The Hockey Championships Launch: Pleased Foreigners and Repressed Citizens
On 9 May the World Hockey Championships officially started in Minsk. Belarus hosts the largest sports event in its history and the largest inflow of foreign tourists ever.
Belarusian authorities endeavoured to make tourists' life comfortable and even allowed them to come without visas provided that they show they have purchased a hockey ticket at the border. Most visitors indeed seem satisfied with the country and call it clean and friendly.
Meanwhile, the fears of the Belarusian authorities resulted in repressive measures against certain categories of Belarusians. About 30 political activists were arrested ahead of the event with fabricated accusations. Moreover, demobilised servicemen are not allowed to move freely and prostitutes are receiving extra time in prison for appearing on the streets.
The Largest International Sports Event in Belarusian History
The 2014 World Hockey Championship became the largest sports event that Belarus has ever hosted. At this point, around 17,000 fans from Europe came to Belarus with the “ticket instead of visa” scheme. According to this policy, if one buys a ticket to any of the matches, they receive the right to enter Belarus without a visa and stay here for the duration of the championships.
Among the most numerous groups among Minsk's guests are Latvians (7,000), Poles (4,500) and Lithuanians and Slovaks (around 1,500). However, the majority of tourists have come from Russia. Because of the absence of a real border no one can tell how many of them actually came. Meanwhile, State Border Committee predicts the main influx of fans will come closer to the play-off period.
As the Minsk local authorities report, during the first four days of the event hockey fans drank over 100 tonnes of beer. The record for attendance of matches so far happened during the USA-Russia on 12 May, where 14,000 tickets were sold.
Most tourists interviewed by the journalists speak positively about the level of the championship management, services in the city and the city itself.
They call Minsk a clean city and people kind and friendly. The atmosphere seems friendly despite the Ukrainian crisis and tension between Russia and the West. Russian tourists were surprised that on 9 May people in the streets were mostly sober.
Russian Fans: Problem or Myth?
Belarusian security services were suspicious of Russian fans ahead of the event because of the rumour that they plan to hold a Russian March on 9 May. President of the Russian fan club “Russia United” said that he was invited to the police and KGB, where they inquired about potential threats from Russian fans.
From his words it became clear that organised Russian fans were themselves afraid of the Belarusian security forces. They even consulted with local authorities on the use of St. George’s ribbon, because earlier on information appeared on the Internet stating that such ribbons cannot be used during official celebrations.
Although hockey fans indeed appeared more peaceful than football ultras usually prove to be, several unpleasant incidents occurred in the first days of the event. On 9 May drunk Russians hung several Russian flags on the fence of Georgian embassy. But when they decided to remove Georgian flag from the flagpole and replace it by the Russian one, police had to interfere.
On 12 May police also detained two Russians who stole souvenirs from an ice arena shop. They received fines for their transgressions because the sum of the stolen items did not exceed the amount necessary to open a criminal case.
Hiding Military Men and Prostitutes
Despite the generally positive atmosphere at the championship, people complain about the ridiculous security measures. Some say that police would not let them in a local park with a litre of water because it violates security norms, while inside the park people drank vodka and beer freely at the tables. People report that at night police strongly recommended them to leave the city centre, and when they refused to, police violently forced them out using tear gas.
On the Internet people say that the authorities also try to hide demobilised army soldiers during the championships. They are not allowed to go home in uniform and army institutions are responsible for organising their transportation to their regions of origin. Thus the authorities are attempting to not have Belarus viewed as a militarised country while still maintaining public order, since ex-servicemen usually like to celebrate demobilisation with bouts of drinking and tend to engage in fighting.
The authorities are also trying to avoid putting out an image of being a sex tourism destination. Prostitutes complain that the police are cracking down on them despite the fact that demand for their services grows at such events. Now they risk 15-20 days in jail for being on the street, while previously they just had to pay a fine.
Prostitution is officially banned in Belarus but women actually work openly in the streets. Anonymous policeman told TUT.by that girls not only from Belarusian regions, but also from abroad come to earn at such events and the police try to control all of them. It was also noted that they tend to be good informers about what is going on around town.
Political Cleanup – the Dark Side of the Championship
Ahead of the championships a number of foreign and Belarusian human rights organisations urged the governments of the participating countries not to come to Minsk and thus express their condemnation of the political prisoner problem and other human rights violations. Lukashenka pointed out earlier that events of such scale are not just sports but political events.
The Belarusian authorities responded to these comments in their customary way. On 7 May border officers detained Martin Uggla – the head of the Swedish human rights organisation Östgruppen at the Minsk airport. They told him that he was a persona non grata and the next day sent him back. Östgruppen is an organisation that has been cooperating with the Belarusian democratic opposition for many years.
On 8 May two representatives of the Youth of Norwegian Christian-Democratic Party were not allowed to enter Belarus. They were stopped in the train Vilnius-Minsk and put on a train back to Vilnius. The border guards explained to them that they were on a blacklist and cannot enter Belarus.
Also, right before the start of the event the police decided to 'preventively' arrest political activists to avoid any political actions that could damage the event's image. As of 9 May, around 30 activists were detained and a few more searched.
The authorities accused all of them of disorderly conduct and noncompliance with police orders and sentenced them from 10 to 20 days in prison. Meanwhile, Minister of the Interior Ihar Šunievič denies the political nature of the detentions. He told journalists that there exist no such definitions as preventive detention and all arrested people committed administrative offences.
Although the Belarusian authorities are doing their best to please tourists, they continue to apply repressive measures against their own citizens. By superficial cleanliness and friendliness they try to hide the real nature of the political regime in Belarus.
The Ukrainian Scenario is Being Tested in Belarus – Belarus Security Digest
The Belarusian authorities are preparing to counter by military means any possible attempts to destabilise the situation in Belarus under the scenario deployed in Eastern Ukraine.
The Belarusian Ministry of Interior plans to make the fight against drug trafficking more efficient and initiate tougher punishments for drug dealers.
The Belarusian authorities seek to use the crisis in Ukraine to elevate their own importance as the Kremlin's partner… and to put a little money in the bank while they are at it. Will they succeed?
The CSTO views the drug flow coming out of Afghanistan the most serious challenge facing it.
Minsk does not want to spend any money on purchasing new combat aircraft and has instead decided to modernise its Soviet heritage aviation.
Corruption Remains One of the Major National Security Threats
On 22 April 2014, Alexander Lukashenka made his annual address to the National Assembly. He paid the utmost attention to the problem of corruption. Lukashenka separately went into the details of abuse of power among judges, the KGB (the initiation of criminal proceedings against a number of top officials from the Department of the KGB in the Homiel region), law-enforcement officials (Interior Ministry, Investigative Committee, customs and border agencies).
This part of his address was not only the longest but also the most emotionally charged. Obviously, the issue of corruption in public administration and law-enforcement agencies is of considerable concer to Lukashenka. It is especially true in the light of the events in Ukraine, a point that he stressed earlier on. He said that corruption and abuse remained the "birthmarks" of law-enforcement and executive bodies. This may be one of the harshest wordings he has ever employed.
The time that Lukashenka dedicated to the problem of corruption during his address on 22 April 2014 suggests that the situation has become intolerable. Moreover, it also signals that the law-enforcement agencies can no longer be regarded as a wholesome part of the public administration system.
The Ukrainian Scenario is Being Tested in Belarus
For the moment there are only during drills. A joint exercise with the 120th guards motorised brigade and internal troops of the Interior Ministry recently took place. During the drill its participants worked out coordinated tactics to accomplish special tasks in urban areas.
One of the goals of the exercise was to develop the most appropriate approach when using the nation's military units, and establishing the technical and logistical support needed in preparation for conducting special military operations. The latter essentially included counter-insurgency and anti-sabotage manoeuvres, suppressing armed insurgencies or similar activities using their own forces against that of the enemy.
They also worked out plans to hold joint street patrols and maintaining curfew by military personnel and internal troops. The participants were trained in carrying out their respective duties at checkpoints and inspecting incoming transports as well as countering mass riots with joint actions.
It is worth noting that during the exercise the military personnel worked out their actions in reaction to the occupation of administrative buildings by a group of aggressively minded people who earlier tried to hold an unauthorised rally in a public square.
Drugs Remain in the Spotlight
The Ministry of Internal Affairs insists on setting up an interagency anti-drug commission, which will allow for the monitoring and anti-trafficking measures for new psychoactive substances within days after their initial seizure. The interagency commission is being established with three agencies: the State Committee of Forensic Examinations, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Health.
This commission can prohibit, by an official decision that it makes, any substance that is determined to have a psychoactive effect on a potential user and is dangerous for their health. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also initiated new legislation in this vein.
They proposed to toughen the penalties associated with drug distribution by punishing the production of psychoactive substances in drug laboratories as well as the sale of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and their analogues to minors by imprisonment of up to 13 years. Amendments to Decree No. 60 "On measures to improve the use of the national segment of Internet", which will allow for prohibiting by law visits to web sites that were found to have sold drugs are also under consideration.
It is thought that it will automatically deny at least 90% of distributors the possibility of selling narcotic substances online. In the long term, there are plans to establish the single centralised register of drug users and set up the process of obtaining information about drug addicts from healthcare institutions.
Greed or Fear?
Analysing the events in April, we can say that the Belarusian authorities are trying to milk the most out of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Considering the context of the occupation of Crimea, the introduction of an embargo on military and technical cooperation with Russia is a matter of principle for Kyiv. Public opinion demands it. However, the Ukrainian military and industrial complex needs money – much of which comes from Russia.
If things should progress along this line of thought, Minsk is ready to jump into the game by offering itself as an assembly plant for the Ukrainian defence industry. The Belarusian authorities are trying to act as an intermediary for military equipment supplies, and idea which is of interest to Russian customers. In other words, the idea is to set up assembly and production plans in Belarus of the products that would be essentially Ukrainian, but with the label would "made in Belarus" for further sale to Russia. It looks like so far Moscow and Kyiv have no objections to this option.
On 2 April 2014, Lukashenka set an agenda to organise the manufacturing of airplanes and helicopters in Belarus in the production facilities of JSC Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant, which is owned by the Ukrainian helicopter corporation Motor Sic". A statement about the need to enhance cooperation with Ukraine in the military and industrial sphere in general followed. According to Lukashenka, "the time [for this] is right". And they need to seize this opportunity to set up the manufacture of new products, including ones headed for the Russian market.
loud statements about the indestructible military and political union with Russia are aimed one goal – to increase the importance of Belarus as the Kremlin's partner Read more
In general, intermediary's (Belarus) services in helping to supply products from the Ukrainian military and industrial complex to Russia as well as recurrent loud statements about the indestructible military and political union with Russia are aimed one goal – to increase the importance of Belarus as the Kremlin's partner. And this is not only about Minsk's hope to obtain additional financial and economic benefits from Moscow. The first reason for this behaviour is the clear threat of Russia's continued aggressive actions towards other post-Soviet countries.
The CSTO Fears Threats from Afghanistan
The CSTO is preparing for the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. In connection with this, the Organisation has identified four potential risks:
– risks of destabilisation of the situation in Afghanistan;
– the creation of bases for various armed extremist groups and centres of ideological influences in Central Asian countries and, subsequently, a rising number Islamists in these countries;
– the creation of training centres for militants;
– an expansion in drug trafficking in the territory of CIS countries.
The risk of a major invasion from Afghanistan is not regarded as probable. However, local attempts at penetration by armed groups into Tajikistan are a real threat, and such attacks have already been recorded. More alarmingly, their number is growing rapidly. The objectives of trespassers are different: political and solely criminal, related to drug trafficking.
The drug trade remains a priority for the CSTO. This is due to the fact that Russia is currently the major consumer of heroin in the world: the country has 1.7 million drug addicts, whose number increases annually by around 80 thousand people, with roughly 30 thousand people dying every year from overdoses. With these facts in consideration, the Centre of Special Anti-Drug Operation is being established within the CSTO, which will focus on coordinating special operations against the Afghan drug mafia.
Modernisation of Fighters of the National Air Force Begins
Currently, the beginning of a project of modernisation for 10 fighters MiG-29 has been confirmed. It will affect the systems of control, their aiming and tracking systems and their armaments. The airplanes will improve their ability to hit ground targets. The modernisation of the heavy Su-27 is planned to happen the end of the first stage of the modernisation project. However, no specifics are available yet. The question of modernisation of the assault fighters Su-25 also remains open; it was reported in January this year, but nothing further appears to have occurred.
The modernisation of the domestic fighters MiG-29 may also have an economic effect by spurring the interest of foreign customers. Talks are now under way with a foreign country about the modernisation of the MiG-29. The contract may be signed this year; the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranavichy will be responsible for the work.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.