Tanks and fireworks: Belarus gearing up for Victory Parade amid pandemic

Despite recommendations of the World Health Organisation, the Belarusian authorities plan to hold a military parade involving at least 3,000 people. Belarus celebrates Victory Day on May 9; it is the holiday that praises the role of the Soviet army in the Second World War. In contrast to many countries that quietly commemorate the date, Belarus has a long tradition of organising parades and demonstrating the country’s military might. The preparations for this year’s ceremony are taking place under unprecedented circumstances and cause criticism as the Belarusian leadership appears to be reluctant to follow instructions on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Celebration instead of commemoration

V-Day military parades are conducted in a few post-Soviet countries. Power projection comes together with patriotic concerts and forceful mobilisation of the audience. However, such celebrations are always blasted for the war discourse domination over commemoration. Many kids attend parades; they are encouraged to learn more about military equipment and told about the Great Victory. Victim discourse and education about the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War (considered as a part of WWII) is not present at such events. In sum, Victory parades depict one side of the coin, while the other side is never turned to the observer.

As Lizaveta Kasmach summarises for Belarus Digest: “Recognising this immense mobilising potential, Belarusian authorities use the memory of the war to legitimise current political regime. Yet the side effect is that the actual history moves to the background, while the commemorative practises encourage the cult of the war.”

High cost for public health

The 2020 Victory Parade of 2020 might become another military show and public gathering of thousands of people. It was not clear whether the march is to happen due to the outbreak of COVID-19. So far, neither Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka nor the Defence Ministry have announced plans to postpone or call off the high-profile event. A dress rehearsal of the parade is scheduled for the 5th and the 7th of May. At the same time, chances for cancellation of the celebration are growing in the context of the surge in confirmed coronavirus cases.

In Belarus, staging parades involves thousands of soldiers and military servants who coordinate both human show and weapons presentation; hundreds of conscripts make up marching troops.

One squad from Russia and one from China will join 20 teams of soldiers from Belarus at the parade. The representatives of the Russian army will show up in Minsk as well – with their planes, Iskanders, and other equipment. At the same time, Russian leader Vladimir Putin cancelled the Victory Parade in Moscow amid the pandemic and ordered to place the troops that participated in the rehearsal under quarantine.

Putin during the 2019 Victory Parade. Photo – kremlin.ru

On April 16, the first coronavirus case was recorded in the Belarusian army. Some sources report on the military bases being closed for visitors and strictly quarantined. Nevertheless, the Defence Ministry representative told the Belarusian media outlet Nasha Niva that no soldiers involved in the parade had contracted the virus.

Potential costs for rescheduling the military parade this year are significantly smaller than conducting a bustling celebration. Even Sweden that is not under lockdown has put off mass events in order to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some recommendations that the WHO mission voiced to Belarus in mid April addressed calls on cancelling or rescheduling large-scale events in Belarus. Disregarding the WHO’s instructions, the Belarusian authorities unconsciously invited civil society to express disagreement with the state’s approach.

Activists demand ban

With growing attention to the volunteers managing the initiative #ByCovid19, it became easier to mobilise civil society to appeal against the parade. A petition created by activists demanded to cancel the show and redirect financial resources to combatting the pandemic in the country. Namely, the authors suggested helping elderly population; buying protection gear and medical equipment for the hospitals; investing in a greenspace expansion, and road reparation.

Phot. Vasil Malchanau / Belsat

The petition signed by 7,000 persons was sent to the Defence Ministry. Two weeks later, minister Viktar Khrenin came up with the official response. According to him, the epidemiological environment in Belarus allows for conducting such celebrations. The military parades are symbolic and highlight the ability and desire of Belarusians to defend the country’s sovereignty, Khrenin added.

“The epidemiological situation in Belarus allows the armed forces to hold planned combat training activities. Preparation and holding of a parade is an integral part of combat training of troops. In the course of trainings the personnel improves their skills, including management and maintenance of the equipment assigned to them, as well as raises their professional skills,” the reply reads.

Another petition was created by Yury Hubarevich, a candidate for the opposition leader of the 2020 presidential election campaign. 2,500 signers of the petition demanded the authorities allocate financial resources for buying medical equipment and face masks. The budget of the parade is believed to total to $2 mln. However, there is no official information on the budget from the defence ministry.

Brest officials consider banning rallies on Victory Day

“Against this background, the authorities decide to spend budget on the parade, as well as to hold a mass event itself, which is not recommended by WHO during the epidemic. Therefore, our petition is a demand to cancel the parade and spend the saved money on medical needs”, TUT.by quotes Hubarevich.

Taking risks

Political analyst Artsyom Shraybman believes that the no-quarantine policy chosen by Lukashenka is the riskiest political decision he has ever made. If Belarus does not become the region’s leader in the death toll, Lukashenka will be a winner. However, if it turns the other way, the Belarusian economy and trust in Lukashenka will come to a crisis, the expert suggests.

The confident statements by Lukashenka and the Defence Ministry indicate that the Victory Parade is most likely to happen in May. Even though hundreds of volunteer visitors might opt to skip the military show this year, the event implies a gathering of at least 3,000 performers. The decision will hardly become popular given that there are more 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. The money spent on the march would unlikely serve as a safety bag for the Belarusian economy. At the same time, the allocation of these funds for certain fields, e.g. healthcare, would probably save lives.

Defense Ministry unveils plans for May 9 parade

Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu