Belarus delegation brings Russian flag to Paralympics: solidarity or calculation?

Berlarusian Paralympic team in Rio. Source: Reuters

On 7 September 2016, Andrei Fomachkin from Belarus became famous for appearing with a Russian flag during the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Upon his return to Minsk, the Russian media hailed Fomachkin, a bureaucrat from the Belarusian Ministry of Sport, as a hero.

The reaction of the Belarusian people, however, was more ambivalent. Over the past year, Belarus has experienced a gradual turn towards soft Belarusisation. Traditionally embroidered clothing and its modernised versions have become a popular trend, infiltrating even official sports: this summer, the national football team started using folk-inspired designs on its uniforms.

However, the regime is carefully balancing this policy with signs of reverence towards Russia, hesitant to antagonise its powerful eastern neighbour. Belarusian authorities were quick to praise the Paralympic solidarity à la Fomachkin, most likely staged to curry favours from Russia.

“Born in the USSR”

The Belarusian delegation made headlines during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, as one of its members raised the Russian flag at the Maracana stadium. This was a gesture of protest against the disqualification of Russian athletes.

As it turned out, the person who smuggled the flag to the opening ceremony was a certain Andrei Fomachkin, who was not even an official member of the Belarusian Paralympic team.

A native of the Krasnodar region in Russia, Andrei Fomachkin has been working in various bureaucratic capacities for the Belarusian Ministry of Sport and Tourism since 2007. He is currently in charge of winter sports at the ministry and came to Rio as a guest of Aleh Shepel, the chair of the Belarusian Paralympic Committee.

Stripped of his accreditation after the incident in Brazil, Fomachkin proudly returned to Minsk and denied any political undertones of his actions in the media. Instead, he stressed his own patriotism and support for the disqualified Russian athletes.

Fomachkin admitted that although he realised the consequences of his actions, he was also aware that his guest status would preclude any sanctions against the Belarusian team. Aleh Shepel added that the Belarusian Paralympians wholeheartedly backed the idea.

Surprisingly, the Secretary General of the Belarusian Paralympics Committee, Mikalaj Shudzejka, who was in charge of the Belarusian delegation in Rio, reacted with more reservation. In an interview with The Guardian on 9 September, he revealed that not all the athletes supported Fomachkin. Shudzejka also noted that the state took advantage of the Paralympic Games for political purposes. Belarusian TV later dismissed this interview as “speculation and provocation,” claiming that it was fake.

Solidarity or courage at the expense of others?

President Lukashenka's spokeswoman Natallia Eismant stated that initially, athletes on wheelchairs were to appear with the Russian flag. According to her information, security strictly forbade this, thus forcing Fomachkin to turn to “plan B.” Lukashenka praised the stunt as a sign of solidarity, adding that his actions reflected the “official stance of the state.”

In this way, the authorities gave their blessing for the controversial, but in no way spontaneous act. In fact, Aleh Shepel was already openly discussing the possibility of displaying the Russian in Rio on 23 August 2016.

How exactly Shepel planned to implement this plan remained unclear at that time. The International Paralympic Committee immediately warned that sanctions against the athletes would follow should they engage in political protest during the Games.

Ultimately, Belarus managed to kill two birds with one stone. By relying on a ministry employee, authorities minimised the risk of harming the entire Belarusian Paralympic team. On the other hand, the publicity gained from this expression of solidarity with the disqualified Russian athletes allowed Belarus to uphold its image of loyalty to Russia.

Political analyst Andrei Parotnikau in his commentary for suggested that Belarusian authorities might take advantage of the flag incident to extract material dividends from Russia. Valer Karbalevich concurred, noting that in this way Belarusian authorities “caved in” to Russia.

Belarusian social network users used more explicit wording to express their anger, saying they felt “ashamed for their country.” Others pointed out that the state blatantly ignored the interests of the disabled athletes, placing their participation in the Games at risk.

However, others doubted the grounds for disqualification of the entire Russian Paralympic team and supported Fomachkin. For instance, the famous Belarusian swimmer and 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Aliaksandra Herasimenia praised Fomachkin's courage in supporting the athletes, who she believed were unfairly deprived of realising their Olympic dreams.

Spreading white wings: Belarusisation in sports

Just one day before the Rio incident, on 6 September 2016, the Belarusian national football team played the 2018 World Cup qualifying game against France in Barysau. Belarusian football fans had several reasons for celebrating that day: besides an unexpected draw, strict stadium rules were unexpectedly liberalised.

For the first time in years, security did not harass fans sporting national white-red-white flags and the historical coat of arms (Pahonia). Moreover, prior to the game, the Belarusian Football Federation presented each of the 13,000 fans with custom-made t-shirts of the national team. In contrast, in October 2015, authorities arrested and persecuted football fans just for wearing scarves with Pahonia.

Thus, in less than a year, national symbols suddenly found their way into mainstream sports fashion. In July 2016, the Belarusian Football Federation decided to rebrand the national team in an effort to enlarge its fanbase. In particular, the Federation opted for uniform designs featuring elements of traditional folk ornament.​

Given the position of sports in Belarus as prestigious state-run domain and a tool of propaganda, this can not be a coincidence. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the regime has increasingly been focusing on controlling groups of ultras, which have expressed their support for Ukraine at sporting events. In this context, a turn towards Belarusisation can serve as a soft power tool to foster loyalty to the current regime.

Yet the flag incident in Rio shows that Belarus remains reluctant to antagonise its eastern neighbour too much. It tries to balance gradual Belarusisation with symbolic counter steps. Such steps are not necessarily oriented towards long-term policy but rather at attracting publicity.

Being economically dependent on Russia for resources, the regime is trying to improve its negotiating position in order to receive more discounts, especially as oil and gas prices are currently being negotiated.

Lizaveta Kasmach is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada.


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