Belarus held a fully-fledged military parade to mark Victory Day, shrugging off safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic that led Russia to curtail its own long-planned 75th-anniversary observances.
Tens of thousands of spectators lined the parade route on Saturday as some 3,000 soldiers and 185 military vehicles passed by in the capital, Minsk.
Some elderly veterans watching from a stand wore masks, but few face coverings or other protective measures were seen in the throng of viewers along the street.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s insistence on going ahead with the display contrasted with neighbour Russia, which scaled back celebrations amid a jump in coronavirus cases and postponed its usual massive military parade on Red Square.
Dressed in military uniform and surrounded by generals, Lukashenko said it was unacceptable for Belarus to even think about cancelling the parade.
“There will be people who will condemn us,” Lukashenko said. He told such critics: “Do not rush to draw conclusions, let alone condemn us, the heirs of the victory, the Belarusians … We simply could not асt differently, we had no other choice.”
Belarus has not imposed lockdown measures or social distancing rules, and kept its borders open while countries around the world have closed them.
The Eastern European nation, with a population of about 9 million, has recorded more than 21,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 933 new cases in the past day, and 121 deaths.
“This is a demonstration of determination, will, strength, not so much for society as for the inner circle of the elite,” said Andrey Egorov, senior analyst at the Center for European Transformation. “It’s a demonstration that everything remains under control.”
Spectator Anatoly Kudryanok, who did not wear a mask, said he agreed with the president’s position.
“I don‘t feel danger, I don‘t give in to psychosis. The president said that our medicine will cope with everything. There is no fear,” said Kudryanok, who watched the parade with his wife and eight-year-old son.
But author Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature, harshly criticised Lukashenko, who has stifled opposition throughout his quarter-century tenure as Belarusian president.
“The powerful will of this person is able to subjugate a vast country and no one is there who will tell him that this is crazy,” Alexievich told reporters.