Ice hockey: Lukashenka’s private “circus”
On 4-7 January 2018 Minsk hosted its 14th amateur Christmas ice hockey tournament, where Alexander Lukashenka’s team celebrated victory for the 11th time. In Belarus, ice hockey has become Lukashenka’s private “circus.”
“Zero-first” and “the black helmet”
The Christmas tournament allows Lukashenka to bring together friends and colleagues. The organisers invite famous retired professionals either to play or to take a ceremonial part in the event. This year Phil Esposito, the Boston Bruins legend and a member of the NHL Hall of Fame, opened the match between China and Lukashenka’s team on 5 January.
Besides these two teams, amateur players from Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Czech Republic, Sweden, Russia and the Balkans took part in the event. Traditionally, Lukashenka plays in all his team’s games and this year he scored 6 goals. He even hit a hat-trick against UAE. The Belarusian leader clearly gets pleasure from playing hockey and being part of the winning team.
On the ice, Lukashenka can be identified by two special details. The number ’01’ adorns his shirt; nobody else in the country is allowed to wear a ’01’ shirt. The second detail – he is the only man in the country to play in a black helmet. This gave rise to two nicknames for the president widely used by Belarusians: “Zero-first” and “The Black Helmet.”
A unique moment occurred in this year’s tournament – for the first time Lukashenka was sent off for 2 minutes. During a face-off, the president fell onto an opponent from the UAE team. Belarusian media widely shared the amusing moment and it quickly became a popular internet meme. Many social media users joked about the fate of the referee (whether he kept his life) and claimed that “Belarus experienced freedom for 2 minutes”.
Illusory full house
Traditionally, all the Christmas tournament matches draw almost a full house at the Čyžoŭka-Arena on the outskirts of the city. Neither the wide media coverage nor the popularity of ice hockey in Belarus explains this. Although entrance to the event is free, people do not want to watch low-quality friendly matches involving amateurs and veterans on work days.
To fill seats, Minsk school teachers take pupils to the matches instead of classes. Teachers trying to avoid the obligation may face problems at work. At the same time, some state enterprises distribute tickets among their employees, who are also obliged to go. Usually, they leave the arena after a couple of minutes of the game. Thus, if at the beginning of the match the stands are full, then after the first period one can easily count the number of spectators.
In fact, hockey proves not so popular in Belarus. The average attendance for championship matches stands at around 700 people per game. “Dinamo” Minsk, which plays in the Continental Hockey League (CHL) along with the best teams from Russia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Finland, and China, represents an exception. “Dinamo” regularly attracts a full house at the Minsk Arena (around 15,000 people) and draws the best average attendance in the CHL. The level of competition, entertainment, and a top-notch arena explain its success in drawing attendances.
“Dinamo” includes players from various countries, but Belarusian nationals constitute its core. It twice qualified for the play-offs, but has never reached the semi-final stage. At the same time, some of its Canadian and American players received Belarusian passports, making them eligible to play for Belarus’s national team, which lacks good quality players. This usually causes a big wave of criticism from fans, who disagree with naturalization for the benefit of national sports teams.
From father to son
Returning to the Christmas tournament, one should emphasise that Lukashenka’s team won the competition for the 11th time in its history. The Russian team celebrated victory in the 3 other contests. At the end of the tournament, Lukashenka honoured the winners of the children’s hockey competition called “Golden Puck”. The top-scorer of the tournament was… surprise! surprise! Mikalai Lukashenka. His father handed him the prize, though his team lost the final match against other Minsk representatives.
Ice hockey has already brought success to Mikalai Lukashenka. Playing as a forward, he routinely wins awards as the best attacking player in youth tournaments. In December, the public learned that youth hockey coaches address Lukashenka’s son in the most respectful way possible – using his patronymic – “Mikalai Alexandrovich.” The joke runs that Belarus already has a prospective striker for its national team. One who will strike fear into all his opponents.
The hardcore management
During 2017 Lukashenka drew attention to the results of Belarusian ice hockey teams several times. He characterised the situation the following way: “It’s a disgrace!” Moreover, Lukashenka appointed the Minister of Internal Affairs, Ihar Šunievič, to the position of president of the “Dinamo” Minsk club, which once again shows the importance of ice hockey to the country’s ruler.
In summer 2017, after another call from Lukashenka, Šunievič offered to produce uniforms and equipment for children’s hockey schools in prisons. The president personally examined the first outputs produced by the prisoners, which impressed him. He gave some recommendations for modernising them. The officials plan to distribute hockey equipment, produced by the prisoners, in hockey schools across Belarus.
Today many Belarusians view ice hockey as “a circus” designed to entertain the president. Information about Belarusian ice hockey clubs and the national team losing matches have become the target for trolling and mockery among Belarusians. Preparations for the 2021 World Championship in Minsk and Riga meet a wave of criticism for the same reasons.
Authorities breaking silence on harassment and gender-based violence in Belarus
While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gained momentum in the West, Belarusian society remained on the margins of the raging global debates of sexual harassment.
Yet public discussions of harassment, abuse, and gender-based violence are not new phenomena for Belarus. In 2016, Belarusian women participated in the #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt campaign, revealing everyday experiences of abuse as well as a lack of necessary mechanisms to protect the victims.
The long-awaited improvements might be on the way – at the start of 2018, Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the project of a new law against domestic violence. Planned innovations should introduce revolutionary changes into the practice of dealing with abuse in families and beyond, banning physical punishment of children and re-educating abusers.
Law enforcement vs. domestic violence
Belarus does not have reliable statistical data on gender-based violence, but according to the UNFPA, about 77 per cent of Belarusian women experienced different forms of violence at some point in time.
Annually, Belarusian law enforcement authorities receive about 150,000 calls reporting domestic violence. Out of these, 50,000 results in civil cases. As a punishment, the abuser often has to pay fines, which places a financial burden on the family as well, thus discouraging women to report these crimes. The remaining 100,000 known cases of abuse go unpunished, not to mention the unreported violence.
Prosecuted crimes usually amount merely to 2,000 cases per year, making up about 3 per cent of all crimes. Last year, in 2,264 criminal cases, most of the perpetrators were male, while the victims tended to be female or children.
Currently, Belarusian Criminal Code contains five articles on serious sexual crimes, while the 2014 law on crime prevention regulates some of the aspects connected to the domestic crimes. For instance, this law introduced the practice of restraining orders, limiting the contacts between the abuser and the victim and evicting the abuser from a common place of residence.
In 2017, Belarusian law-enforcing authorities issued over 4,400 restraining orders. Yet these can be issued only following the third charge of domestic abuse within a year, while the victims often might need such protection immediately. There is also no punishment for the breach of the restraining order yet. Existing legal gaps and a vulnerable situation of victims call for a comprehensive legislation.
Ambitious plans for the new domestic violence law
The project of a new law, announced in early 2018, would significantly extend the definitions of domestic violence and introduce new norms, according to the head of the Department of Crime Prevention at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Aleh Karazei. Among the future innovations are definitions of harassment and economic aspects of domestic violence, a ban on physical punishments of children and punishment of stalking.
For crime prevention purposes, the Ministry also has in mind to expand the definition of domestic abusers, including in this category ex-spouses or grown-up children, who do not share the same accommodation, yet often abuse their former spouses or senior parents.
Law enforcement agencies also suggest the introduction of special correctional programs for the abusers, to prevent violence in a non-punitive way. However, currently, neither the authorities nor the NGOs have the necessary capacities to ensure full coverage of these services.
In a commentary to Radio Svaboda, the co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynec doubted the law enforcement authorities’ ability to deal with the gender-based violence.
He stressed that this kind of violence roots in a “cult of violence on a state level” tolerated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whose head, Ihar Šunevič, appeared in the NKVD uniform in public. Along with hypocrisy accusations, Seviarynec also suggested that a new law could be abused as a way to extract more money through fines.
However, the greater obstacle to a progressive legislation might be the patriarchal character of Belarusian society and its conservative mentality. As Karazei admitted himself, these stereotypes affect the law-makers and law-enforcers likewise, slowing down development of gender-based violence prevention regulations.
Problematising harassment in a patriarchal society
The #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment of women did not reveal high-profile abusers in Belarus. The media debated only one case with Belarusian connection within this campaign – in October 2017, the Ukrainian gymnast Tatiana Gutsu accused the Belarusian athlete Vital Ščerba of raping her back in 1991 when she was a 15-year old teenager.
Discussions in the media reflected the ambiguous response of the Belarusian society to these accusations, doubting the credibility of the victim and accusing her of attempts to ruin Ščerba’s career in exchange for self-promotion. Such reactions are also revealing why none of the Belarusian women had the courage to admit the facts of harassment by celebrities.
On 12 January 2018, the independent Naša Niva newspaper published an article by Kaciaryna Karpickaja, reflecting on the #MeToo campaign and telling a story of sexual harassment at a Belarusian State University. Its female graduates shared stories on Facebook about one of the professors, who used to make vulgar jokes and made female students line up according to their breast size.
Yet as comments to the article show, Belarusian society is not yet ready to support the victims, blaming them for seeking profit through the use of their good looks. Belarusian regime further cements this stereotype, as for instance, the protocol service of the Belarusian president prefers to hire young model-like girls to provide entourage during summits, official visits, and other public events.
At the end of the day, legal initiatives from above will bear fruit only when there is a willingness of society to go all the way towards the elimination of various aspects of harassment and gender-based violence.