Lukashenka and Ice Hockey
On the 6th of January the ice hockey team of the Belarusian president, again won annual Christmas International Tournament of Amateurs for the Prize of the President of Belarus.
The tournament was to demonstrate the complete readiness of Minsk to host the IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship which will take place in May.
Much as in years past, state TV broadcasted Alexander Lukashenka showing perfect physical form while playing hockey. Many amateur hockey players from all over the world spoke openly to state media of the outstanding organisation of the tournament. The show concluded with the giving of medals and titles to the presidential team's players.
From first glance ice hockey may seem as an innocuous hobby of an eccentric authoritarian ruler, the same as cigars for Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein's penchant for writing romance novels. But Lukashenka’s passion for ice hockey costs millions of Euro of budget money annually. Over the last fifteen years, the Belarusian leader constructed 26 indoor ice arenas whose maintenance is too expensive for the frail Belarusian economy.
President dream team
Alexander Lukashenka is no stranger to fitness and is known to exercise regularly. According to the web-page of the Presidential Sport club “The President's team is a unique team where ice hockey veterans and young people, former professionals and amateurs, and the leader of the country and regular citizens are able to play side by side”. But in reality most of the players playing at the side of the country's most important athlete are ex-players of either the national team or professional ice hockey players from leading Belarusian clubs.
It should come as no surprise then that the President's team hardly ever loses. Throughout its history the team has won numerous friendly matches and eight out of ten Christmas tournaments. Even the regulations of the annual Christmas tournament provides Lukashenka's crew a privileged status that other teams do not receive. In contrast to the other teams, six professional hockey players are allowed to be part of the team's lineup.
Obviously Lukashenka is a big fan of his own team. After their latest victory at the annual Christmas tournament he awarded his teammates with state awards which were previously only bestowed upon Olympic medalists and outstanding athletes such as Victoria Azaranka.
This decision provoked a lot of banter by sport fans on the Internet. Renowned Belarusian independent journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina criticised the president's hand-picked team. She compared them to a service staff and declared that amateurs like these, whose main job is to just entertain Lukashenka, should not be awarded some of the most prestigious honours in the nation.
Ice hockey as a part of the political system
Lukashenka openly speaks about ice hockey in his interviews. In a press-conference with leading Belarusian media held on January 21, he brought up the topic several times. He criticised the Dynamo-Minsk ice hockey club, which performed poorly in the Continental Hockey League. As a result the club's director, Aleh Ivanou, resigned. Then Lukashenka mentioned the Christmas tournament and said that he decided to give awards to his teammates to encourage professional players to achieve better results.
Finally Lukashenka mentioned The World Ice Hockey Championship which Minsk will play host to in May. According to him, it is crucial that all aspects of the tournament will be impressive for all of those in attendance. He stressed that there should not be any empty seats at any match of the tournament. Most likely this means that schoolchildren and students will be forced to visit matches to fill out the picture of TV broadcasts while simultaneously helping to break all previous attendance records.
The Belarussian president also uses hockey as an instrument to improve relations with Russian political elites. On 4 January in Sochi he played on the same team as Vladimir Putin and Russian ice hockey stars against Russian officials and businessmen. Naturally the Putin-Lukashenka team won 12:3.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of ice hockey in Belarussian politics. The officials heading the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association belong to the inner circle of the president. For a long period of time (from 2001-2009) the Minister of Internal affairs Uladzimir Navumau headed the association. The ex-minister of sports and the deputy secretary general of the Eurasian Economic Community Yaugeni Vorsin stepped in to fill his shoes back in 2010.
“Ice Palaces” as monuments of the regime
A well-known Belarusian blogger Darius famous for his architecture reviews described Lukashenka’s presidency as an “epoch of Ice Palaces”. In 1999 in Belarus there were just four indoor arenas for ice hockey. Over the past 15 years 26 additional arenas have been built. There are still 20 more arenas that are planned to be built in the near future. In official discourse, the jargon has, somewhat pathetically, begun to call hockey arenas “Ice Palaces.”
Most of the arenas are erected as an individual project and come with a hefty price tag. To build the Minsk Arena – the main arena of the World Ice Hockey Championship – the state budget spent around $350 million. The second major arena for the tournament is the Chyzhouka Arena which came with a price tag of $189 million.
Doing a brief comparison, one can see how exorbitant these figures are. To rebuild the Steel Arena in Košice (Slovakia), which hosted The World Ice Hockey Championship in 2011, it would cost only €27 million (or about $37 million). Arenas on the regional level have also become quite a burden on the state budget. The “Ice Palaces” in Orsha, Babruisk and Baranavichy cost between $ 20-32 million a piece.
After an “Ice Palace” is built, the budget must set aside money to maintain the arena, introducing new burdens to fragile local budgets. After conducting a little investigative journalism, the independent newspaper “Salidarnasć” reported that to maintain these “Ice Palaces” the budget must spend millions of dollars annually.
The irony is that none of these arenas are profitable, nor likely will they ever become so. For example the Minsk-Arena cannot earn much money by renting out its facilities. The “Dynamo-Minsk” hockey club playing at arena do not have to pay rent thanks to a presidential decree. Average Belarusians playing hockey in these “Ice Palaces” bring in very little in the way of revenue for the arenas.
Outside of Minsk, in the regions, “Ice Palaces” are never going to be able to earn significant money from events such as concerts. It is not like either Madonna or Elton John have any plans of playing in these venues, nor will they. In addition these ice hockey arenas have to pay the hundreds of employees working at the facility. As a result, the Belarusian tax payers must subsidise these impractical arenas to keep them afloat.
The right to host IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship is a great achievement for the regime. Inside the country the event would legitimise the “Ice Palaces'” construction and the sports policy of Belarus in general. The tournament will also be a great opportunity for the Belarusian authorities to make a huge PR campaign towards transforming the negative image of Belarus in the West.
Not only the elites, but also average Belarusians will have an opportunity to benefit from the tournament. Surely small businesses and taxi drivers will not miss the opportunity to earn money on tourists while the authorities, for their part, will ensure that Minsk will become a friendlier place for foreigners.
Belarusian Shot Dead at Euromaidan, Riots in Ukraine, Rosatom – Belarus State TV Digest
Violent clashes in Ukraine, caught the attention of Belarusian state TV. In its coverage, their journalists presented the topic rather tenuously.
Participants of the Euromaidan protests appeared on TV as hooligans, with the authorities trying to settle the crisis. State TV also warned its audience that an Egyptian scenario could be in store for Ukraine.
Alexander Lukashenka met with the owners of the biggest state and independent media outlets in the country. Thank to a loose atmosphere, participants could openly raise any pressing issues, as one journalist enthusiastically noted. During the meeting, Lukashenka confessed his main ambition: an independent and sovereign Belarus.
Violent clashes in Ukraine: Gone out of control. Belarusian state TV followed the ongoing events of the previous days in Kyiv. Barricades, burnt buses and cars – this is how journalists depicted Euromaidan. It associated participants of the protests with hooligans and extremists. “Observers agree that nobody fully control now over the situation in Kiev – neither the Ukrainian authorities nor leaders of the opposition”, one journalist commented.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov noted that instability in Ukraine could be convenient for someone from abroad, journalist concluded.
Kyiv: now radicals run the show. President Viktor Yanukovich ordered setting up a special group for the settlement of the crisis. A State TV reporter informed that militia has already detained 20 people and brought a legal action against them. They can be sentenced up to 15 years. "One analyst pointed out that an Egyptian scenario is being repeated in Ukraine”, journalist commented.
Who is guilty of the situation in Ukraine: the Opposition and Western Politicians? Recently the Russian Duma adopted a statement regarding the clashes in Ukraine. It said that “apart from the extremist element of the opposition, Western politicians who interfere in the domestic affairs of an independent Ukraine” also bear responsibility.
A Belarusian killed in Euromajdan. Among the three killed in Kiev, was a Belarusian, Mikhail Zhiznieuski. Journalist noted that in 2005 the man moved to Ukraine. His mother wanted even to report him as a lost person, the reporter noted. Recently it became clear that Zhnizneuski had decided to participate in the protests.
Russia intensifies its struggle against terrorism. Belarusian Channel 1 discussed the proposed changes to the anti-terrorism legislation in Russia. The new legislation has distinct three parts. The first allows FSB officers to conduct a body search of Russians and their belongings. The second bill prevents money laundering and the financing terrorism. The last bill allows for the monitoring of web sites.
Journalist stressed that experts did not see anything in the new laws that would pose any threat to citizens' freedoms or rights.
Minsk is reviving its old ties in southern Africa. Businessmen from Mozambique visited the Belarusian automotive company BelAZ. They are interested in establishing a joint plant in Mozambique, but also setting up production of Belarusian nitric and potassium fertilisers. State TV mentioned that “before our very eyes, old trade ties are being revived”. Back in Soviet times, BelAZ had been actively delivering machinery and vehicles to the southern region Africa.
Rosatom: interested in involving Belarusians in its other projects. Lukashenka met with the head of the Russian state-run nuclear energy conglomerate Rosatom, Sergey Kirienko. They discussed the successful construction of the Astraviec power plant, “one of the biggest Belarusian-Russian projects”. Report emphasised that both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka had paid special attention to its construction.
Kirienko explained that the plant meets all the necessary safety criteria, including the quality of its construction. Furthermore, it was built in line with the projected budget. He also praised the Belarusian organisations involved into the project. Rosatom might consider employing them for other projects abroad.
Belarus-China: strategic partnership to be continued. State TV also covered Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich's official visit to Beijing. Miasnikovich and Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, agreed on a road map for future co-operation between both countries.
Belarus and China want to work together on various sectors, including space exploration, aviation, and logistics. One more big Chinese company will start working in Belarus in addition to the other 5 already functioning in the country.
The state supports the gifted young Belarusians. State television proudly informed that over 1,200 young talented Belarusians would receive special awards from the presidential fund.
In over 18 years of its existence, the presidential fund supported over 28,000 intelligent Belarusians, State TV explained. In the words of Lukashenka, there are conditions in the country for youngsters to achieve their dreams. A state TV reporter presented the story of a successful man, Aliaksiei Sikorski, who today became a representative of one of the most famous Russian IT companies.
Press conference with Lukashenka. The heads of the eleven biggest and the most influential state and independent media met with Lukashenka for a special press conference. State TV journalist underscored how open and constructive the meeting was. “Always communicative, Alexander Lukashenka has immediately won the favour” of other participants in the event, it was further reported. Journalist did not clearly state which media participated.
Lukashenka stressed the importance of youth, that would have the right to vote and perform during the elections. "We should gradually pass the country to other hands", the head of state said. “If someone thinks Lukashenka is strongly holding on to his chair [post] – BD, he is mistaken”, the head of state continued. In his words, elections that would be honest and in accordance with the established rules. “We don't need revolutions”, Lukashenka reiterated.
In its coverage, most the footage was of Lukashenka making long speeches. The audience could not really hear the questions coming from the guests.
Candidates in the elections will have a right to campaign in state media. Journalist noted a decision of the Central Electoral Committee of Belarus regarding the upcoming elections. All candidates will receive 5 minutes for political campaigning on the local radio stations.
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.