Conspiracy and prejudice: Belarus and doping scandals
On 24 January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne rescinded the Belarusian national rowing team's suspension. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) had banned the team in July 2016, just a couple of weeks before the Olympics in Rio.
Justice triumphed. Belarusian sport officials claim that due to the ban, Belarus had lost at least three Olympic medals, and they intend to seek compensation from the ICF. According to the sport ministry, $750,000 were spent to prepare the rowers for the Olympics.
This is not the only recent doping scandal. In November 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deprived Belarusian athletes of three medals won in Beijing in 2008. Over the last twelve years, Belarus has been deprived of ten Olympic medals because of doping related charges. However, two of them were returned after appeals.
In most of cases, Belarusian officials and public opinion side with the athletes. Even very highly-positioned sport officials publicly accuse international sport organisations of corruption and see conspiracies against Belarus regardless of whether athletes are guilty or not.
The rowers’ case
The investigation of the rowing team started in April 2016 when the French anti-doping agency, accompanied by police, raided the Belarusian national rowing team's training-camp in Le Temple-sur-Lot, in southern France. According to tests, five Belarusian athletes had recently been using the banned drug meldonium. Members of the team stated that the athletes had used permissible doses of the drug for therapeutic purposes. Nevertheless, the investigation led the ICF to ban the Belarusian team several weeks before the Olympics.
The Belarusian sport ministry defended the national team from the very beginning. Several days after the police raid, vice-chair of the Sport Ministry Aliaksandr Gagiev declared that the purpose of the raid was to hinder the Belarusian team from properly preparing for the Olympic season.
After the ICF banned the team in July, the aggressive rhetoric from the Belarusian authorities continued. In an official statement, the Ministry of Sport accused the ICF of drawing out the case unnecessarily. According to the officials, the team was eliminated in order to prevent Belarus from winning medals in rowing. The statement also hinted at corruption within the ICF.
'They think Belarus acts the same as Honduras and we swallow it all.' Read more
After the court rescinded the suspension towards the end of January, officials stated that they would seek monetary compensation. Despite the fact that half a year had passed since the Olympics, comments from officials remained very emotional. The coach of the national rowing team, Uladzimir Shantarovich, confused journalists with odd and unnecessary statements.
In an interview with the popular Belarusian news portal tut.by he claimed: 'They think Belarus acts the same as Honduras and we swallow it all.' Why the coach chose a Central American country for comparison remains unknown. In another interview, the coach threatened to humiliate ICF functionaries during the European Games, which Belarus is set to host in 2019. He wanted to force them to sweep courtyards with brooms.
Belarusian athletes and doping scandals
Several years ago, there was much discussion in Belarus about the criminalisation of doping. However, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not treated as a serious offence. Top athletes accused of doping have never been strictly punished by the authorities. None of them ever returned the awards they received from the government for their victories in the Olympics.
Last November, after the IOC announced that it would deprive three Belarusian weightlifters of their Olympic medals, the press-secretary of the National Olympic Committee stated that the prize-money would not be be taken away because the law does not provide for such a procedure.
Obviously, government officials sympathise with the penalised athletes. One of the most well-known doping cases is that of Nadzeya Astapchuk. She was deprived of the Olympic gold medal in shot put which she had won in 2012 in London. After tests proved that she had used methenolone, her coach stated that he had put the drug in the athlete's cup of coffee during a lunch break and Astapchuk hadn’t noticed it.
The explanation did not satisfy the public. Journalists and commentators questioned the official version of the story, pointing out that methenolone does not dissolve in coffee. As a result, the National Olympic Committee disqualified the coach for four years. Astapchuk got two years of suspension, but president Lukashenka publicly reassured the athlete, saying: 'Nadzya, this is not the end. In the future you will have the opportunity to prove your excellence.'
Athletes in Parliament
In many countries, victories in sport open doors in politics, business, and the entertainment world. But involvement in doping scandals usually means the end of advertising contracts and public condemnation for athletes. In Belarus however, the situation is different.
In September 2016, the leader of the suspended rowing team, Aliaksandr Bahdanovich, won a seat in the Parliament. It should be noted that he was one of five rowers which the ICF had accused of doping, and he received the post while the suspension was still in effect. The 34-year-old athlete became the second Olympic medalist to enter parliament and got a position on the Permanent Commission on National Security.
A similar story happened with another medalist: current deputy Vadzim Dzieviatouski. The silver medal he had won in the hammer throw in 2008 was recalled due to a doping violation, but later reinstated in 2010. He won a seat in the Parliament in 2012. Doping-related controversies did not prevent him from heading the Athletics Federation of Belarus in 2014. It goes without saying that both deputies tow the official line.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka is well known for his love of ice hockey. He also plays tennis with Viktoria Azarenka and publicly advises the Belarusian biathlon star Daria Domrachava on how to win. Sport champions enjoy great popularity in Belarus and can often be seen on Belarusian billboards and on TV.
Most athletes are very loyal to the government. For this reason, involvement in doping scandals does not seriously influence their social status within the country. As in Russia, accusations of doping are often perceived as foreign meddling in Belarusian professional sport.
The rowers’ case shows that doping accusations can even lead to a career in politics. The public sees athletes as victims of international conspiracies, often turning them into martyrs. Even when the guilt of top athletes is unquestionable, they receive lenient punishments and sympathetic treatment from the authorities.
Belarusian doping violations are often overshadowed by Russian ones. They don't attract the same amount of attention from foreign journalist and are widely discussed only inside the country. However, the number of penalised Olympic athletes remains very high. Unfortunately, as in many ex-communist countries, the use of doping in Belarus in professional sport is not an unusual phenomenon.
Big talk with the President, a drop in gambling, armed neo-Nazis – Belarus state press digest
Last week Alexandr Lukashenka spoke for over seven hours to journalists emphasising deep problems with Russia at the press conference “Big talk with the president”. According to him, Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after Belarus's visa-free regime starts.
Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP for solely political and economic reasons, not security concerns. The previously thriving gambling industry in Minsk is in decline. Experts discuss challenges to Belarus's accession to the WTO in 2017. Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis with a large stockpile of arms and links to Ukraine.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Lukashenka holds a “Big talk with the president”. On 3 February Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a press-conference which lasted for the record breaking 7,5 hours and gathered an unusually diverse spectrum of participants – journalists, political experts, businessmen, MPs, representatives of civil associations. “There are forces that try to involve us into conflicts, and today we especially need spiritual strength and consolidation. The talk gathered people with diverse views, but we are all devoted to independent Belarus”, he emphasised before at the beginning.
Belarusian leader commented on all current problems of Belarus. He insisted that the government should guarantee $500 average salary by any means. He stated that Belarus lost $15bn due to protectionist policies of Russia within Eurasian Economic Union, and criticised Russia for anti-Belarusian media messages and setting a border control zone on border with Belarus.
Lukashenka said that Belarus can do without Russian oil, however difficult it could be, because independence and history are priceless and cannot be traded. He also revealed that it was Vladimir Putin who advised him to normalise relations with the West.
Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after the visa-free regime in Belarus starts. Soyuznoe Veche published Aliaksandr Lukashenka's response to the emerging concern in Russia over the new policy of visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals of 80 countries. This step could threaten Russia's security since the countries have no border, some Russian commentators argue.
The Belarusian side claims that the government had considered the visa-free regulations for a year and a half and examined all the potential risks for Belarus, its allies, and neighbours – including Russia. Lifting visas does not mean removing border control, and any fear of criminals entering Russia is groundless. 'This is our sovereign right. We are not violating any agreements with other states by introducing this regime', the Belarusian leader said.
Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP out of envy. Lithuanian political parties plan to draw up an agreement which would prohibit purchase of energy from the Belarusian NPP, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. President Dalia Grybauskaite had stated earlier that the NPP may become an instrument of unconventional pressure on the Baltic states. Quoting the expert Aliaksiej Dzermant, the newspaper writes that the real reasons for Lithuania's behaviour are political, as it plans to build its own NPP together with the other Baltic states and Poland.
However, Lithuania's neighbours do not support the initiative, while the Belarusian plant is looking more and more like a successful rival. The newspaper also quotes the Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety of the IAEA, Grzegorz Rzentkowski, who says that Belarusian government fully realises the responsibility for nuclear safety and has invited a large number of monitoring missions to Belarus.
Minsk casinos are in decline. Respublika reports on the sunset of the gambling era in Belarus. After Russia restricted the gambling industry to a few special zones in 2010, Belarus decided to take initiative and become a Las-Vegas for Russia and other countries. Investors flooded into Minsk in order to set up businesses and wealthy Russians appreciated the proximity of the Belarusian capital. However, year by year the government kept adding new taxes on both casinos and gamblers.
Casino owners complain that they are completely mistrusted by Belarusian officials, who think that gambling cannot be unprofitable. Moreover, plummeting oil prices have significantly reduced Russians' appetite for gambling. On top of this, Russia is planning to open a new gambling zone in Sochi, which will definitely entice Russian clients. Many businessmen in Belarus are now simply hoping to close shop without losses or conflicts with the authorities.
Experts discuss the challenges to Belarus's accession to the WTO. By the end of 2017, after a long delay, Belarus may finally join the WTO. Respublika asked experts about the challenges and opportunities membership in WTO could bring to Belarus. Director of the National Centre for Marketing Valier Sadocha thinks that in the middle and long-term period, WTO membership could lead to some industries reforming and others closing. More transparent legislation, compliant with WTO standards, could attract more investors to Belarus.
Growing competitiveness on the market would also result in lower prices. Uladzimir Karahin, head of the National Confederation of Entrepreneurs, believes that Belarusian businesses should learn how to defend themselves in courts and participate in anti-dumping investigations. According to World Bank estimates, WTO accession would increase real income of Belarusians by 8.2 per cent.
Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis selling arms and drugs. A group of men were detained during the sale of a gun and 1.5 kg of TNT, according to Belarus Segodnia. A search of their apartments revealed a large stockpile of arms and arms components, as well as amphetamines and marijuana. The arms included guns, rockets, bombs, ammunition, and explosives. They amassed the arms by accumulating remains from World War II as well as purchasing and smuggling them from Ukraine.
The men confessed that they planned to make money through arms sales, but during the interrogation they also admitted that they wanted to defend their land in case of invasion. According to the police, the group's motivations consisted of a grab bag of various radical ideologies: racism, Slavic paganism, hatred towards Russia and Donbass, and support for far-right organisations.
Architectural heritage decays because of bad regulation. Narodnaja Hazieta inquired why old castles, palaces, and manors continue to moulder in Belarus. The state is largely unable to finance their restoration. There are around 600 such sites in the Hrodna Region alone. These buildings have remained state property since Soviet times, but they need private owners regardless of what functions they are to fulfil. This will at least prevent further decay.
However, the conditions for purchasing such buildings remain unacceptable for investors. The state demands very short terms for restoration and exorbitant prices. Besides, the legislation on protection of cultural heritage is outdated and needs to be comprehensively overhauled.
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.