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Lukashenka's 'Auschwitz' Rant Invites Backlash Over Farm Policies, Lessons Of History

During a farm visit in 2016, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was presented a cow.
During a farm visit in 2016, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was presented a cow.

Andrey says he's ashamed that visiting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently compared the drab Slizhy collective farm in northern Belarus to a Nazi concentration camp.

But the man who's in charge of caring for Slizhy's cows also thinks the criticism is misplaced. "Take a look, it's all clean," he tells RFE/RL during a tour of the stalls. "Is there anything catastrophic here? Do you see any soiled cows?"

The son of a milkmaid who has called cows "sacred" and put a bovine statue in central Minsk, Lukashenka flew into a rage on March 27 after seeing manure on one of the animals' legs.

"Look at this cow," Lukashenka berated farm and government officials in a moment that was being aired on state television.

"It's covered in crap! Are you sick? This is Auschwitz," Lukashenka, who spent most of the 1980s as a Soviet collective-farm official, continued.

'This Is Auschwitz!' Belarusian President Compares Cattle Farm To Concentration Camp
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In an indication of post-Soviet life for Belarus's 10 million citizens under a mercurial five-term president, he quickly announced he was firing three people over the issue, including the Mahileu region's governor.

But Andrey, who despite the "debacle" remains the overseer of the farm's roughly 1,400 cows, offers an explanation. "You have to understand -- it's a cow! If it decides it's going to lie down in a pile of s**t, then that's what it's going to," he says. "I'm not about to pick it up! But look here: Here in the stall, the cow never gets dirty; she lies down and everything is fine."

Andrey says that even with only two days' notice some extra cleaning was done ahead of Lukashenka's visit, and he acknowledges having apologized to the president via telephone afterward.

But he also says the living conditions seen by the president were broadly representative.

Blaming Collective Farms

The former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic boasted the third-largest agricultural output among Soviet republics in 1990, when one in three of its workers was engaged in farming or forestry.

By 2018, that number had dropped to just 10 percent among post-Soviet states, according to the International Labor Organization.

So Lukashenka's public humiliation of the Slizhy collective was a risky gambit, since his policies mandating state-run farms might be seen by many as the reason for the dilapidated state of the country's livestock facilities.

Despite the introduction of "market socialism" to Belarus's agricultural sector, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says little has changed in practice since the Soviet days.

State ownership of the land is a deeply embedded legacy of Soviet-era agricultural practices.

The question of private ownership of farms was put to a referendum in 1996 -- two years after Lukashenka took over the country's leadership -- and 83 percent of Belarusians opposed it, according to official results.

As a result, an overwhelming amount of agricultural land remains under the control of a state-owned, collective-farming system that is heavily promoted by Lukashenka.

The FAO reported that Belarus ranks worst among Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in terms of the portion that its privately owned farms contribute to GDP.

Belarus's history of collective agriculture will be hard to shake.
Belarus's history of collective agriculture will be hard to shake.

Belarus's current agricultural policy is aimed at providing only the food products that are needed domestically.

Alyaksandr Yarashuk, the chairman of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, tells RFE/RL that many of Belarus's state-run farms are failing. He calls Lukashenka's attempts to turn Belarusian farms and villages into an effective part of the economy under state ownership "a Sisyphean task."

"According to what I hear from representatives in the agricultural sector currently in official posts, some 75 to 80 percent of the farms in the country are in a very bad [financial] position," he says. "Lukashenka said [recently] that 20 to 25 percent of the farms [in Belarus are in such a state], but in reality it is the other way around -- and 20 to 25 percent somehow manage to operate, while the rest are on the edge of complete bankruptcy or have already gone under."

Yarashuk points to an increasing number of agricultural holdings going bankrupt in recent years -- a result, he says, of Lukashenka's command economy. He says he has "repeatedly debated" agricultural policies with his "personal friend" Lukashenka and told the president that continued opposition to the private ownership of farmland will lead to "bankruptcy and tragedy."

"And this is happening today, we're seeing it," Yarashuk says. "If there were a [private] owner [at the Slizhy cow farm], there would be no 'Auschwitz,' as [Lukashenka] put it. If you went to see the farm of a private farmer, you would see cows that are well-groomed and dry because it is [the farmer's] property."

Yarashuk predicts that if Lukashenka continues to prevent the development of private property and businesses, there will be a social "explosion with unpredictable consequences."

But Belarus's history of collective agriculture will be hard to shake.

Back at the Slizhy cow farm, Andrey and his team of workers appear ready to improve things. He says one employee told him the day after Lukashenka's stormy visit that he told the cows, "OK, my dear cows, yesterday you were in a concentration camp but today we [employees] will work to create a pioneer [children's summer] camp" for you.

Pattern Of Anti-Semitism

Little was made by the media of Lukashenka's bizarre comparison of the Slizhy cow farm to the Nazi-run Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps -- where more than 1 million Jews and other minority men, women, and children were brutally executed or forced to live in inhumane conditions during World War II.

"The comparison is, of course, a sickening insult to Holocaust victims and their families," Tom Gross, an international-affairs commentator and Holocaust expert, says. "But it is also dangerous, as it plays into the hands of anti-Semites trying to distort or minimize the sheer sadistic reality of the Holocaust."

He adds that Belarus's record of "Holocaust commemoration and education is poor, despite the fact hundreds of thousands of Belarusian Jews were murdered." Gross says that includes the families of Jews who escaped the Holocaust in Belarus, including composer Irving Berlin, painter Marc Chagall, writer Ayn Rand, and future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.

People attend a ceremony commemorating victims of the Minsk ghetto and marking the 75th anniversary of its liquidation at the "Yama" (Pit) monument to the Holocaust victims in Minsk on October 22, 2018.
People attend a ceremony commemorating victims of the Minsk ghetto and marking the 75th anniversary of its liquidation at the "Yama" (Pit) monument to the Holocaust victims in Minsk on October 22, 2018.

Jews were the third-largest ethnic group in Belarus at the beginning of the 1900s, and before World War II they made up more than 40 percent of the population in Belarusian towns and cities, Gross says, contrasting it with the estimate of 20,000 Jews living there now.

"Instead of making insulting comparisons, Lukashenka should look to other European leaders who are now paying proper respect to Holocaust victims, such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz," says Gross, noting that Kurz visited Belarus last month to pay tribute to the thousands of Austrian Jews murdered alongside Belarusians at the Maly Trostinets concentration camp.

Lukashenka's comment also came around the same time as the gruesome discovery at a construction site in the western Belarusian city of Brest of a mass grave believed to contain the remains of some 1,000 Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

It is not the first time Lukashenka has made controversial comments about Jews.

He was widely criticized in 2007 for comparing the Belarusian town of Babruysk to "a pigsty" and adding: "That was mainly a Jewish town -- and you know how Jews treat the place where they are living. Look at Israel; I've been [there]. I really don't want to offend anyone -- but they don't care much about, say, grass being cut, like [they do] in Moscow."

Lukashenka has also likened Jews to dishonest oligarchs and referred to some of his critics as people with "hooked noses."

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by Ales Pilecki, Uladzimer Hridin, and Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Translations by Merhat Sharipzhan