor Dodon. He knows this and that is why he affords less than his Belarusian fellow. However, Dodon, as well as Lukashenko, has a presidential election planned this year, which he either wins or disappears from politics. Therefore he would like to be able to play with statements and ignore the reality, hoping that it will all pass by, as the leader of Belarus does. He cannot do that though, because he knows that in the Republic of Moldova the ones in power today can become outcasts tomorrow, as it happened many times in the past 30 years.

Making reference exclusively to the domestic developments in Belarus and even comparing it with countries that have more cases of infection and more deaths, but which have democratic regimes, we can notice the same witless and detached response that dictatorships generally have when facing a crisis. When listening to Lukashenko, we hear in our ears the trembling voice of Nicolae Ceausescu, who was announcing 100 lei increases in salaries and pensions from the tribune of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party on 21 December 1989. So we realise, once more, that despite the fascination for apparent ‘discipline’ that some dictatorships create in the society, like the one in China, only democracies are prepared enough to respond to crises in a way that generates maximum efficiency with minimum damage to fundamental human and citizen rights and freedoms. Last but not least, they do it with minimum damage to common sense, which the former head of a soviet collective farm Aleksandr Lukashenko disregarded entirely, thus endangering his own citizens.

References:

[1] https://iz.ru/990466/igor-karmazin/traktor-vsekh-vylechit-pochemu-belorussiia-otkazalas-ot-karantina

[2] https://news.liga.net/world/video/syur-lukashenko-znaet-kak-zaschititsya-ot-virusa-vodka-sauna-i-traktor-video

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IwEJPrPVp4

[4] https://iz.ru/990466/igor-karmazin/traktor-vsekh-vylechit-pochemu-belorussiia-otkazalas-ot-karantina

[5] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[6]https://www.tvr.by/news/obshchestvo/aleksandr_lukashenko_o_koronaviruse_nado_borotsya_za_kazhdogo_cheloveka/

[7] https://officelife.media/news/15984-lukashenko-the-coronavirus-was-already-leaving/

Dan Nicu graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences and Master’s Program in Political Theory and Analysis at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration of Bucharest. Both his diploma paper and dissertation analyse the post-Soviet transition of the Republic of Moldova. Author of two volumes: ‘Copiii vitregi ai Istoriei sau Se caută o revoluție pentru Basarabi’ [‘Step Children of History or a Revolution for Bessarabia is Sought’] (2008) and ‘Moldovenii în tranziție’ [‘Moldovans in Transition’] (2013). In the recent years, he has worked for several publications from Romania and the Republic of Moldova, including Adevarul, Cotidianul, Timpul.

Image via: EurActiv

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