Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — widely known as “Europe’s last dictator” — claimed that Jews “ruled the world” and had “managed to force the world to remember the Holocaust” during an independence day speech to the armed forces of the former Soviet republic.

Lukashenko, who has maintained an iron grip on power since 1994 and is the target of both US and European Union sanctions, made the remarks at a memorial service on July 3, Belarus independence day, held for Soviet troops who lost their lives during World War II.

“The Jews managed to force the world to remember the Holocaust,” Lukashenko declared. “The entire world grovels before them and gives in to them. They are afraid to say a single word out of place.”

By contrast, he continued, “[W]e are tolerant and likable. We left things alone until it got to the point where others started attacking us and the memory of our efforts.”

Ninety percent of Belarus’s Jewish community — 800,000 people — were exterminated during the Holocaust. As in other countries in the region, including Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Latvia, the issue of local collaboration with the occupying Germans has been the subject of bitter debate in Belarus. One unit of the SS composed of Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian collaborators was known as the 1st Belarusian Division, while thousands of Belarusians also served the internal security apparatus created by the Nazis following the 1941 invasion.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust, has named 669 Belarusians as “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives to protect Jews.

Lukashenko’s antisemitic outburst comes at a time when Belarus is facing increasing international scrutiny. In May, a Ryanair flight from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania was forcibly diverted to the Belarusian capital Minsk by the authorities for the purpose of arresting Roman Protasevich, a leading anti-Lukashenko campaigner, along with his partner, Sofia Sapega, both of whom were traveling on the plane. Now under house arrest, the couple were paraded on state television a few days after their detention, bearing identifiable bruises caused by torture and under clear mental stress.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, Lukashenko’s regime jailed another prominent opposition activist to 14 years in prison. Viktor Babaryko was was found guilty of taking bribes and money-laundering — charges the former banker said were fabricated to prevent him challenging Lukashenko in last year’s presidential election, in which the dictator garnered 80 percent of the vote through a process that democracy activists charged was rigged overwhelmingly in his favor.

Separately, another Belarusian opposition leader who was exiled after the 2020 election said on Tuesday that Lukashenko’s latest provocations were not surprising to those who have lived under his rule.

“It looked like a real shocker to the international community, but for Belarusians it is an everyday reality when Lukashenko crosses all imaginable legal and moral boundaries for his personal political gain,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya commented in an interview with “Faces of Democracy,” a German NGO. “So, for us it was a new form, but it was not unusual to see this kind of brazen disregard for basic norms of behavior.”

Lukashenko’s comments about Jews last Saturday was not the first time the dictator has ventured into antisemitic rhetoric.

In 2007, he attracted the ire of the Israeli government for a speech he made in the city of Bobruisk, in which he accused Jews of allowing the cities in which they reside to fall into neglect.

“This was founded as a Jewish city and you know how Jews treat the place they live in,” he said. “Look at Israel, I have been there. I in no way want to offend them, but they don’t take much care of it.”

In response, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Lukashenko: “The role of leadership is to fight antisemitism wherever it raises its ugly head, not to encourage it.”

Earlier in his career, Lukashenko even praised Adolf Hitler for the Nazi leader’s exercise of “firm authority.”

“The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from ruins thanks to firm authority and not everything connected with that well-known figure Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and attained its peak under Hitler. This corresponds with our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it,” Lukashenko said in 1995, perhaps anticipating that he would still be in power more than a quarter of century later.

1st published in the Algemeiner.

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Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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