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.
Belarusians awaken in protest against polluting factories
On 14 April almost 1,000 people in Brest protested against the construction of a battery factory. During the past year similar protests took place in Astravets, Brest, and Svetlahorsk; all against environmentally-harmful enterprises threatening neighbourhoods with dangerous factory emissions. However, as with other non-political protests, the authorities reacted in all of these cases with either silence or detentions.
Low production costs in Belarus attract foreign investors and potentially create new jobs. However, environmentally unfriendly enterprises in residential areas prove controversial. They discontent citizens and harm Belarus’s environment. While the environment is increasingly becoming a central issue in Western countries, it looks like Belarus takes a backward step and encourages the construction of environmentally-unfriendly factories.
Environmental protests: a new target for repressions
Belarus’s environmental profile continues to deteriorate. In addition to the widely-discussed nuclear power plant (NPP) in Astravets, which envisages the preservation of nuclear waste on Belarusian territory, two more factories captured the attention of green activists. Both the Svetlahorsk pulp-bleaching factory, which uses dangerous bleaching methods, and the Brest battery factory, located less than one kilometre from a residential area, have disturbed residents with their emissions. In total, at least four big enterprises criticised by eco-activists intend to start functioning within the coming years.
The Environmental Performance Index for 2018, a rating that measures the environmental performance of countries, shows that Belarus has lost almost 10 points (out of 100). One reason is that harmful enterprises continue to receive state support despite civic protests.
Approval of new factory construction tends to happen without citizens’ participation. Even though officials organise public hearings, these barely impact on an actual agreement between the authorities and investors about construction conditions. When citizens do demonstrate their discontent through public protest, the authorities suppress those initiatives by administrative or even criminal cases.
The pressure on environmental protesters has become a focus for green activists. In February, the Belarusian organisation Ecodom informed the Aarhus Committee about an increasing violation of eco-activists’ rights in Belarus. Belarus became the first country to violate the rights of its citizens within the framework of the Aarhus convention, according to a report in Novy Chas.
Svetlahorsk, Brest, and Astravec: a similar scenario
Protests in Svetlahorsk have been ongoing for more than two years, though they have brought few results. On 20 March the Svetlahorsk court declined an appeal from activists demanding additional eco-expertise at the pulp-bleaching factory that is already working under a testing regime. Activists, however, managed to prevent the removal of the regulation that allowed private citizens to file a case against enterprises.
Despite the involvement of green activists, lawyers and independent experts, officials remain reluctant to restrict the construction and highlight the creation of jobs and generation of money. At the same time, according to the activist Alena Masliukova from the human rights centre Viasna, the factory could have been built at a much lower cost with more qualitative and less harmful equipment. As a result, when fully-functioning, the factory will have to pay back with both money and produced materials.
Similar to Svetlahorsk, the Brest factory construction was neither discussed with citizens nor environmentally friendly. Local authorities and representatives from the factory have organised public hearings to inform citizens of their decisions, but have not sought any public opinion.
When hundreds of people started to come to a weekly meeting, the authorities reacted with ignorance. The authorities placed two of the activists, as well as bloggers Siarhei Piatruhin and Aliaxandr Kabanau, under criminal investigation. As human rights defenders claim, they face fabricated charges.
The Belarusian NPP, which has just started to test its first nuclear reactor, remains the most difficult project to influence since large investments have already been made. As in the cases of Brest and Svetlahorsk, despite the efforts of activists and international pressure from environmental organisations and neighbouring countries, the authorities have never considered adapting the energy policy. They have ignored the potential from wind-turbines or solar batteries. Since the beginning of construction at Astravets at least 10 accidents have occurred, leaving three people dead.
All these cases of factory construction have a similar scenario of state-society dialogue. First, citizens protest against the location of the factories in residential areas and the old-fashioned materials or means of production, usually involving investors from China or Russia. Second, protests involve groups of citizens who don’t usually engage with public matters, such as families with children or teachers. And finally, in all the cases, the authorities show themselves reluctant to openly comment on the construction, which usually becomes a case when the state receives new investors but doesn’t want to disappoint citizens.
How can Belarus improve its environmental record?
As in many spheres, there exist few chances that protests can influence policy all the while the authorities publicly silence the problems. Parallel to the construction of environmentally-damaging factories, there are a number of interesting eco-initiatives emerging in the country that receive neither attention nor public support. For instance, a small project (pavetra.online) measuring air-pollution in the Mahiliou region and the first packaging-free store in Minsk, “Zero Waste”.
Last year’s protests against these factories reiterate the inability of the authorities to listen to citizens’ voices when it comes to the construction of such enterprises. Disregarding the environmental perspective, the Belarusian factories and the economy as a whole lose their chance to show themselves modern and competitive.
International criticism is unlikely to bring a change in Belarus’s policy of earning money by hosting dangerous enterprises, which prove profitable for foreign investors. Yet neighbouring and some post-Soviet countries have started to change their approach towards the environment; Georgia recently introduced a complete ban on plastic bags.
Belarus would benefit from green investments and ties with eco-friendly countries (like Sweden, Germany or Netherlands that actively promote green energy and other policies in their countries). These countries might invest in small projects involved in testing for air pollution or similar.
Instead of becoming a platform for foreign investors heavily polluting projects, Belarus could host eco-startups and become a regional hub demonstrating its successful environmental performance. Such an approach would rather stimulate citizens participation than bring them to the streets.