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Russia's Post-Soviet Neighbors Belarus and Turkmenistan Face Coronavirus as Leaders Deny Problem

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained that “no one will die of coronavirus in our country.”  Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA / TASS

Two of Russia's post-Soviet neighbors, Belarus and Turkmenistan, have drawn criticism over their response to the coronavirus, with the two countries' leaders largely denying the severity of the pandemic.

Here’s a brief look at how these two countries in Russia’s backyard have been faring since the start of the outbreak:

Belarus (17,489 cases, 103 deaths):

— President Alexander Lukashenko, 65, has continued to hold public events and resisted enacting a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, dismissing fears of the pandemic as a global “psychosis.” Lukashenko has not been tested for coronavirus himself because, according to his spokesperson, “there’s no need for that.”

— He has vehemently opposed closing parts of the economy to slow coronavirus, citing a potentially painful recovery for the nation of more than 9 million. Still, the country’s schools and businesses have started to voluntarily close without waiting for Lukashenko’s orders.

— Lukashenko has maintained that none of Belarus’ Covid-19 deaths had been from the disease itself but from other accompanying ailments, including cancer and obesity. In mid-April, the leader who has touted vodka, the sauna and tractors as anti-Covid therapies asserted that “no one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this.” 

— Lukashenko vowed to hold a military parade in Minsk marking 75 years since the Soviet victory in World War II, and on Tuesday invited fellow heads of post-Soviet states to attend it. Russia postponed its May 9 parade on Red Square to later in 2020 due to the outbreak.

— During Orthodox Easter in April, Lukashenko defiantly attended church service and criticized other countries for trying to enforce stay-home measures. The leaders of other countries with large Orthodox Christian populations did not attend Easter services, with many churches moving them online.

Turkmenistan (0 cases, 0 deaths):

— Gas-rich and secretive Turkmenistan has closed its borders, suspended international travel and restricted domestic travel in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Though officially coronavirus-free, uncorroborated reports have claimed that at least seven people have tested positive in a single city as of April 14.

— Around 400 people quarantined in Turkmenistan's second-largest city were allegedly moved to small provincial clinics and a psychiatric ward ahead of a World Health Organization (WHO) team's visit, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news outlet reported in late April.

— Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has led a series of public events in the midst of the pandemic, including an April 25-26 Horse Day competition attended by thousands of spectators. He has also urged Turkmens to burn a traditional herb and practice the “principles of healthy living” to ward off the virus.

— Without state-imposed lockdown measures, Turkmens like Belarussians are reportedly taking matters into their own hands by limiting contacts, refusing to shake hands and not attending mass gatherings in some cities. 

— Berdymukhamedov has also vowed to hold a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II. Unlike several other ex-Soviet countries, Turkmenistan has not previously held parades on May 9.

Fellow Central Asian state Tajikistan also reported no cases until last Thursday when it said 15 people had tested positive. By Monday, Tajikistan acknowledged at least 230 cases of Covid-19.

AFP contributed reporting to this article.

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