The Ice World Hockey Championship as a Tool for Propaganda
The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship presented another opportunity for the government to influence its citizens in appreciating the stability that the country enjoys and believing in the choices the president has made over the years.
While Minsk was celebrating the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the United States and Canada were preoccupied with the 2014 Stanley Cup. The United States and Canada sent their second tier teams to the tournament.
Their lackluster play and average overall performance gave the Belarusian government a chance to portray them as weaker nations athletically and as teams with less prowess in the international arena.
What the Tournaments Mean
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) organises the Ice Hockey World Championship and manages all international ice hockey tournaments. However, it has little control of the hockey in the United States and Canada. The National Hockey League (NHL), the most prominent and prestigious hockey organisation in these countries, hold the Stanley Cup.
As both championships take place during the same period of time, many of the best players from the United States and Canada simply do not participate in the Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk. Unlike the Ice Hockey World Championship and the Stanley Cup tournaments, the Olympic Games represent a truly international tournament that attracts all of the best players from all over the world.
Canada, a nine time Olympic gold medalist (including Sochi 2014), took only fifth place in the official IIHF final rankings. Similarly, the United States, the winner of the silver medals in the 2002 and the 2010 Winter Olympics, only managed to get sixth place. Russia’s victory at the Ice Hockey World Championship after its Olympic failure, gave an opportunity for Minsk to improve the image of the Russian team and the region's overall hockey profile.
Manipulating People’s Minds
Image correction is a great term to help understand how the Belarusian government has been manipulating the actions and attitudes of the Belarusian masses to mobilise potential adherents or demobilise potential antagonists to the regime. Assurances of economic stability and the skillful control of culture and media are crucial components of the image correction tool kit employed by Minsk.
television have been praising Lukashenka as a “man of the people” and refers to him as “father”, a figure who looks after the well-being of his people and country Read more
Government-controlled newspapers and television have been praising Lukashenka as a “man of the people” and refers to him as “father”, a figure who looks after the well-being of his people and country. Presidential statements set goals for Belarusian society and manipulate what it perceives as shared values, interests and priorities of the masses. By propagating the Belarusian national idea via official discourse, the regime exercises a subtle, yet effective, form of power.
At the time of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship that unfolded between 9 and 25 May, the government created a pristine picture of how well the event was organised, not to mention its importance.
However, this happened without providing any historical background on the differences between the International Ice Hockey Federation and National Hockey League, the latter of which is considered to be the premier hockey league in the world. This is, of course, no coincidence as Minsk does not provide any space for constructive dialogue or alternative perspectives from the international community to be raised inside of its borders.
After quickly imprisoning a dozen political activists, Belarus welcomed tourists from all over the world, thus creating an illusion of an open, warm nation devoid of serious societal problem. Every day the entertainment program in Minsk lasted until midnight, save the opening and closing ceremonies which lasted until 3 a.m. Many Belarusians were religiously watching hockey and gobbling up hockey related advertisements on TV.
People could follow the hockey games live on big screens in designated fan zones located next to the main arenas of the championship, the Minsk and Chizhovka arenas. Everyone could see the image of the bison, the official mascot of the championship, plastered all over the capital's public spaces.
During the official opening ceremony the president assured the audience that “everything has been done to make the world championship in Minsk striking, memorable and the best in the world”.
United States’ Loss Portrayed à la Lukashenka
The poor performance of the United States at the largest sports event that Belarus has ever hosted was a welcome turn of events for the regime. To put it bluntly, it afforded the government a chance to contribute to the worsening of its image in the minds of the Belarusian public. It managed to portray the United States as a weaker team on the ice and, by extension, in the world in general.
Minsk used the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as an example of potential problems that could unfold if western funding Read more
Their loss strengthened the public's perception of it as a foreign force trying to get involved in another countries’ business. Minsk used the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as an example of potential problems that could unfold if western funding was allowed to have a hand in “assisting” democratic development in Belarus.
At the time of his visit to Smalyavitski region on 28 May 2014 Lukashenka asked the crowd: “Do you think the fighting in Ukraine is better than living in peace? Do you not understand"? He continued, “they are turning everything upside down there, and then this infection spread to us.”
A handful of human rights organisations were virtually the only voices raised about the ongoing human rights violations and environment of harassment during the tournament. Primarily, they fought to draw attention to the imprisonment of various political activists for duration of the tournament in Minsk, a calculated move meant to silence the while the world was watching Belarus.
In taking an early exit after their success at the Olympic Games in Sochi in February, the weak showing by of the United States played into the hands of the Belarusian authorities who, used it to show that Belarus had made the right choice in siding with Russia.
Russia’s victory, in its turn, presented it as a legitimately strong team, providing its people with an opportunity to feel proud of their national self-identification and, given their prowess, as the sole guarantor of stability in the region.
Even though Russia’s victory did not play much of a role in the way of improving its image on the international arena after its involvement in Ukraine, it has worked well as a tool for effective propaganda for domestic consumption in Belarus.
New UK Visa Procedures Humiliate Belarusians
On 13 June the Visa Section of the British Embassy in Belarus stopped accepting visa applications.
A private company Teleperformance Ltd has now assumed responsibility for processing them.
This move follows last year's decision by the UK government to close its visa section in Minsk and transfer its functions to Moscow.
So far this decision has turned the visa application procedure into chaos and humiliation for visa applicants from Belarus.
In practise, the privatisation and outsourcing to Russia means that Belarusians will wait to receive a British visa for around as much as 26 days and (if they are fortunate) receive it only a couple of hours before their planned flight. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the author of this article.
If the British authorities want to uphold the good image of its diplomacy in Belarus and compare favourably to other nations in the eyes of common Belarusians, they need to stop their current appalling visa processing practises.
Closure of the Visa Section in Minsk
For many years, the Visa Section of the British Embassy in Minsk enjoyed a very good reputation. It did not take long to apply for a visa and typically several days later an applicant could expect to receive his or her passport back.
However, in December 2013, the UK government’s official web-portal GOV.UK announced several changes in the visa application and decision-making process in Minsk. It said that the Visa Section at the Embassy in Minsk would close and a commercial Visa Application Centre (VAC) would operate beginning in March/April 2014.
The announcement justified its closure with the following explanation: we are closing small visa sections and creating larger decision-making hubs across the world.
Thus, at the beginning of 2014, the British government transferred the decision-making functions from the Visa Section in Minsk to one such visa “hub” in Moscow, transferring many of its functions to a private provider.
Chaos in the “Hub” in Moscow
The Visa Application Centre in Minsk failed to open as promised – in March/April 2014. Until 13 June, the Visa Section of the British Embassy continued to accept visa applications which it would later forward on to the Russian capital. What happens from that point on can only be characterised as pure chaos.
Some visa applicants from Belarus now have to wait for a decision for up to two months (compared to 2-10 days in the past). The more fortunate among them get their passports back after 25-30 days.
Both the Visa Section in Minsk, and their contractor Teleperformance Ltd. state that they aim to return passports in 15 working days at the latest, and applicants plan their travels accordingly. The enormous delays result in personal and business plans breaking down and lost flight reservations for large numbers of applicants.
Ironically, even those with invitations to events organised or sponsored by the UK government face the same situation.
The author received an invitation to participate in Chatham House's London Conference on Globalisation and World Order under the patronage of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Having submitted the application package 26 days in advance of the planned journey, he got his passport back only 2 hours (!) before the flight.
No one can even say when exactly a Belarusian applicant can collect their passport even after the decision on whether or not to grant a visa has been made. Email notifications from the Moscow “hub” read as follows: "Your application has been completed. We aim to return passports to Moscow VAC in 2 working days. For regional VACs or Minsk allow additional time."
How long this “additional time” will be is anyone's guess. Some applicants have to visit the Visa Section in Minsk every day, over the course of an entire week, only to hear that their passports may, possibly, arrive tomorrow.
When a delay affects the working schedule of an applicant he or she naturally wants to find out the status of the application. With the new rules, it has simply become impossible.
Calling the Visa Section in Minsk does not work: the auto response system informs callers that the visa team cannot provide any consultations over the phone and recommends writing an email to ask visa-related questions.
The author wrote two e-mails before applying and one more to clarify the status of the application after three weeks of waiting. And all three were simply ignored.
Attempts to identify the whereabouts of the passport by e-mailing the “hub” in Moscow had the same result: no response at all. And calling the Visa Section in Moscow by phone is prime material for future jokes. The auto response system states official numbers which simply do not exist.
However, after a long and determined effort, the author managed to reach a living person via telephone, only to learn that she could not help.
The emotional state of a visa applicant who has gone through such a humiliating experience is not difficult to imagine. After this, he or she will hardly appreciate the truly great work that the British Embassy in Minsk has been undertaking to promote the UK's good image in Belarus.
And all of this looks strikingly bad if one considers the vastly improved services of consulates from the Schengen states operating in Minsk. All Schengen countries with consulates in Belarus consider and issue visa applications in Minsk and it usually takes about a week. After submitting their documents, applicants know exactly when they can collect them so as to not have their business and leisure plans dashed by humiliating procedures.
Visa Section in Minsk and Small Signs of Respect Would Work Magic
All this adds to another chronic problem: the high costs of a British visa for Belarusians. A short-term general visitor visa costs $141 (about £85), almost two times as high as the Schengen visa for Belarusian citizens. Moreover, many Schengen countries issue visas for free to certain categories of Belarusian nationals.
The average monthly salary in Belarus amounts to $540 (nearly £320) which makes a British visa an unaffordable luxury for many people. The substitution of the Visa Section in Minsk with a commercial provider will only further aggravate the problem.
However, visa costs seem quite a complicated issue to solve. Therefore, the UK government could do two simple things. First, return the fully-fledged Visa Section to Minsk, which would bring a halt to the current chaos and return its previous level of efficiency.
Second, simply answering visa applicants' emails would make a tremendous difference. Answering phone calls would be even better. Notifying applicants of the completion of their applications not only in English but also in Belarusian would demonstrate basic respect towards the applicants and is especially important for non-English speakers.
If the UK wants to sustain its good image and promote European values in Belarus it needs to change its current humiliating treatment of visa applicants.
Soft power cannot rely only on declarations and conferences and public events that British diplomats do their best to organise or support in Belarus. It needs to rest on real tangible pillars, such as a humane visa policy.
Otherwise, Britain will soon find itself lagging far behind Russia and the EU's Schengen states in advancing its friendly image among Belarusians.