At a press conference broadcast for the Russian media on October 12, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka criticized living conditions in the town of Babruisk, one of the centers visited by 70 visiting Russian journalists (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, October 13). The translated version of his remarks was as follows: “It was frightening to go in, it was a pigsty. It used to be largely a Jewish city; you know how Jews treat the place where they live. Look at Israel; I was there” (Pravda, October 19). He also commented that the situation in Babruisk improved only after the departure of the Jews and then suggested that “Jews with money” might wish to return to ameliorate the conditions (www.haaretz.com, October 19). Israel issued a protest but decided not to withdraw its ambassador, feeling that such a move would only exacerbate the diplomatic crisis.
Lukashenka’s remarks did however provoke a response from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who denounced them as anti-Semitic. He added that it was necessary to combat anti-Semitism wherever it might appear. The Israeli ambassador to Belarus, Zeev Ben Arie, stated that the president’s comments brought back to life the anti-Semitic myth that Jews are “untidy, dirty smelling people” and gave the impression that the city of Babruisk was a self-functioning Jewish city rather than one in which responsibility for cleanliness and landscaping was in the hands of the authorities. He also noted wryly that it would be a good thing if Belarusian towns could match the social services of Israel and made reference to recent events in Belarus, including the desecration of Jewish graves in Babruisk and anti-Semitic slogans on a Jewish community home in Slutsk (Jerusalem Post, October 18; www.naviny.by, October 17).
The president’s comments cannot be taken seriously. The Jewish population of Belarus was largely destroyed during World War II when about 800,000 Jews on Belarusian territory were killed by the Nazi occupation regime. Hitherto, cities such as Minsk, Hrodna, Vitsebsk, and Babruisk had vibrant Jewish populations in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire that prevailed until 1917. Today, however, the country has a Jewish population of less than 29,000, of which about 4,000 live in Babruisk, comprising less than 2% of that city’s population in 2005 (www.citypopulation.de/Belarus.html).
Of more importance is the question whether Lukashenka was using Jews as a scapegoat for current social problems, heralding an official anti-Semitic campaign. Two examples from his tenure as president raise disturbing questions. In a 1995 interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt, the president reportedly remarked, “Not everything linked to a certain Adolf Hitler was bad. Recall the period of his rule in Germany. German order had grown over centuries and under Hitler this process reached its culmination. This is in line absolutely with our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of its president.” These unpublished remarks were run twice by a Belarusian radio station, although Lukashenka denied he had made the remarks in a December 8, 2003, interview with Der Spiegel.
Eduard Skobeleu, one of the president’s close friends and editor of the newsletter of the presidential administration, is a well known anti-Semite, who has published articles in the Russian-language literary magazine Neman claiming that Jews seek world rule as well as maintaining the authenticity of the forged document “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In December 2005 Lukashenka used the presidential website to congratulate Skobeleu on his 70th birthday (www.president.gov.by, December 8, 2005). In January 2006, the president awarded Skobeleu a medal for his “spiritual contribution to society” in the face of protests from Jewish organizations, which cited his 2005 book Stalin’s Testament as making personal attacks on Jewish leaders in Belarus (www.fsumonitor.com/stories/010906Belarus.shtml).
Anti-Semitic outbreaks are not frequent in Belarus but they have occurred periodically under Lukashenka: in 2001 the authorities demolished a 19th century synagogue in order to build a housing complex. In the following year an attempt was also made by the authorities to close the Marc Chagall Institute of Jewish Studies at the Belarusian State University (www.ncjs.org/Belarus.shtml). In 2004, when the authorities disbanded the International Humanitarian Institute, they dissolved concomitantly the only Belarusian school that taught Jewish studies. Writing in 2002, Yakov Gutman, president of the World Association of Belarusian Jewry, commented that the Lukashenka regime was characterized by “aggressive anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic propaganda” (Jewish Observer, April 2002).
The most serious aspect of Lukashenka’s most recent faux pas is the attempted perpetuation of a racist stereotype of a people that has been integral to the history of Belarus since the 14th century, and one that suffered persecution at the hands of the Russian Empire and the USSR, in addition to the occupation regime of 1941-44. The authorities’ traditional response to Jewish fears about anti-Semitism has been to declare that it does not exist in Belarus. However, when the president himself disparages Belarusian Jews as he did at his press conference, such statements hold little weight.
At the least, the president is fanning age-old prejudices about Jews; at worst he is revealing the worst aspects of his own nature. Perhaps it is encouraging that his comments were not carried in the official media. But like his now decade-old comments expressing his admiration for Hitler, the key point is not whether the remarks were later denied or concealed, but the fact that they were made at all.