Belarus has gone ahead with a massive military parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, drawing a crowd of thousands, despite mounting concerns about the spread of coronavirus in the former Soviet state.
Saturday’s parade, during which soldiers and tanks flooded into the capital Minsk, is the latest show of defiance by strongman leader Aleksander Lukashenko, who has consistently resisted calls from neighbours and international organisations to take tougher measures against the virus.
Even as Russia, Belarus’s eastern neighbour, cancelled a similar parade amid soaring infections, Mr Lukashenko — who has suggested driving tractors, visiting the sauna and communing with goats as antidotes to Covid-19 — said in a defiant speech that his country had never entertained doing so.
“In this crazy world that has lost its reference points and guidelines, there are people who condemn us for choosing this place and time for organising this holy celebration,” he said, according to Belarus’s news agency, Belta.
“I would like to tell them as a human being: don’t rush to make conclusions or condemn us, the successors of the victory, Belarusians. We just couldn’t act differently, we didn’t have a choice. And if we did, we would have done the same anyway!”
Across the border in Moscow, president Vladimir Putin made no reference to the pandemic in a speech to mark the anniversary, even though Russia’s failure to curb the spread of Covid-19 forced him to abandon plans for a large military parade and instead lay flowers alone at a military tomb, as 75 air force jets and helicopters flew over the deserted city.
“As always, we will widely and solemnly mark this anniversary, we will do it with dignity, as our duty to those who have suffered, achieved and accomplished the victory tells us,” Mr Putin said.
Belarus and Russia — then both part of the Soviet Union — lost about 25m people in the war, and the victory day celebrations are typically one of the most important holidays in both countries’ calendars.
Russia has faced 10,000 new coronavirus cases every day for the past week, to take its total infections to almost 200,000. The country has the world’s fastest-growing case count after the US.
The disease has plunged Russia into economic crisis, thanks to a seven-week lockdown and a more than halving of oil prices — the country’s key export — that have driven Mr Putin’s approval ratings down to the lowest level in his presidency.
Belarus, which alongside Sweden is the only European country not to introduce a widespread lockdown to combat coronavirus, has recorded 21,101 cases of the virus, and 121 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
However, many locals fear that the official figures underplay the seriousness of the virus, and Belarus has come under fire from its neighbours for the lax approach. Lithuania’s foreign minister dismissed the Belarusian authorities’ response as “really very strange”.
Mr Lukashenko has largely ignored the criticism, keeping the country’s borders open and shying away from the sort of social distancing measures seen elsewhere in Europe. He also plans to go ahead with a presidential election on August 9.
However, in a slight modulation of his scepticism to the risks posed by the virus, he nevertheless last week advised Belarusians to stick to one partner during the emergency.
“Today people understand that if you’ve already kissed someone, then continue kissing the same person,” he said. “If you’re a real man, stay away from other women, just be patient for a month.”