Lukashenko’s Death Match

Here is one of several pieces I published last week on Alexander Lukashenko’s disgraceful stance on COVID19 epidemic for Emerging Europe.

Recent news that Covid-19’s mass cancellation of sports fixtures has led gambling companies to offer bets on some of the only soccer matches still being played (in Belarus) is neither a wild-card punt for desperate gamblers, or a quirky fact. Betting on sport in “Europe’s last dictatorship” amounts to tacit support for one of modern Europe’s most repellent leaders – and negligence for the real human impact.

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko is often described by international media outlets as “Europe’s last dictator” – as he has held power in Minsk since the exact date of the presidency’s creation on July 20, 1994.

Lukashenko has expressed his chagrin for this label on a number of occasions – often causing bilateral controversy. When the late Guido Westerwalle – a true statesman, who was Germany’s first gay foreign minister – accused Lukashenko of being the bloc’s last dictator, the president of Belarus publically proclaimed [that] “it is better to be a dictator than gay”.

“The remarks speak for themselves” Westerwalle shrugged, with the malaise he often showed ex-Soviet dinosaurs. “I’m determined not to move one inch from my initial commitment to human and civil rights in Belarus”. Lukashenko grew an even bigger moustache in response and developed a bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin instead – who is indubitably the region’s manliest bad guy.

Lukashenko often chest-bumps Putin during televised competitions on the ice rink – in which state television has been known to doctor footage of the Russian president face-planting on the rink. These peculiar matches are almost all we hear of sport in Belarus, and make for depressing entertainment that I thought could not be topped.

Yet as the Covid-19 epidemic spreads – cancelling almost all global sporting events – almost all matches were off in other leagues, and all bets were too – except for bets on Belarussian soccer, which is still being played.

If you’re betting on Belarus’ soccer fixtures, you’re prettifying a president whose understanding of public health is killing people. Public sports fixtures are prohibited in almost every other country on earth, due to the risk of infection. Emerging Europe recently ran an editorial advocating better dialogue between Brussels and Minsk. I feel differently. Belarus is making a packet from sending sportsmen and women to play in highly risky conditions – on the mandate of a former agricultural collective manager, whose misunderstanding of public health is surpassed only by his knowledge of tractors.

As Lukashenko recently told Belsat, Covid-19 is essentially silly western hogwash – invented, I assume, by Euro-Atlanticist spy chiefs, CIA operatives, the LGBTQ community and Federica Mogherini – perhaps in cahoots with educated women, EU diplomats and migratory birds.

As Lukashenko told Belsat: “We have survived viruses before. There were more complicated viruses: swine flu, bird flu, and atypical pneumonia”.

Urging calm (while advocating insanity) Lukashenko added, “There should be no panic, all you need to do is to work. I am happy when I watch TV and see people labouring in the fields, driving tractors, and no one is talking about the virus. There the tractor will cure everyone. The field will heal us all”.

Pontificating further on disease – with a monologue that deserves condemnation from the World Health Organisation – Belarus’ only president since the collapse of the Soviet Union cracked a joke which will likely lead to loss of human life. “I am a non-drinker, but at this time I jokingly say that you should not just wash your hands with vodka, but probably also poison this virus with it [from within]” Lukashenko chuckled. “In terms of pure alcohol, 40-50 grams per day should be consumed. But not at work!”

A former collective farm manager – who is renowned for his moustache, and unbending authoritarianism – Lukashenko abhors all that is economically rational and democratically plural. While others in the EU’s near abroad have done their utmost to win plaudits with Brussels by shunning one-party rule and the blatant harassment of opposition politicians, in favour of democracy that meets the Commission’s very low bar, Lukashenko has remained firmly dictatorial.

Lukashenko once chaired a sort of “naughty club” for former communists, kleptocrats and war criminals, ideally situated in Europe’s near abroad. Belarus’ president welcomed anyone limited in their travel plans – by EU visa bans and international arrest warrants – showing a vile return to form in 2014 when he congratulated Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on his electoral triumph.

In those days, Lukashenko was Euro-Atlanticism’s moustachioed menace – a leader whose second term as president in 1998 began with a European Union visa ban. He’d evicted international diplomats from their digs – as he saw little reason to fraternise with foreign imports (such as pluralist democracy, or Covid-19). The country does lack many of the facilities necessary to squander ill-gotten gains, and can’t compete with Cap Ferrat (or Cannes), but was still a safe-haven, in those days, for those determined to elude international justice.

Lukashenko voiced support for Serbian war-criminal Slobodan Milošević, frequently fraternised with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and reportedly procured passports for senior members of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Unfortunately (for Lukashenko) the world is changing. The dictator who likes to call himself “Batka” (an affectionate term for “father”) has only one confidante left – in Moldova’s president, Igor N. Dodon. Yet given Dodon’s difficulty sustaining elected office, and persistent political instability in Chișinau, it seems probable that Lukashenko may soon be truly alone. Following Moldova’s abysmal reaction to the Covid-19 epidemic, and increasingly precarious economy, it seems certain that Dodon – still unable to hang his presidency’s failure on oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc – may be accepting that it will soon be time to cede power to the tycoon.

While the United States Embassy in Chișinau has stated that it is in the process of attempting to extradite Mr Plahotniuc from the US, a source happy to be identified in this editorial as a senior diplomat to a European Union member state, told me, by telephone [that] “in light of President Dodon’s reticence to push this topic in public but refrain in private, it is beginning to look as though Dodon has accepted that he will lose face further if he attempts extradition proceedings. Regardless of the allegations Plahotniuc faces, [the businessman’s] rights are safeguarded by many treaties, including the ICCRP”.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mandates that Moldova, the requesting state, must show that any trial will not prove “unjust” or “oppressive” for the extradited party. As the same diplomat explained, “The financial costs Moldova would incur would be huge, and the time needed to navigate exhaustive appeals channels would ultimately cause Dodon more damage than good”. Yet Dodon can’t accept that in trying to fell Plahotniuc, he will first destroy his own career, and intends to pursue this route. Lukashenko will soon be the last dictator on the bloc, though hopefully not for much longer

Ideally, Lukashenko will meet the same fate, in a bloodless revolution that sees him face international justice. Until this happens, please desist from betting on blood sport fixed for your viewing pleasure by a tubby sociopath. There’s nothing at all funny about football players losing their lives because western audiences can’t punt ten dollars on the Premier League.

Gambling companies – whom I will not name yet – should consider warning their customers likewise.