Response to COVID-19 pandemic at the state level increasingly presents itself as a better way of observing how well the incumbent leader is capable of conducting effective crisis management, or how far they can go to preserve their own position at the expense of public health and safety. Some aspiring autocrats like Poland’s Kaczynski or Hungary’s Victor Orban are making use of the pandemic to tighten their grips further on power, but still, they do recognize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a few hundred kilometers East of Warsaw, despite the existence of the virus, Minsk remains to be one of the few accessible European capitals. Though it is not a good time for anybody to make use of the cheaper flights and go to banyas -the steam baths- and enjoy a football match of Dynamo Brest who now plays to an audience of cardboard mannequins. Not solely because of the pandemic itself, but because of the unorthodox methods that Belarus choose to combat the virus. Some interesting “cures” were proposed by Belarus’ long-standing autocrat Alexander Lukashenko such as drowning the virus with vodka or healing through tractors while working in the fields of rural settlements. As delirious as they may sound, the Belarusian way of dealing with the virus presents itself as an interesting case to observe. So, why Lukashenko is so reluctant in recognizing the seriousness of the virus? What motivates him? In this blog post, I will try to approach these questions from two perspectives which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Economy and political image.
The first perspective I want to begin with is concerned with the economy of Belarus. Under USSR, Belarus was a relatively well-developed country with a good living standard. After the fall of the USSR, the Belarusian economy faced economic crises like other former Soviet republics. With the accession of Lukashenko to the presidential office in 1994, their path differed from that of Russia with the debut of market socialism which asserted more administrative control over currency and exchange rates. Also, since the dissolution of the USSR, the Belarusian economy heavily relied on Russia as a trading partner where Russia still constitutes almost half of both imports and exports and remains to be the main partner. In other words, consumption and production should be kept at a certain minimum for the Belarusian economy to continue business as usual. Moreover, a quarter of the Belarusian population lives in Minsk but they are not locals. Many of them relocated to Minsk only for work. Hence imposing quarantine would eventually mean that a significant portion of the population will move internally return to their hometowns. According to an article by Alexander Anischenko and Maria Rodich, the majority of the institutions operate in a normal, business as usual, mode. Some restrictions are introduced in schools, universities, but the stores and shopping malls are all open  which seems to be pretty important if heavily dependent Belarusian economy is to survive.
The discourse of Lukashenko in the economic context may have been serving to fulfill two purposes. First is to defame the pandemic and reduce possible voluntary quarantine, hence keeping the economy at a certain level by making sure the workforce continues to stay where they are and continue participating in the economy. And second, by making public appearances in a plethora of events and suggesting working and producing is the best cure, Lukashenko reduces the cognitive dissonance that occurred through the observation of measures taken by other neighboring countries. All in all, a person in their right mind would know for sure that a few shots of vodka may be a cure for some other things, but COVID-19 is not one of them. One thing for sure, we need some time before seeing how Lukashenko’s unorthodox ways help Belarusian economy, if ever.
The second perspective I think is more concerned with the image and persona that Lukashenko preserved over a quarter-century of authoritarian rule. Since he took the office in 1994, Lukashenko cultivated a tough-guy image who can deal with every circumstance that his fellow Belarusians can ever face. He sailed Belarus through a number of crises while resisting to western pressure occurred because of the irregularities in the election and human rights violations. He even went as far as comparing Belarusian recovery after the fall of the USSR to that of Third Reich, which according to him, attained its peak under Hitler. Now that COVID-19 morphs into local transmission phase from imported cases phase, things are extremely prone to spiral out of ‘his’ control. Hence, Lukashenko has done more to keep the public from receiving information about the coronavirus than he has to try and stop it from spreading. […] he ordered his notoriously heavy-handed state security service — still named the KGB even three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union — to investigate anyone who reports a death related to COVID-19. The ‘psychosis of COVID-19’ –as Lukashenko infamously stated- may also have a profound impact on how people perceive the government. In other words, ineffective handling may soar the wide popularity Lukashenko extensively enjoyed while in the office which he effectively used to tilt the ground for his sake. Taking into consideration that Belarus is extremely dependent and lacks both the expertise as well as resources to handle the situation, defamation and negligence seems to be a more cost-effective way of preserving public image whilst possibly providing new venues for more intensive control on the flow of information and surveillance. With these two aspects in mind, Belarus displays the symptoms of a typical authoritarian regime where a crisis can always present itself in the form of opportunity. But what Lukashenko does in the case of a deadly pandemic, is only a little more than gambling. From this point, there occur two broad possibilities. Either Lukashenko will suffer a decrease in his popularity due to his resistance to the reality, or he will further clench his fists over Belarus through new measures his government will take in the context of COVID-19. The outcome of the gamble, however, is yet to be seen.
 Alexey Anischenko, Maria Rodich. 2020. COVID-19 Economic Response in Belarus. April 03. Accessed 04 24, 2020. https://www.sorainen.com/publications/covid-19-economic-response-in-belarus/.
 Miller, Christopher. 2020. Almost Everyone Is Taking The Coronavirus Seriously. Apart From The Country Where Even The Soccer League Hasn’t Been Suspended. BuzzFeedNews, 3 30. Accessed 04 26, 2020. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/coronavirus-belarus-vodka-soccer-tractors.