Lukashenka and Ice Hockey

Picture: Lukashenko2008.ru

On the 6th of January the ice hockey team of the Belarusian president, again won annual Christmas International Tournament of Amateurs for the Prize of the President of Belarus.

The tournament was to demonstrate the complete readiness of Minsk to host the IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship which will take place in May.

Much as in years past, state TV broadcasted Alexander Lukashenka showing perfect physical form while playing hockey. Many amateur hockey players from all over the world spoke openly to state media of the outstanding organisation of the tournament. The show concluded with the giving of medals and titles to the presidential team's players.

From first glance ice hockey may seem as an innocuous hobby of an eccentric authoritarian ruler, the same as cigars for Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein's penchant for writing romance novels. But Lukashenka’s passion for ice hockey costs millions of Euro of budget money annually. Over the last fifteen years, the Belarusian leader constructed 26 indoor ice arenas whose maintenance is too expensive for the frail Belarusian economy.  

President dream team

Alexander Lukashenka is no stranger to fitness and is known to exercise regularly. According to the web-page of the Presidential Sport club “The President's team is a unique team where ice hockey veterans and young people, former professionals and amateurs, and the leader of the country and regular citizens are able to play side by side”. But in reality most of the players playing at the side of the country's most important athlete are ex-players of either the national team or professional ice hockey players from leading Belarusian clubs.

It should come as no surprise then that the President's team hardly ever loses. Throughout its history the team has won numerous friendly matches and eight out of ten Christmas tournaments. Even the regulations of the annual Christmas tournament provides Lukashenka's crew a privileged status that other teams do not receive. In contrast to the other teams, six professional hockey players are allowed to be part of the team's lineup.

Obviously Lukashenka is a big fan of his own team. After their latest victory at the annual Christmas tournament he awarded his teammates with state awards which were previously only bestowed upon Olympic medalists and outstanding athletes such as Victoria Azaranka.

This decision provoked a lot of banter by sport fans on the Internet. Renowned Belarusian independent journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina criticised the president's hand-picked team. She compared them to a service staff and declared that amateurs like these, whose main job is to just entertain Lukashenka, should not be awarded some of the most prestigious honours in the nation.

Ice hockey as a part of the political system

Lukashenka openly speaks about ice hockey in his interviews. In a press-conference with leading Belarusian media held on January 21, he brought up the topic several times. He criticised the Dynamo-Minsk ice hockey club, which performed poorly in the Continental Hockey League. As a result the club's director, Aleh Ivanou, resigned. Then Lukashenka mentioned the Christmas tournament and said that he decided to give awards to his teammates to encourage professional players to achieve better results.

Finally Lukashenka mentioned The World Ice Hockey Championship which Minsk will play host to  in May. According to him, it is crucial that all aspects of the tournament will be impressive for all of those in attendance. He stressed that there should not be any empty seats at any match of the tournament. Most likely this means that schoolchildren and students will be forced to visit matches to fill out the picture of TV broadcasts while simultaneously helping to break all previous attendance records. 

The Belarussian president also uses hockey as an instrument to improve relations with Russian political elites. On 4 January in Sochi he played on the same team as Vladimir Putin and Russian ice hockey stars against Russian officials and businessmen. Naturally the Putin-Lukashenka team won 12:3.  

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of ice hockey in Belarussian politics. The officials heading the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association belong to the inner circle of the president. For a long period of time (from 2001-2009) the Minister of Internal affairs Uladzimir Navumau headed the association. The ex-minister of sports and the deputy secretary general of the Eurasian Economic Community Yaugeni Vorsin stepped in to fill his shoes back in 2010.

“Ice Palaces” as monuments of the regime

A well-known Belarusian blogger Darius famous for his architecture reviews described Lukashenka’s presidency as an “epoch of Ice Palaces”. In 1999 in Belarus there were just four indoor arenas for ice hockey. Over the past 15 years 26 additional arenas have been built. There are still 20 more arenas that are planned to be built in the near future. In official discourse, the jargon has, somewhat pathetically, begun to call hockey arenas “Ice Palaces.”

Most of the arenas are erected as an individual project and come with a hefty price tag. To build the Minsk Arena - the main arena of the World Ice Hockey Championship - the state budget spent around $350 million. The second major arena for the tournament is the  Chyzhouka Arena which came with a price tag of $189 million.

Doing a brief comparison, one can see how exorbitant these figures are. To rebuild the Steel Arena in Košice (Slovakia), which hosted The World Ice Hockey Championship in 2011, it would cost only €27 million (or about $37 million). Arenas on the regional level have also become quite a burden on the state budget. The “Ice Palaces” in Orsha, Babruisk and Baranavichy cost between $ 20-32 million a piece.

After an “Ice Palace” is built,  the budget must set aside money to maintain the arena, introducing new burdens to fragile local budgets. After conducting a little investigative journalism, the independent newspaper “Salidarnasć” reported that to maintain these “Ice Palaces” the budget must spend millions of dollars annually.  

The irony is that none of these arenas are profitable, nor likely will they ever become so. For example the Minsk-Arena cannot earn much money by renting out its facilities. The “Dynamo-Minsk” hockey club playing at arena do not have to pay rent thanks to a presidential decree. Average Belarusians playing hockey in these “Ice Palaces” bring in very little in the way of revenue for the arenas.

Outside of Minsk, in the regions, “Ice Palaces” are never going to be able to earn significant money from events such as concerts. It is not like either Madonna or Elton John have any plans of playing in these venues, nor will they. In addition these ice hockey arenas have to pay the hundreds of employees working at the facility. As a result, the Belarusian tax payers must subsidise these impractical arenas to keep them afloat.

The right to host IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship is a great achievement for the regime. Inside the country the event would legitimise the “Ice Palaces'” construction and the sports policy of Belarus in general. The tournament will also be a great opportunity for the Belarusian authorities to make a huge PR campaign towards transforming the negative image of Belarus in the West.

Not only the elites, but also average Belarusians will have an opportunity to benefit from the tournament. Surely small businesses and taxi drivers will not miss the opportunity to earn money on tourists while the authorities, for their part, will ensure that Minsk will become a friendlier place for foreigners. 

Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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