Coronavirus: Belarus WW2 parade defies pandemic and upstages Putin

There were no tanks, and no parade of soldiers and veterans, in the heart of Moscow to mark the 75th anniversary of victory in World War Two.

The Red Square 9 May parade was cancelled because of the pandemic but in neighbouring Belarus the parade went ahead in the centre of the capital Minsk, with a concert and festive fireworks planned as part of the programme.

Why did it go ahead?

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko appears unfazed by the pandemic. He has not followed the European pattern of imposing sweeping restrictions.

Russia is still under lockdown and for seven days in a row it has recorded more than 10,000 new Covid-19 infections.

And yet Mr Lukashenko refused to cancel his military parade, since it serves a patriotic purpose: to remind people of Soviet-era hardship and sacrifices.

Speaking ahead of the parade, he said: "They gave their lives so we could live today, that's why we can honour our heroes on this sacred day. We cannot do anything different."


Our current difficulties pale before the hardships and losses suffered by the heroic generation that saved the world from the brown plague

Mr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, exerting authoritarian control over Belarus in a style reminiscent of the Soviet era.

The Nazi occupation in 1941-1944 devastated Belarus: about a quarter of the population died, including almost the entire Jewish population.

So, as in Russia, Victory Day is a deeply patriotic occasion for many citizens.

How has coronavirus affected Belarus?

The Belarusian authorities have registered 21,101 cases of coronavirus, having conducted more than 240,000 tests. They say 121 people have died.

There is no regional information and journalists have not been allowed to interview medics or see what is going on in hospitals.

Shops, schools and public transport continue to function as normal. But the health ministry has issued recommendations for Belarusians to stay away from crowded places, use hand sanitiser and wear masks, especially if they belong to at-risk categories.

And Belarusians themselves are aware of the dangers. Some companies have urged staff to work from home where possible. Some universities and colleges have cut student numbers travelling at rush hour or have switched lectures online.

Many parents are keeping their children out of school. Belarus may have been the only European country not to stop its football championship but attendances have fallen dramatically.

A World Health Organization delegation visiting in April expressed concern about the lack of measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The EU has promised Belarus €60m (£52m; $64m) to help fight coronavirus – but only on condition that it fulfils WHO guidelines.

What do Russians make of it?

Under different circumstances, the 75th anniversary of Victory Day would have been celebrated lavishly in Russia, too.

Instead Russians were told to stay home. President Vladimir Putin made a televised address, highlighting the sacrifice of veterans who "fought for life against death", and laid flowers at a war memorial.

The Russian Air Force flew over Red Square and a military parade has been promised later this year.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hoped "the different methods employed by Russia and Belarus will not bring a sharp increase in the number of those infected".

But those different methods have touched off something of a spat. Belarus accused a Russian TV crew of spreading fake news about coronavirus in Belarus and revoked the accreditation of Channel 1 correspondent Alexei Kruchinin and his cameraman.

Kruchinin has had to leave Belarus, denying the accusations against him.

Russian epidemiologist Viktor Larichev has compared holding the parade to having a feast in the middle of a plague. "It is simple stupidity," he said on Russian radio.

Who will be there?

Normally, pride of place is given to war veterans but President Lukashenko has said nobody has to join the Victory Day ceremonies who does not want to.

Very few veterans are still alive. Most are in their nineties and very vulnerable to Covid-19.

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