Lukashenka’s Sport Diplomacy

As the new diplomatic war between Belarus and the European Union unfolds, Belarus may lose its right to host the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014. Because of problems with democracy and human rights The Congress of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) may reconsider its decision taken three years ago.

According to IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg, the reason is numerous demands from human rights groups and Western governmental organisations. IIHF President Rene Fasel stated in the past that sports had nothing to do with politics. But in Belarus sports are much more than just sports. It is one of the ideological pillars of Aleksandr Lukashenka’s politics.  

Sport As a National Idea

For 20th century totalitarian regimes, sport became a tool of mass indoctrination and propaganda. ‘Sport constructs the culture of optimism and cheerfulness,’ stated a Bolshevik ideologist Anatoly Lunacharsky. Not surprisingly, Soviet authorities maintained a widespread system of state sport associations, clubs and competitions. During the most terrible period of political repressions in 1930s, Joseph Stalin enjoyed watching pompous mass marches of Soviet athletes and football matches at the Red Square in Moscow.

Alexander Lukashenka, elected as the first President of Belarus in 1994, loves massive parades too.   

In the late 1990s, after the break-down of Belarus-Western relations, it was Lukashenka who proclaimed that ‘our athletes are the best diplomats,’ and their performance showed the front of the country. When his ideologists failed to produce a coherent state ideology based on the the Soviet period of Belarusian history rather than on national traditions or democratic values, sport was promoted as a national ideal for the state. To demonstrate his serious intentions, Lukashenka appointed top security figures (siloviki) to the key sport federations’ positions.

Since 1997, Lukashenka himself has been the president of the Belarus National Olympic Committee. All major sport events and appointments to the national team take place with his approval. Every two years the ruler assigns the number of medals Belarusian athletes must win in Summer and Winter Olympics.

Sport as the Ruler’s Plaything

Being a huge ice hockey fan, Lukashenka decided to start promoting this particular sport in Belarus. Ice hockey requires immense infrastructure and investments. An average Belarusian has to pay his full monthly salary to buy ice hockey equipment for just one 10-year-old boy.

As the first step, Lukashenka ordered construction of new ice hockey venues across the country. In 1994 there were only three indoor arenas, today there are 23, and 23 more are under construction. Belarus’ leader does not care that most of the venues are too expensive for Belarus and will not pay off in the near future.

Lukashenka visited the Olympic Games at least twice - in 1998 in Nagano and in 2008 in Beijing. However, world ice hockey tournaments usually take place in Western countries closed for ‘the last dictator in Europe’ because of visa sanctions. To fix the problem official Minsk applied to host a World championships several times. Finally, the Congress of the IIHF supported Belarus’ tender in May 2009.

Then Lukashenka wished to have a super ice hockey club in Minsk. Within a few years, over 60 foreign players have appeared on the roster of Dinamo Minsk and participate in the Continental Hockey League. This star team costs tens of millions of dollars a year, and it is not entirely clear who sponsors the club. Experts point to the state-owned JSC Belaruskali - one of the world's biggest producers of potash mineral fertilisers and its affiliates. Like in the USSR, Belarusian sports is not commercial and almost entirely depends upon state subsidies.

Easier to Buy Than to Train

The need to carry out the president's orders for medals and to challenge the developed Western states makes Belarusian sports an important tool for the regime’s propaganda. Instead of investing state money into the nation’s healthcare, or the promotion of junior and college sports, Belarusian functionaries ‘buy’ trained athletes abroad - mostly in Russia. While these ‘Vikings’ receive all the amenities immediately, many young Belarusian athletes stay unwanted and leave the sport in the early stages of competition.

For instance, more than 120 foreign ice hockey players (mostly Russians) received Belarusian citizenship in recent years. The entire sports system in Belarus witnesses the same trend.

Officials say that the huge financial spending such as those for ice hockey is justified because people enjoy the show. Around 14,000 spectators usually attend home games of Dynamo Minsk. That is a lot. All authoritarian regimes follow these tactics: to give its people bread and circuses distracting their attention from politics and real life problems.

Why There Is No National Sport in Belarus

Still, ice hockey cannot be regarded as a national sport in Belarus. It will never become like basketball in neighbouring Lithuania. There is a basketball ring in every Lithuanian courtyard, and the whole nation plays it. As a result, with only 3 million inhabitants Lithuania regularly wins medals at the major international forums.

Sports are a part of the Lithuanian market system and by contrast to Belarus, Lithuania’s authorities do not aim to send its representatives for half of the Olympics’ program events. Instead, the state supports one national sport - basketball, and a real cult of sport reigns in the country. Young Lithuanians find it patriotic, fashionable, attractive and accessible to go into sports.

Belarusians do not have such a feeling. Of course, they rejoiced when Belarus hockey team managed to beat Sweden in the quarterfinal of the 2002 Olympics or Belarus gained 19 Olympic medals in 2008. However there is no one national sport which would be accessible to everyone in Belarus. In fact, Belarusians do not have the cult of a sports at all.

Whatever the decision of the Congress of the IIHF regarding Minsk as the host city for the 2014 championship will be, one thing is clear. For the country where seven out of nine opposition candidates can be imprisoned right after the presidential elections, and the permanent ruler manages its National Olympic Committee, sports are an important tool for internal ideology and external propaganda.

Kanstantsin Lashkevich

Kanstantsin is a contributing author. He is a Belarusian journalist currently doing an MA in International Politics at City University in London.

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