ijab.de: Mr Herylovich, how are the youth of Belarus faring during the coronavirus crisis?
Dzmitry Herylovich: We do not have any reliable data about the spread of the epidemic and the political signals are contradictory. President Lukashenko has taken no measures whatsoever. As far as he is concerned, the coronavirus is fake news. At the same time, the Ministry of Health issued information about avoiding infections, such as wearing masks and maintaining minimum distances. The Ministry of Culture has banned all events with over 100 people. Special authorisation is needed for larger events. That obviously affects the running of universities, but also leisure activities and so it is affecting many young people’s lives as well. In all other matters, the Ministry of Education is toeing the president’s line, in true Soviet style.
Incidentally, the first official corona patient was a student from Iran. He contracted the virus during a trip to Italy and then unknowingly infected other students. The university was then closed and 200 to 300 students were put into quarantine in a sanatorium near Minsk. Only then did the universities adjust to the changed situation and enabled students to continue studying from home. Prior to that, individual students had been expelled from the universities because they had refused to attend on-campus lectures due to the epidemic.
ijab.de: What is the situation in schools? Has there been a shift to online lessons?
Dzmitry Herylovich: Coronavirus reached Belarus and the capital city Minsk relatively late in March, at a time when the epidemic was already quite advanced in Italy and Germany. We generally have school holidays in Belarus in the last week of March. They were extended. It was then less the schools and more the teachers who started to offer online lessons. Many pupils are now staying at home, alone or with their grandparents or neighbours, and are trying to participate in online lessons. However, while schools are still officially open and pupils have been told to attend regular classes again I’m not aware of any attempts to enforce this. No rights have been violated, but there have been public discussions and many people said the school year should simply be ended early.
ijab.de: Do the corona crisis and the discussions you mentioned have an influence on the presidential elections?
Dzmitry Herylovich: Not for our president. He says that as a brave nation we don’t need quarantine and likes to present himself as a strong man who is not affected by any of it. Of course, he also points to the poor economic data of other countries following lockdown.
ijab.de: And what do voters think?
Dzmitry Herylovich: They are furious about all the ignorance. We even hear that people in the army and state administration are scared of being infected. That fear is particularly great in our hospitals, which were caught completely unprepared by this crisis. Medical personnel lack the most basic equipment. We have witnessed a number of civil society initiatives procuring and delivering protective masks and gowns to the hospitals.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are growing tired of all the coronavirus talk. That is certainly also because nobody can say how long it is going to continue. People are travelling again. I recently went from Minsk to Gomel, in the east of Belarus, and the train was fully booked.
Yes, the coronavirus epidemic will certainly have an effect on the elections. Many people no longer believe the official statistics. There is no evidence for what the government is telling us. It is more about the president’s image as a strong man. The numbers of new daily infections, for example, apparently never exceeded the symbolic threshold of 1,000. Allegedly there have only been 500 deaths so far. Our situation is perhaps most comparable to Sweden, which didn’t have a hard lockdown either. But the figures there are much higher. Our president claims that those who died were just a few very old people or that they died from completely different diseases. Nobody believes that. People are angry. So, the coronavirus pandemic is directly connected with the presidential elections.
ijab.de: It is noticeable that most of the people in the photos of protests against President Lukashenko are young. How would you describe this young generation?
Dzmitry Herylovich: Most protesters are indeed under 30 and very confident. They are driven by a strong sense of justice. They have never been part of a political system and have always been denied any kind of participation. Civil rights play a major role. Young people are fed up of laws being applied differently to them than to politicians.
We are currently experiencing very strange elections. None of the three opposition candidates had published a political manifesto prior to their arrests. That is reminiscent of Zelensky in Ukraine. Instead, they repeatedly emphasised their good relations with Russia. But we do not want to be part of Russia. We have seen what happened in Ukraine, in Georgia and in Armenia. We know what it means when people try to sell Russia’s civil and human rights to us. The opposition candidate with the best prospects at the moment, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, doesn’t have a manifesto either. Nevertheless, should she be elected, she wants to hold new elections – fair elections – within six months.
Young people are looking towards Europe. They want to travel, experience things, maybe simply earn a little more than they can at home. For those in the west of Belarus, many of whom have relatives in Lithuania or Poland, that is often also possible. But many come up against language barriers. It is easier for them to go to St. Petersburg or Moscow where they can speak Russian.
There is also a significant rift between town and country. In the villages people say things like, “Europe is all well and good, but I don’t want to be invaded by gays and lesbians”, things that people hear on state television. That of course also has to do with language and the media that are available to them or not, as the case may be. Some people are also scared of looking like losers if we were to forge closer ties with Europe.
ijab.de: What will happen after Sunday’s elections?
Dzmitry Herylovich: I don’t know. The government is the only internet provider in Belarus. It is quite possible that they will significantly restrict internet access to prevent protests, especially where social media is concerned. That is why the opposition has already announced meeting places for protests. It is important to young people that their protests have an effect. They want to experience that at all costs. And I would like to stress one thing: the protests are absolutely peaceful. If violent scenes are seen in the media, they were never instigated by the protesters. What is shown there is police violence.