Belarus delegation brings Russian flag to Paralympics: solidarity or calculation?
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 Naviny.by 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.
Negotiating gas prices, Olympic failure, engaging the diaspora – state press digest
Belarus struggles to obtain favourable oil and gas prices and considers alternative suppliers, as it has in the past with Venezuela and Azerbaijan. Belarus will host a mission from the IAEA and hold stress tests to satisfy Lithuanian concerns regarding the safety of Astraviec NPP.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds a consultative council of the Belarusian diaspora, trying to engage Belarusians living abroad in activity for the benefit of the Belarusian state. The government discusses the worst Olympic performance from Belarusian athletes in history and suggests ways to improve the situation.
This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.
Belarus struggles to obtain favourable oil and gas prices. On 12 September Aliaksandr Lukashenka ordered negotiations for the supply of hydrocarbons from Russia to be finalised in two days, writes Belarus Segodnya. The two sides are now considering three approaches to pricing. The option most acceptable to Minsk supposes pricing equal to the European export price excluding duties and transportation expenses. The second option is the Russian domestic price under certain (unknown) conditions. The third is based on subsidising the Belarusian budget.
Lukashenka also required that the government works out alternative sources of hydrocarbon supplies, as Belarus has done in the past with Venezuela and Azerbaijan. According to Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška, the government already has ideas on that account.
Belarus will allow safety tests and foreign missions to inspect the nuclear power plant. A second round of the Belarusian-Lithuanian talks on the construction of the nuclear power plant has ended, reports Belarus Segodnya. Due to Lithuania's safety concerns, Belarus has requested that the IAEA carry out a special mission to evaluate the NPP construction site. Belarus will hold stress tests of the NPP in Astraviec. In addition to the mission, a European Commission delegation will visit the construction site.
Belarus will not stop construction of the plant, as there have been no violations of international or national standards. Therefore, Belarus's neighbours must be willing to compromise: as President Lukashenka has recently proposed, Lithuania could consider joint use of the nuclear power.
Olympic failure shows a need for a deep reform in sports. Belarusian athletes gave their worst performance in Belarusian Olympic history at the recent Games in Rio. Belarus Segodnya reports on a joint meeting between the Ministry of Sports and Tourism and the National Olympic Committee; the meeting's purpose was to understand the reasons behind this failure and suggest ways of improving. According to the head of the Belarusian Swimming Federation Anatoĺ Tozik, internal squabbles are largely to blame. Rather than than training their teams, managers and coaches fight for funds backstage.
One initiative suggested that funding be granted only for those sports which Belarusian athletes had performed well in before. Other sports would only receive funds for the development of youth teams. Remunerations for performances at World Cups and other intermediate starts would be downgraded, as this can discourage preparation for the Olympics. The system of stipends for coaches would be altered to put an end to certain kinds of abuses.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs gathers a consultative council of the Belarusian diaspora. 33 representatives of the Belarusian diaspora from 22 countries arrived in Belarus to participate in the consultative council on the Belarusian diaspora, reports Holas Radzimy. The council was founded in 2015 as a platform for cooperation between the authorities and Belarusians living abroad. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej announced that the government has finally adopted a section entitled "Belarusians of the World" in the state programme for “Culture of Belarus in 2016-2020”. The programme offers financial support for the activities of Belarusian organisations abroad.
Makiej thanked those who promote the export of products manufactured in Belarus. "We plan to continue and expand the practise of inviting Belarusian businessmen from abroad to participate in various economic forums and trade fairs held in the country", the minister said.
Waste sorting plant is launched near Hrodna. The plant is capable of sorting 120,000 tonnes of waste annually, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. In addition, 30,000 tonnes of separately collected waste will be collected from the city. The factory will employ about two hundred people, including chefs for maintenance of night shifts.
The plant was constructed by a Chinese company and funded by the World Bank. The World Bank also funds the second part of the project: the organisation of separately collected solid waste in Hrodna. This includes money for new types of containers and garbage trucks. Moreover, construction of the plant necessitates improvement of the solid waste collection system. The city will expand the existing container sites, build new ones and close garbage chutes in block houses during 2017.
Belarus-Finland economic forum took place in Homiel. A delegation of representatives of 40 Finnish companies headed by Finnish Deputy Secretary of State Matti Antonnen arrived in Homiel to participate in a bilateral economic forum. Currently 30 companies with Finnish capital operate in Belarus, writes Gomelskie Vedomosti. Over the last five years Finns have brought about $140m of direct investment to the Belarusian economy.
“One of the largest priorities in Finland today is clean energy and waste processing. We intend to explore this area in your country. In addition, we are interested in setting up joint ventures in areas such as agriculture and the IT sector”, said Chairman of the Board of the Belarusian-Finnish Chamber of Commerce Juha Hamalainen. An important factor for cooperation with Belarus is its membership in the Eurasian economic Union, which opens vast markets in Russia and Kazakhstan to investors.
Student self-government in Belarus is effective. Znamya Yunosti gathers student representatives from leading Belarusian universities to discuss student-self-government in Belarus. The correspondent surveyed a few dozen students and none of them had heard of self-government at their Alma Mater.
However, representatives claim that they participate in all spheres of universities decision-making, including the educational process and curriculum, distribution of stipends and scientific activity. This happens through the Councils of Faculties and the general University Councils where they have seats.
The State Press Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.