The Belarusian response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Denial and a military parade

Published 25 May 2020


Belarus is the only European country, next to Sweden, that has not imposed quarantine measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Belarusian President has repeatedly denied the scope and seriousness of the pandemic and, instead, held a large military parade in early May that gathered thousands of people in the capital of Minsk.
Asser senior researcher Dr Ulad Belavusau recently co-authored a blog with Dr Maksim Karliuk, the deputy director at the International BRICS Competition Law and Policy Center, for Verfassungsblog on the response of the Belarusian government to the COVID-19 pandemic. In their analysis, entitled ‘The State of Denial Amidst a Military Parade: COVID-19 in Belarus’, they observe that whereas democratic states seem to have embraced autocratic methods in the face of the pandemic, the Belarusian government has not, perhaps surprisingly, exercised the emergency powers available to it under the Constitution.
Their contribution, which considers the response of the Belarusian government to the current pandemic, is part of an online symposium for the Verfassungsblog containing over 60 comparative country reports showing the use – and potential abuse – of emergency powers from the perspective of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.  

The paradox of democratic versus authoritarian responses
Along with Sweden, Belarus remains the only European country without a state-imposed quarantine. Schools, sport facilities and competitions, hairdressers, restaurants and cinemas have all been functioning as normal in the same period when each of its six neighbouring states have introduced strict quarantine measures or even lockdowns. The President, Aliaksandr Łukašenka has repeatedly denied the scope and seriousness of the pandemic, at times in most extravagant ways, recommending Belarusian citizens to protect themselves against COVID-19 by playing hockey, slaying the virus with vodka, going to the sauna and working on tractors in the harvest fields. The apogee of the government’s denialist politics was the pompous military parade held in Minsk on 9 May 2020 that involved thousands of people, exposed to the virus, including especially vulnerable, elderly war veterans. Furthermore, the government spent a fortune on the event, while at the same time Belarusians are crowdfunding personal protective equipment for medical staff.  

However, perhaps surprising given the autocratic nature of the current Belarusian government, the emergency powers available to the government under the Constitution have not yet been exercised. Moreover, while other European countries have been structuring quarantine confinement in terms of both discipline and punishment, there have been two uncanny outliers: democratic Sweden and authoritarian Belarus. It seems that we face a paradoxical situation where democratic states seem to embrace autocratic methods in the face of the unknown, and an authoritarian state has failed to deploy the tools inherent to it, while emphatically demonstrating its authoritarian essence through the beloved show-off attribute of autocrats, a military parade.

Read the legal analysis by Dr Belavusau and Dr Karliuk here.

Dr Uladzislau Belavusau is Senior Researcher in European Law with the Asser’s research strand on Human Dignity and Human Security in International and European Law. He is the author of a monograph “Freedom of Speech” (Routledge, 2013) as well as a co-editor of two books “Law and Memory" (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and "EU Anti-Discrimination Law" (Oxford: Hart, 2018).

The Asser research strand Human Dignity and Human Security in International and European Law adopts as its normative framework a human rights approach to contemporary global challenges, inter alia in the fields of counter-terrorism, especially with regard to the topic of foreign (terrorist) fighters, international and transnational crimes, new technologies and artificial intelligence, and historical memory.