The 2019 European Games: circuses instead of bread
Although the Belarus is struggling to deal with a dramatic economic decline, the authorities are considering hosting a large international sporting event in 2019. On 9 January, Belarus established a committee to organise the 2019 European Games.
The games, managed by the European Olympic Committee, resemble the Pan-American and Asian games. Last October, Lukashenka stated that Belarus was ready to host the games in 2019. But Belarus, with its struggling economy, is unlikely to benefit from the second European Games, as money raised from tourism will not cover the significant expense of organising them.
What are the European games and how much do they cost?
The European Games are a competition similar to the Asian and Pan-American games; the idea was devised by Patrick Hickey, head of the European Olympic Committees. Hickey's main goal was to stimulate sports development in the region and improve the service and commercial sectors linked to it.
At a meeting of the European Olympic Committees in 2012, members voted for Azerbaijan as the first hosting country. The choice, however, was not controversial, as Azerbaijan was the only candidate.
Azerbaijan saw the games as an opportunity to attract as many tourists as possible, and spent lavishly on the organisation of the first Games. In 2013, Azerbaijan constructed a new stadium capable of seating 68,000 spectators, as well as almost 20 other large sporting facilities. Lady Gaga, one of today's most expensive pop-stars, sang at the opening ceremony of the games.
An investigation conducted by the BBC showed that the budget of the games came to more than $5bn, but some analysts believe the figure to be closer to $9bn.
Considering the scope of the first European Games, Belarus should be ready for large expenditures. At the same time, the current economic situation in Belarus indicates that the second European Games will be less of a luxury affair than in Azerbaijan. Although the European Olympic Committee will contribute to financing the event, the hosting country nevertheless bears the major costs.
Benefiting from the games
Belarus is actively preparing for the 2019 games. Andrej Kabiakoŭ, the Belarusian Prime Minister, became the head of the recently launched organising committee and in the beginning of January, a representative of the European Olympic Committee paid a visit to Minsk. He concluded that the sports facilities, such as the Minsk Arena, the rowing channel in Zaslaul, and the Sports Palace are ready for the European Games.
By hosting the 2019 European Games, Belarus hopes to attract more visitors and significantly increase income from tourism, especially given the new visa-free regime.
The low prices of food, drinks, and entertainment in Belarus might bring in more spectators to the 2019 games. For example, in the beginning of 2017 the prices for milk (0,6$), eggs (1,2$), rice (1,8$), table wine (4,0$), and lunch in a cafe (3$) are one and a half times lower than in Lithuania and twice lower than in Italy.
The games in Belarus could also have a positive effect on the service sector. Recently, Belarus started to open up to the world, first introducing a visa-free zone, then later allowing visa-free entrance through the Minsk airport. In order to live up to a more international standard, new restaurants, hotels, and entertainment already offer Belarusians better service than before. For example, in 2016 Uber grew faster in Minsk than in Warsaw, Moscow, or Rome.
The Games could also have a positive impact on the country by improving its image. If Belarus continues down the road of simplifying visa restrictions and developing its tourism industry, the image of Belarus as a poor dictatorship could soften.
Is it worth the effort?
Although the second European Games could have a positive effect on the country, whether the Games are really worth the effort overall is dubious.
The financial instability in the country and political and economic uncertainty raise questions about the capability of Belarus to host the games. The GDP of the country is falling – since 2014 it has decreased by $30bn.
Despite the possible financial boon for restaurants, hotels, and entertainment, the state budget will most likely incur large costs.
The budget of the games risks being funded by redirecting money from other, more deserving sectors. Thus, the state could try to transfer money from the budget of other fields to invest in the games, although other spheres, such as education, are underdeveloped.
Despite the fact that the unemployment level has dropped to 0.8%, the level of poverty in the country is growing, and now almost every 20th person lives below the poverty line, despite being employed. Authorities could provide significant assistance for people in need. For example, Belarus currently taxes "social parasites" to boost the state budget instead of supporting unemployed people.
Belarus already had a negative experience with the World Hockey Championship, when it spent a lot of money but failed to make a profit. According to various estimates, Belarus spent anywhere from $12m to $2bn on the championship.
During the 2014 World Hockey Championship, Belarus had to deal with many inadequacies in the service sector. The country had not built enough affordably-priced accommodation such as hostels or apartments on student campuses. For visitors, it was often difficult to communicate, as the majority of people in Minsk do not speak English.
As a result, Belarus could not be consistent with providing quality conditions for spectators nor did it financially benefit from the Championship. However, it seems that the financial difficulties of the Hockey Championship have not stopped Belarus from hosting the European Games in 2019.
Belarus has just started preparing for the Games. However, many people are already criticising the country's snap decision to take a responsibility for hosting them. While poverty in Belarus is on the rise, the state prefers to invest in sporting events, distracting attention from the economic problems and human rights violations. It still remains to be seen whether the game will be worth the effort.