Thousands of people, including elderly veterans of the second world war, have turned out for Belarus’ Victory Day military parade despite the coronavirus epidemic.
Images from the parade showed crowds packed on to parade bleachers as the country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, boasted of holding the only parade in the former Soviet Union to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany.
“In this insane, disoriented world, there will be people who condemn us for the time and place of this sacred act,” he said defiantly. “Don’t rush to conclusions or condemn us, descendants of the victory of Belarusians. We couldn’t have acted differently. We had no other choice. And even if we had one, we would have done the same.”
Lukashenko has publicly downplayed the epidemic, appearing at Orthodox Easter services and other public events and calling concerns over the outbreak a “psychosis”. Belarus is the only country in Europe to continue holding football matches during the crisis.
The country officially has 21,101 cases of coronavirus and 121 deaths from the disease. Local activists have played an important role in crowdfunding the country’s response to the disease and making up for shortages at local hospitals.
Russia and other countries cancelled their 9 May parades, moving many of the celebrations online. While laying flowers at the eternal flame near the Kremlin on Monday, Putin vowed to hold the parade and a memorial march called the Immortal Regiment by the end of the year. “We will have our main parade on Red Square, and the national march of the Immortal Regiment – the march of our grateful memory and inextricable, vital, living communication between generations,” he said.
Lukashenko appeared to relish upstaging Russia’s VE Day celebrations, saying the dangers from the coronavirus epidemic paled in comparison to the hardships faced during the second world war.
“Let the parade in Minsk today be the only one in the post-Soviet space,” he said. “It will be held in honour of all Soviet fighters who liberated the world from Nazism.”
The coronavirus outbreak has driven something of a wedge between Russia and Belarus as the two countries’ responses to the epidemic diverge.
The Kremlin has publicly worried that Belarus’ lax approach to social isolation methods would “bring a sharp increase in the number of those infected”.
Belarus this week revoked the accreditation of a Russian state television news crew after a report about rising coronavirus deaths in the country.
Andrew Roth in Moscow