The controversy of the European Games: Price vs Prestige
In preparation for the European Games 2019 on the 21st of June, Belarus has already spent the double compared to the planned budget – $112m for ceremonies, repair, volunteers, and other expenses.
Belarusian authorities argue that the games will promote Belarus, and unite Belarusians. In addition, the government decided to introduce a month-long 30-days visa-free regime for the duration of the Games in the hope of attracting more tourists. However, this is likely not to be the case with the Games serving the interests of the Belarusian authorities first and foremost.
Price vs Prestige
The competition, organised by the European Olympic Committee, takes place for the second time in history and therefore has barely gained any popularity among sports fans. Some of the 15 sports in the competition are not the most popular nor followed sports. For example- badminton, table tennis, and beach soccer. Hosting competitions in more popular sports, Belarus may have risked spending more than might get in return from the Games.
The Netherlands was the first to agree to host the Games. However, after the cost of the Games was revealed, the Netherlands backtracked from its promise and the European Olympic Committee turned to Belarus. After the Netherlands with a GDP of $912b. decided that hosting the European Games for them is too expensive, then the decision of Belarus with GDP $59b. seems rather surprising.
The Belarusian authorities barely hesitated before saying yes. While the announced $30-40m cost of the Games seemed reasonable to many, the real $112 m spent on the Games raises some questions.
For example, Belarus spent $12m for the opening and closing ceremonies, in comparison to Brazil that spent $21m for the many times bigger Olympic Games in 2016. According to Ideaby, each volunteer’s gear cost $500 (the same gear cost 10 times less during the Euro 2012).
Although Belarus received financial support from the European Olympic Committee, Siarhei Rumas, the Belarusian PM, said that international sponsors have not rushed to invest into the European Games 2019.
The organisers of the European Games in Belarus expected to sell 190,000 tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies ($70-$150 per ticket) and competitions ($3-$27 per ticket), while only 69% were actually sold. The Belarusian officials announced they expect around 30,000 tourists to visit the Games. In the unlikely case that this number of tourist will attend Belarus during the European Games, it can barely compensate the money spent on the competition.
No-visa for tourists during the European Games
Belarusian authorities hoped that the European Games will attract more tourists. In addition to infrastructure renovations, Belarus also invested in creating a positive image of Belarus online. As a bonus, from 10th June to 10th July, residents from 98 different countries can visit Belarus visa-free through any border point if they purchased a ticket for at least one of the competitions or ceremonies. Due to fewer restrictions during the Games, foreigners can also travel across Belarus and enter the country through Poland or Lithuania.
Even if the number of tourists visiting Belarus stays below expectations, training more people to speak English and opening of new entertainment places add into the positive image and progress of Belarus. Preparing to host foreigners, Belarusian service industry develops and improves for Belarusians themselves as well.
However, the management of the Games is still rather superficial and strange. The Games committee suggested accommodating athletes in student dorms. Meaning that students have to entirely move out from their rooms with their belongings. Roads, house facades, sports arenas are only repaired prior to the Games, and not following the need. At the same time, the returns are not likely to cover the cost of hosting the Games.
On 15th April Lukashenka said:
Sports facilities, telecommunications, road network, passenger transport, student village – everything must meet the highest standards… We must once again show that comfortable and safe conditions for human life and self-realization have been created on our land.
As a part of opening up Belarus, authorities could have also included the popularisation of the Belarusian language, history, and traditions that are very hard for foreigners to distinguish from Russian at the moment. However, neither Lukashenka nor the Games Committee has highlighted this idea. Instead, in the Hrodna region, authorities installed informational signs devoted to European Games, where the text is in Russian, Polish and English. The Belarusian language and culture would benefit from being distinguished from Russian and the European Games would have offered an excellent opportunity to do this.
Pleasing the West?
Accepting to host the second European Games, the Belarusian authorities probably hope to soften its political reputation. In the midst of diplomatic conflict with Russia, caused by discussions on the integration within the Union state, the European Games could be seen by Minsk as a new tool for dialogue with European countries.
The presidential election in 2020 looks like another reason for Lukashenka to show the polished facade of Belarus. Creating a positive image of Belarus, which has invested a lot into the sports industry, might distract the discussions away from Belarusian authorities and their policies on the eve of the election 2020.
The decision to host the European Games appears financially inconsiderate, taking into account that Belarus spent almost twice as more than planned and tourists are not likely to reimburse even a third of the cost. Considering that a third of Belarusian population lives in poverty and the average salary in the country is around $500 (approximately 2 times less than in neighbouring Poland), conducting the European Games looks just cynical.
The Games may introduce Belarus to tourists that get a chance to visit the country visa-free from the 10th June to the 10th July. Though the visa-free regime has been functioning now for more than a year, the visa rules introduced for the European Games are much easier.
Hosting such an expensive event, the Belarusian authorities have put more importance on Belarus’s external image rather than the economy and its domestic needs in spheres like education, medicine, and social care.