Belarus in 2012 Olympics: High Hopes and Bitter Dissapointments
The 2012 Olympic Games brought little happiness to Belarus' team: not matching even half of their expectations and receiving the fewest medals ever.
This means trouble for Lukashenka’s plans to restore the image of Belarus’ overall prosperity thanks to athletics. Yet during the Games, the disappointed President promised tough showdowns for Belarusian sports state authorities.
The bitter impression made on Belarusians by the Olympics only worsened once they were over. On 13 August, the International Olympic Committee stripped Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk of her gold medal because she failed a doping test for the anabolic agent metenolone. Ostapchuk denies the accusation.
Planned sports for a planned economy
Twelve medals for a country with a population of 9.5m is not really a bad result. Belarus’ current GDP and corruption international rankings are far more frustrating. However, for some reason the 2012 Olympics caused an unfavourable resonance in Belarus. The first and simplest explanation is that Belarusians expected more from their countrymen.
The grounds for great expectations first appeared in March 2012 when Alexander Lukashenka raised a very high bar for the Belarus team at the Olympics. He wanted them to win 25 medals. Sportsmen and coaches noted the unlikelihood of such an achievement, but the president insisted that the calculation was “iron”, and “that it will be a great surprise if we do not get our medals”.
Later the same figure was announced by the Minister of Sports and Tourism and little by little flooded the Belarusian media. Lukashenka’s ambitious plan turned out be what everybody had expected. "The president said – the people achieved" is a working scheme for any authoritarian country, though only when the results avoid external and unbiased evaluation.
The Olympics have acted as a touchstone for Belarusian sports. They showed that it is not only the planned economy that does not work: The Belarusian team’s overall medal standing was worse than ever before. In contrast to this year’s 12 medals, the country earned 15 in Atlanta, 17 in Sydney, 19 in Athens, and 15 in Beijing.
Unfaithful medal of Nadzeya Ostapchuk
Depriving Nadzeya Ostapchuk of her gold medal was the final blow inflicted on Belarusians by the Games. According to the International Olympic Committee, Ostapchuk’s samples taken in early August showed the presence of metenolone – an anabolic agent forbidden by the rules. The sportswoman does not accept her guilt and hopes for a change in the verdict.
The accusation is indeed questionable. Several months before the Olympics Ostapchuk passed a number of doping controls: twice in May, three times in June and twice in July. The last testing took place on 30 July in Cologne. All results were negative.
Consequently, in order to have metenolone in her samples Ostapchuk must have taken it after 30 July. At the same time, as the Director of Belarusian National Anti-Doping Agency authoritatively claims, there is no point in taking this particular drug on the eve of the competition. It becomes effective only over a longer period.
Nadzeya is going to challenge the International Olympic Committee’s decision. The experience of Ivan Tsikhan and Vadim Devyatovskiy has proved that appealing such verdicts can be successful. The two Belarusian athletes were accused of taking banned drugs and deprived of their medals. To restore their rights, Tihon and Deviatovsky referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sports. In 2010 the case ended in the withdrawal of the accusation to both athletes and they solemnly got their Olympic medals back.
Whether the same happy end awaits Nadzeya is difficult to predict. In any case Belarusians are eagerly waiting news on her case.
The Soviet sports heritage
Among the thousands of Belarusian authorities’ convictions inherited from the USSR is that “the Olympics are like military actions, but during peace time”. While Lukashenka has only implied this, the Minister of Sports and Tourism voiced this statement to the sportsmen explicitly.
Indeed, such a perception of the Games by the more senior Belarusian sports officials is comprehensible. Superpowers’ athletic confrontations were one of the remarkable aspects of the Cold War. Mutual boycotts of the Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles by the Soviet Union and the USA in 1980 and 1984 and more than 40 years of tough rivalry have left a deep mark on Soviet – now post-Soviet – minds. The 21-year-long sovereign history of Belarus could not eliminate these stereotypes, particularly in the context of strained relations between Belarus and the West.
On the other hand, the fanatic Soviet attitude to sports has worked in Belarus' favour. Vitaly Sherbo, Olga Korbut and Aleksander Medved are still evidence of sports' contributions to Belarusians’ national pride and patriotism. Even now eight out of the 12 medals won were won in Soviet Belarus’ traditionally successful sports: weightlifting, shooting, sprint canoeing, and gymnastics.
Unfortunately, this year’s results suggest that the positive heritage of the USSR fades more quickly than the negative one. Belarusian authorities still view sports as a part of a bigger political picture, as a chance to confront the West. Lukashenka said that sports are "dirt and corruption in all directions" soon after he was denied a visa to attend the Olympic Games in London.
Time will show whether the Belarusian authorities will be able to go beyond viewing sport as merely a geopolitical tool.
Lukashenka Reshuffles Top Officials: Will Anything Change in Belarus?
This August is remarkable because of a number of new appointments of top officials in Belarus.
The most notable changes include yesterday's appointment of the new head of the Presidential Administration Andrey Kabyakou, new foreign minister Uladzimir Makey and new presidential aide on economic affairs Piotr Prakapovich.
These officials have significant powers to shape domestic and foreign policy of Belarus. While the reshuffle is likely to have a positive impact on economic decision-making, its effect on foreign relations is more difficult to predict. However, the reshuffle will hardly bring about a serious change to the government’s policies. All important decisions are made by the president.
The appointments also demonstrate that Alexander Lukashenka has a very limited pool of top bureaucrats to choose from and, therefore, has to reshuffle the very same people.
The logic and timing of the latest reshuffles are difficult to understand. As always, there is only one man – President Lukashenka – who knows why these decisions were made now.
Rumours about the expected dismissal of the former head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makey were circulating already after the dramatic events on 19 December 2010. The brutal crackdown on the demonstrators in Minsk meant an end to the rapprochement with the EU and USA that Makey had presumably been in charge of.
According to some insider sources, the head of the Administration lost Lukashenka’s trust as the latter thought that Makey’s games with the West almost brought about a coup on the night of the 2010 presidential elections. However, that opinion proved to be incorrect as Makey remained in his position for 20 subsequent months.
At the same time nothing signalled the change of the president’s chief economic advisor – Siarhey Tkachou. He had worked as Lukashenka’s aide on economic affairs since October 2001 and has a reputation as a convinced Marxist and even Stalinist.
Because of his notorious views he was not very popular among the other top officials in the economic block of the government. Last year Tkachou’s disagreement with Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich even went public. Interestingly, Lukashenka then took the side of his aide and even threatened to sack the prime minister.
Less Marxism Does Not Mean Economic Liberalisation
The latest wave of appointments is interesting from an economic point of view. On 22 August Russia became a fully-fledged member of the World Trade Organisation which will put even more pressure on Belarus to reform its command economy. The government needs more reform-minded policy-makers.
In this respect the departure of Siarhey Tkachou is good news. The staunchest Marxist is now out, but who is in?
The new presidential aide on economic affairs is a well-known figure in Belarus and abroad. Piotr Prakapovich was head of the National Bank from March 1998 until July 2011. A construction engineer by training, he made a career in the economic sphere. Far from being a strong market reforms proponent, Prakapovich has a reputation as a reasonable economic manager.
However, his monetary policies in 2010-2011 became the major cause of last year’s economic crisis. He is also widely remembered for his public promises on the eve of that crisis. In March 2011 he appeared on national TV and assured the population that there would be no one-time devaluation of the Belarusian rouble while he was head of the National Bank. And two months later the rouble was devalued by a record 54.4 per cent.
Another fresh appointee – the head of the Presidential Administration Andrey Kabyakou – also represents the economic block of the incumbent regime. From November 2011 and until 27 August 2012 the Moscow-born Kabyakou served as ambassador to Russia. But before that he held economic positions in the Presidential Administration, Council of Ministers and other government bodies.
Kabyakou is no market champion either. Moreover, during his many years of government service he made numerous statements which characterise him as a typical post-Soviet bureaucrat with a narrow state-centred understanding of economics. Thus, there is little hope that the new head of the Presidential Administration will become a source of reform initiatives.
At the same time, in contrast to Tkachou, Kabyakou is not really consistent in his economic views. He is more concerned about his personal career than the contents of the policies that he has to carry out. Therefore, he will never fight against market reforms if his boss decides to launch them.
Foreign Policy Gets More Contradictory
As head of the Presidential Administration (No.2 top position in the political hierarchy in Belarus) Kabyakou will also have significant influence over the country’s foreign policy. Under Uladzimir Makey the Presidential Administration was, in fact, the centre of foreign policy decision-making. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acted as the Administration’s executive branch.
It remains to be seen whether Uladzimir Makey will be able to change this status quo and turn his new ministry into a decision-making body. But in any case, Andrey Kabyakou will gain weight on foreign policy matters. That is why some facts in his biography become noteworthy.
Andrey Kabyakou has good connections in Russia, the main sponsor of the Belarusian regime. He was born in Moscow. In 1983 he graduated from Moscow Aviation Institute. As deputy Prime Minister he was in charge of integration talks with Russia. Finally, he spent several years as ambassador to Russia just before this appointment. This suggest that Kabyakou is going to be a good negotiation partner for Moscow, whereas under Makey the Administration had a good network of contacts in the West.
The main intrigue now is whether Makey still has a mandate to restore Belarus' relations with the European Union. If so, it will be interesting to see how the new head of the Administration and the new foreign minister will separate their foreign policy functions and whose word will be of more weight for Lukashenka.
Still Only One Politician with the Same Cadres
But the most remarkable thing is that Belarus remains the country of just one politician. Alexander Lukashenka personally decides all important issues. Therefore, no matter how he reshuffles his officials the country’s policies generally stay the same.
Moreover, the cadres at Lukashenka’s disposal also remain the same. There are almost no new faces at the top of the regime. The same officials migrate from one top position into another without generating new policies, visions or ideas.