Hosting the Ice Hockey World Championships is the most prestigious project of autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenko in his twenty-year term. Troublemakers are being arrested. The opposition is not in the mood for protest because of the crisis in Ukraine.
Paul Flückiger’s article was announced a winner in the Professional category by the Jury members of Belarus in Focus 2014 competition.
Read the short review of all winner articles:
“Belarus in Focus 2014: Before the Award Ceremony” by Felix Blatt
A bridge across an artificial creek with storks on both sides. That’s how visitors of the Ice Hockey World Championship are welcomed at the Minsk airport. A ride on a public bus goes through an idyllic forest of birches; every now and then, a billboard promotes a Belarusian shoe or lingerie factory or a casino. “Welcome to the Festival” is the last announcement. Downtown Minsk has changed considerably, too. New restaurants have mushroomed, luxury boutiques are awaiting international customers. Hammering, cleaning, and asphalting everywhere. Supposedly, six new hotels opened last week alone. The staff suddenly speaks fluent English.
A prestigious project
Sometime later, at the edge of Drozdy district, the taxi driver tells me that he has to stop here because the Presidential Residence is located over there. No road signs, nobody told us to stop. Minsk Arena, the largest of the two ice hockey venues, is nearby. This arena alone allegedly cost 400 million Swiss Francs. Infrastructure investments connected with the world championships run into the billions. But only the best will do for this prestigious project of autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in office for 20 years. He has been treating the championships as if it was his own child, they say in Minsk. Sports play a major role in Lukashenko’s Belarus, especially the ice hockey, President’s favourite sports.
This is in line with the sports’ ideological agenda and demonstration of superiority over the West inherited from the Soviet Union. The USSR won the Ice Hockey World Championships more than twenty times, an important fact in a country that officially still upholds soviet symbolism. Russia, which on paper forms a federation with Belarus, will seek compensation for the disgrace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Thus, mostly Russian spectators are expected to come to Minsk.
Imprisoned after brief proceedings
Most public funds of the Belarusian state were spent on the long-lasting preparations, Karbalevich, a political scientist from Minsk, explains. Lukashenko highly values the championships’ political prestige. He wants to show the world that Belarus is not the “Europe’s last dictatorship”. His security apparatus, however, employs the usual means of dictatorship in order to keep troublemakers at bay. Homeless people, alcoholics and prostitutes were forced off the streets of the capital. According to human rights organization Viasna, many of them were taken to special labour camps.
Furthermore, at least 15 opposition members were arrested and sentenced to 20 to 25 days of prison in brief proceedings in order to avoid possible protests. These cases have been mostly constructed in such a way that the activists will be released from prison only after the championships, human rights activist Valentin Stefanovich tells me in a private conversation. They are accused of “petty hooliganism” as well as failure to follow police orders and swearing in public, Stefanovich says. His human rights organization, as almost every opposition party and remaining independent newspaper, is located in a private flat. No signs give notice of the offices; often, there are no even flat numbers. As a precaution, two dissidents who have already served several years in prison – Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of the Young Front, and the anarchist Alyaksandr Frankievich –– have been arrested.
No common strategy
Most independent observers in Minsk find it unlikely that any opposition group will have the strength to protest against the championships. Human rights activist Stefanovich can only imagine that anarchists or youth groups, calling themselves “autonomous”, might try to hand out leaflets. Also, the calls for boycott by the democratic opposition have faded away. Viasna lately called upon the governments of participating countries to draw a clear line between politics and sports and not send their official delegations.
“Belarusians like sports, protests and boycotts would only undermine the opposition’s weak standing even more”, Aljaksandr Milinkevich of the civic association “For Freedom” said at a private meeting. Opposition forces have not yet recovered from the wave of repression following the presidential elections in December 2010. Eight political long-term prisoners are still in jail. Public prosecution, totally in thrall to Lukashenko, has not brought political suits within the last year, however, surveillance by the KGB’s remained unchanged. The opposition could only win a few seats of over ten thousand in the last local elections.
Former presidential candidate Milinkevich brings into consideration the fact that the opposition does not yet have a common strategy for next year’s presidential elections. After what has happened in Ukraine over the last months, people are not inclined to take to the streets in 2015, Milinkevich thinks.
Political scientist Karbalevich, too, points out the devastating effect of the crisis in Ukraine on the Belarusian opposition. The shootings on the Maidan, the Russian annexation of Crimea and now the imminent collapse of Ukraine caused Lukashenko’s approval rates to increase from around 35 to more than 40 percent. Another 40 percent are undecided, and only 20 percent would vote for the opposition. “Belarusian society wants the strong hand to come back again”, Karbalevich says. It should be taken into account that Russian TV stations are commonly watched in Belarus and the Belarusian state television repeats Russia’s perspective on Ukraine. With regard to the annexation of Crimea, most Belarusians therefore support Moscow. Karbalevich also points out that Soviet mentality is still strong in Belarus.
Obviously, Lukashenko feels his rule threatened by the annexation of Crimea and Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine. During a four hour speech delivered to his handpicked parliament in the end of April, he not only condemned the corruption which, in his opinion, led to the protests in Kiev. He also secretly attacked Moscow by saying that his country’s independence was at stake. On the one hand, Minsk backed up Moscow in the UN Security Council; on the other hand, Lukashenko met Ukrainian interim president Turchinov. Lukashenko repeatedly emphasised Ukraine’s integrity and opposed her federalisation. As a consequence, permission for a separate Russian parade on May 9th, the day of the victory over Hitler Germany, has been revoked.
Many conversation partners from the opposition in Minsk expressed the opinion that now, despite the championships and increased media attention, the moment is bad moment for protests against Lukashenko – since he is defending the remnants of independence from Russia. “Unfortunately, this is a very dependent independence”, Andrei Skurko, senior editor at independent newspaper “Nasha Niva” explains. But at least, there is room for manoeuvre. Oppositional politician Milinkevich expresses his concern that today, it is not only about freedom but also about sovereignty. “I love Belarus more than I hate Lukashenko” is how he summarises his viewpoint.
Translated from German by Simon Barthelmess
This article was first published on Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Paul Flückiger born in 1966 in Huddersfield, works since June 2000 as a freelance correspondent in Warsaw. He writes about economy, society and politics in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. He tells stories of cigarette smugglers, human traffickers, gangs of thieves, corrupt MPs, clever priests, unruly peasants, soviet-nostalgic Russians and Ukrainian revolutionaries. After studying history in Basel and Hamburg, Paul volunteered for the foreign desk of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He appreciates the political analysis as well as research close to people. His articles were published in the Financial Times Germany, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Sonntag, Focus, Profil, Zeit, WOZ and Der Aargauer Zeitung.