Crowds are gathering in the capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus for a military parade on May 9 marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Post-Soviet Belarus is the only European state that has resisted strict and sweeping national restrictions on movement and its longtime president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has downplayed the pandemic as a “psychosis.”
“Belarus celebrates this significant date at a difficult time,” Lukashenka said in a statement on May 9. “However, our current difficulties are dimmed by the hardships and losses that befell the heroic generation that saved the world from the brown plague.”
The parade was expected to attract thousands of spectators, with grandstands at the site designed to hold 11,000 people.
One hundred and sixty-seven police checkpoints were set up around the venue.
Images of the rehearsals for the commemorations showed large crowds of unmasked officials and participants hoisting national symbols and marching together at the scene of the event in the capital.
Lukashenka earlier this week called on leaders of other countries to attend the event.
“I am publicly calling on leaders of other countries, at least countries of the former [Soviet] Union, to gather in Minsk, which is the right thing to do,” Lukashenka said on May 5.
Russia will be represented by its ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, at the parade, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said, despite Russia’s decision to cancel its own plans for a massive gathering to mark the end of what it calls the Great Patriotic War.
“Holding a Victory Day Parade in Minsk on May 9 is Belarus’s sovereign right, which we respect,” Rudenko told Interfax.
The Belarusian parade is to include more than 3,000 members of the armed forces, 185 military vehicles and 42 aircraft, state news agency BelTA reported.
Activists from the Youth Bloc group turned up at a rehearsal of the parade carrying a mock coffin and dancing to protest the continuation of such a gathering in the face of the pandemic. Their stunt was meant to echo Ghana’s “dancing pallbearers,” an Internet meme that has become popular since the coronavirus emerged from central China months ago.
Victory Day is the most important national holiday in Belarus and other former Soviet states.
Russia decided to cancel its parade through Red Square in Moscow over concern about the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 188,000 Russians and left at least 1,723 dead.
The Minsk parade has raised the concern of the World Health Organization’s (WHO), which has called on the country’s authorities to impose social-distancing measures and avoid large public gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Belarus currently has more than 21,101 registered coronavirus cases, including 121 deaths, but Lukashenka has publicly dismissed concerns about the dangers of COVID-19 several times.