Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk: Authorities Struggle With Challenges
The World Ice Hockey Championship will take place in Minsk on 9-25 May. Although not as extensive as those for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, preparation for this major sporting event is riddled with abuses and misteps.
Belarusian authorities are accused of using forced labour in the ice hockey arena's construction and struggle with organising English language classes for the police. They also produced a large number of souvenirs that have subsequently been prohibited to sell.
Some in the Belarusian opposition tried to persuade the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Ice Hockey World Championship to relocate the championship from Minsk because of its human rights violations. But the campaigners failed to persuade the organisers. For the first time in its history Belarus will be hosting a sporting event of this magnitude.
Belarusian officials are waiting for thousands of foreign tourists projected to be coming to Minsk and preparing a huge PR campaign which should transform the negative image of Belarus in the west.
Forced labour at ice hockey arena construction
Two major Ice Hockey arenas in Minsk will host the championship in 2014. One of them is Chyzhouka Arena with capacity 7,700 seats projected and built especially for the tournament. Chyzhouka Arena was supposed to open on 7 November – October Revolution Day which has remained a holiday and day off in Belarus since Soviet times. As often happens during these kinds of big sporting events, the builders failed to finish the construction on the fixed deadline.
To speed up construction, Belarusian officials made a very typical decision for Belarus. They sent hundreds of students from Minsk universities to work on the construction for free as unskilled labour during the academic day. Many students claimed that universities administrators threatened to create problems for those who would refused to work.
When asked by a journalist from Naviny.by about the compulsory labour of students the rector of Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics answered that the university does not force students to work who do not want to. He mentioned that very few students were actually involved. “Anyway we will not use any kind of crackdowns to those who will refuse working. Do I look like a man who is behaving in such a way?” stated the rector.
Nevertheless it is very difficult to imagine large numbers of students volunteering to work for free. Officials responsible for the ice hockey arena construction are doing everything possible to avoid the wrath of Lukashenka, the country's most famous hockey player. An economic crisis and very low salaries for unskilled jobs have resulted in labour migration, which lead to the conditions of the current scenario.
The forced labour of students became an extreme measure which the lack of a labour force has provoked. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. According to a report released a International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) – Human Rights Center “Viasna” joint report in 2013, forced labour is widespread in Belarus in various sectors and in various forms.
Lost in translation
Belarus announced visa-free travel to Belarus during the Ice Hockey Championship from Western countries. The government expects thousands of tourists. Those who will show up at a border control desk a ticket to the ice hockey match will be able to enter Belarus without a visa from 25 April to 31 May 2013.
Most of the tourists will likely try their hand at doing some shopping and try to find a common language with local population using English. But, those who have travelled to Belarus know that even that country's border guards often do not speak single word of a foreign languages.
Although every Belarusian secondary school has foreign languages classes as a required part of their curriculum, it is almost impossible to find in Minsk an English speaking policeman or shop assistant. To change the situation the Minsk city police force organised English language classes for 500 policemen. Belarusian universities published a number of phrase books especially for the ice hockey championship.
One of the phrase books issued for roadside activities attracted the attention of journalists. Many translations in the book look very formal. Some phrases can be a cause for laughter. For example “Mrs.=Mistress/Miss”, vacuum cleaner translated as “vacuum cleaner food” etc. Some phrases seem to be useless. According to the phrase book foreigners will ask in the shop such question as “How many customers do you have?” or they will address shop assistant with words “I must buy much things” etc.
The head of the foreign languages department of The Belarusian Trade and Economics University of Consumer Cooperatives Tatsiana Dubaucova compiled the phrase book. She complained to journalists that the department had very very little time to prepare the phrase books. When speaking about the mistakes in the book she mentioned that university employees do not have opportunities for internships in foreign countries. Otherwise there would be fewer mistakes.
The phrase book illustrates well the current situation of Belarusian education system. Isolated from the Bologna process, Belarusian scholars have very few opportunities for academic exchange and to gain work experience abroad. The small salaries provided at universities do not encourage ambitious students to pursue an academic career. All these factors led to the difficulties surrounding the compiling of a phrase book for the universities.
Souvenirs not for sale
Perhaps the most frustrating incident to surface for Belarusian officials related to the championship occurred in autumn. Belarusian state enterprises produced millions of souvenirs and different products with the championship's official symbols. However, according to the IIHF rules they had to be removed from sale on 9 February 2014 – three months before the championship. It is an obligatory measure to that protects the rights reserved by an official merchandise supplier.
In November the IIHF signed a contract with the Swedish company NEH which obtained exclusive rights to manufacture the products with the championship's symbols. Beginning on 9 February the company will be an exclusive manufacturer of all souvenirs for the World Cup. So the Belarus-made souvenir-magnets, notepads, cups, bags, T-shirts and flags with championship symbols will be possible to buy only after championship’s is finished, long after all the tourists have left.
Justifying the epic failure of Belarusian marketing, state media declared that all the souvenirs would be sold before 9 February. But it is hard to believe that at the height of economic crisis Belarusians will rush to buy useless products such as clay pucks, pennants, badges, caps etc.
The Ice Hockey championship 2014 will be held the same year as the Winter Olympics, a time when all the hockey's stars will play in Sochi. It would appear that, as a result, interest in the tournament will be low. Nevertheless the Belarusian authorities expect lots of tourists to bring in the foreign currency so very badly needed by the Belarusian economy.
To attract more tourists and to have more noticeable PR campaign, Lukashenka even could release some political prisoners. That being said, even if tourists come in droves to Minsk it is highly unlikely that it will solve the problems of the Belarusian economy, which is an outsider in world market. The same as Belarusian ice hockey team which will be an outsider at the tournament and will struggle for its survival in Division A of world ice hockey according to experts.
Normalisation of Relations with the EU, Oil Negotiations with Russia – Belarus State TV Digest
Housing remains among a top priorities for ordinary Belarusians, as Belarusian state television noted. This topic became unquestionably the number one issue over the last week. The issue of housing attracted lots of attention from the state media after Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s public sharp criticism of the authorities and demand for firmer control over the construction business.
Is Minsk sending a positive message to Brussels? At a meeting with foreign diplomats, the head of state stressed several times his desire to normalise relations with the European Union.
Belarusian state television reported the current events unfolding in Kiev, but without a deeper analysis. In its coverage, journalists rather critically assessed the protesters and portray them as causing a mass disturbance.
The Ukrainian (dis)order. The Ukrainian police tried to dismantle barriers raised in the centre of Kiev. Journalist commented that in the aftermath of a visit of European politicians to the so-called Euromaidan, the protesters felt as they feel they would not be punished. State TV mentioned data from the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs showing that the protesters from Kiev sprayed tear gas on the police and threw smoke bombs at them. So far 11 persons were detained due to their activity in the demonstration.
Lukashenka: “We are ready to stabilise relations with the European Union”. Belarusian state television widely covered an official presentation of credentials awarded to ten new diplomats to Belarus. Lukashenka a few times stated that Minsk was ready to discuss potential projects with other countries. In his words, Belarus is pursuing a peaceful foreign policy and is refraining from starting or joining any conflicts. He also emphasised how significantly the country has contributed to global and regional security and stability.
One of the priorities in the nation's foreign policy is, in the words of the head of state, the development of good-neighbourly relations with the EU, political dialogue with the Latin America and co-operation with Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.
Referring to the EU, Lukashenka said, "We cannot escape one another. It is predestination [he indicated the above] coming from God, to live together, as neighbours. […] we will take any steps to normalise our relations”.
A new state budget – socially oriented. Recently the Belarusian Parliament adopted a new budget for 2014 already during its second reading. Journalists reported that it would be a socially oriented budget. Half of the budget will go to the social sphere. Of equal importance, the Belarusian authorities will not be holding back on salaries or pensions. Education and medicine remain on the list of priorities of the state and thus, spending in these areas will continue to increase.
Belarus-Russia negotiations. State TV reported a recent meeting of the Belarusian Prime Minister, Mikhail Miasnikovich, with Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow. Both sides discussed a number of issues, including an agreement on how much Russian oil will be supplied to Belarus. Minsk proposed 23 million tonnes in 2014 against Moscow’s proposed 21 tonnes. Both parties, it is expected, will come to a compromise by the end of 2013.
State TV noted that Belarus remained number one for Russia in terms of its mutual trade turnover among the Commonwealth of Independent States. Interestingly, Minsk is higher than the former leader of the ranking, Ukraine, who know is in second place.
The Astraviec nuclear power plant openly discussed in Vilnius. Belarusian journalists proudly covered a meeting which gathered prominent Lithuanian officials, scientists and environmentalists. All learned about the results of the recent monitoring of the impact of Astraviec plant construction on the environment. Reporters underscored the fact that the Belarusian side provided exhaustive answers to all questions raised by the Lithuanians. It proves that in terms of safety, the power plant meets all the necessary criteria. However, Minsk proposed to Vilnius to carry out its own monitoring and system of control over the construction project, because “Belarus has nothing to hide”.
“Republican” meeting with the head of state. Belarusian television took note of the meeting chaired by Lukashenka with over 250 representatives of regional authorities from the whole country. Beginning 1 January a new era in the construction sector will begin, state TV optimistically commented. This comment was made in reference to new principles and legislation that will regulate the sector soon. Their goal is to make the construction business more transparent. One state TV journalist emphasised that Lukashenka will personally control the situation in the sector. Curiously, at the end of the report she asks, "Could it be any other way?"
Reporter mentioned that housing remains one of the most consistent spheres of interest for ordinary Belarusians. Thus the head of state decided to pay special attention to this issue. In Lukashenka’s words, the local authorities should deal with the housing problems more efficiently, because they have all the tools to do so.
The new changes include the former state control over the construction organisations and companies, but also an adequate punishment for breaching the norms and law. A state tv reporter concluded that the economic input of the construction sector to the GDP of Belarus has remained around 10 per cent.
Minsk is vitally interested in co-operation with Ecuador. The head of state met with the Vice President of Ecuador, Jorge Glas Espinel. The station noted that this visit was a continuation of the strategy of rapprochement between Minsk and Quito, in many different areas, from agriculture to technology.
Lukashenka mentioned that the economies of both countries are quite complimentary. “You need what we have, we need what you have”, he was convincing and declared they would start conducting joint projects soon.
Belaya Rus wants to exchange experience with the Tajikistani political party. The civil society organisation “Belaya Rus” signed an agreement with the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Both sides aim at tightening ties and exchange experience in spheres such as energy, agriculture, but also the economy and protection of human rights and freedoms. Aliaksandr Radzkou, a leader of the Belaya Rus, stated that together they could address a number of issues on the level of the civil society organisations and also as political parties. Importantly, both countries share a common history, “We come from the same state”, he said.
The agreement with the Tajik political party is not the first form of co-operation the Belaya Rus with foreign political organisations. Journalist noted that in February the organisation signed an agreement with a Polish party, “Samoobrona of the Republic of Poland” (“Self-defence of the Republic of Poland”) and in March with a Latvian social-democratic party “Sogliasie” (“Agreement”).
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.