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Corruption in Belarusian sport: the trend of five-year prison terms

Several corruption scandals shook Belarusian sport in 2016. They demonstrate that even Alexander Lukashenka's favourites are not safe from corruption.

Perhaps the most discussed case was the five-year prison sentence of Maksim Subbotkin, the General Director of the most successful...

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Several corruption scandals shook Belarusian sport in 2016. They demonstrate that even Alexander Lukashenka's favourites are not safe from corruption.

Perhaps the most discussed case was the five-year prison sentence of Maksim Subbotkin, the General Director of the most successful ice-hockey club in Belarus – Dynama-Minsk, whom the court charged for embezzlement.

In spite of the fact that the Belarusian state prides itself on its achievements in fighting corruption, bribery remains widespread in all spheres of life, including sport. Moreover, corruption has become a part of the Belarusian political system. Corruption scandals perform an ideological function and serve to control the bureaucracy.

Alexander Lukashenka's favourite club

The story of Alexander Lukashenka's favourite club starts in 2003, when the Ministry of Internal Affairs decided to revive Dynama Minsk: the most successive Belarusian club during Soviet times. In the early 2010s, with a budget of around $20m, Dynama became the richest professional sport club in Belarus. Most profitable state enterprises, such as SC Belaruskali and the Mazyr Oil Refinery, subsidised the project.

Representing Belarus in the Continental Hockey League, Dynama became one of the most popular teams in the league, with an average attendance of more than 12,000 spectators per match. Lukashenka himself monitored the team's results and regularly criticised the club for poor performances.

It might seem that such close attention from the head of state should render the club immune from corruption. However, in 2015, the club's top-managers became embroiled in a corruption scandal. After spending a year and a half in jail, in October 2016 a court sentenced ex-CEO of the club Maksim Subbotkin to five years behind bars.

Another top-manager of Dynama, Uladzimir Berazhkou, spent eight months in prison, but Lukashenka pardoned and released him after he re-paid $65,000 worth of monetary losses. Despite the corruption charges, the functionary got a position as head of the Department of Marketing and Communication in the Belarusian Football Federation immediately after his release.

Maksim Subbotkin also compensated monetary losses amounting to $150,000, but the president denied him clemency. According to the investigation, Subbotkin had used his subsidiary company, Dynama-Marketing, to misappropriate funds. Moreover, the ex-general director had 'employed' Berazhkou’s teammate Leanid Sagyndykau in his club when in reality he did not work there. Berazhkou handed his salaries to Subbotkin.

It should be mentioned that in spite of their repayments, neither top-manager fully admitted his guilt. Subbotkin even denied the charges and appealed the sentence.

The latest corruption cases in Belarusian sport

The Dynama Minsk corruption case received considerable attention in the media, but this was not the only large corruption case in Belarusian sport in 2016. Another top-manager, the ex-general director of the Basketball club Tsmoki-Minsk, Kanstantsin Shereveria, received five and a half years in September 2016. The functionary will also have to pay $180,000 worth of damages.

The court accused the manager of the largest Basketball club in the country – which has an annual budget of $2m – of misappropriation. According to the investigation the manager had misappropriated players’ salaries and organised his birthday party using club funds. However, Sheveria, a club founder and former basketball player, denied the accusations, claiming that he had used all appropriated funds for club development.

The latest corruption scandal in sport occurred in the Belarusian Football Federation. In January 2017, head of the Judiciary Department Andrei Zhukau received five years imprisonment for bribery. The investigation revealed that between 2014 and 2016 he had enriched himself by $650 and a bottle of Cognac. He had received these small bribes from referees and coaches as a reward for referee appointments on Belarusian football league matches.

Corruption as an element of the political system

In 2015, Belarus came 107th in Transparency International's corruption index. Nevertheless, the state media characterise the fight against corruption as one of the most significant accomplishment of the Belarusian authorities. Alexander Lukashenka intends to preserve the image of corruption fighter, which he created in the very beginning of his rule. The Belarusian media cover the corruption cases of highly-placed functionaries, top-managers, and businessmen in great detail. Such trials remain commonplace in Belarus.

With rare exceptions, the state owns and sponsors all Belarusian sport clubs. The way sport clubs are managed is not significantly different from state-owned factories. For that reason, clubs are as vulnerable to corruption as other state enterprises. Even projects as special as Dynama are not spared.

On the other hand, given the non-independent nature of the judiciary system, it is impossible to be fully confident as to whether the defendants are guilty or not. The number of acquittals in Belarus raises doubts about the independence of the judiciary. Acquittals occur less than half a per cent of the time, much less than in the EU and even in neighbouring Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, most functionaries accused of corruption plead not guilty.

In the machinery of the Belarusian state, highly sensitive to corruption, almost any civil servant can be accused of bribery and receive a five-year prison sentence. Corruption cases in sport illustrate the overall situation in public administration and state-owned enterprise management. As these trials show, arbitrage practises do not distinguish between $150,000 losses and petty bribes. Both kinds of crime lead to equal punishment.

Such a system is very expedient for Alexander Lukashenka personally. It fosters his image as a corruption fighter and allows him to keep officials and managers on a short leash. According to the law, the Belarusian president can pardon his subordinates imprisoned for corruption if they compensate for the losses. Very often, he even offers positions to newly released functionaries, as was the case for Uladzimir Berazhkou. These powers give the head of state unlimited possibilities for control of the bureaucracy.

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