World Ice-Hockey Championships in Belarus: What did Journalists See beyond Sport?
The world knows little or nothing about Belarus. The ice-hockey championships opened up the country not only to tourists, but also to journalists. How did they use this opportunity?
Barring presidential elections, the World Ice-Hockey Championships was the first event in the history of independent Belarus to bring international attention to Minsk. According to Belta, as many as 260 journalists from outside Belarus had accreditation. Few, however, wrote about life outside the ice-hockey arena.
A tale of two cities
As always, two images of Belarus were presented.
Let’s start with the official version. The authorities flaunted their organisational skills and made every effort (in different languages of the world) to showcase the national pride: ice-hockey. Whereas media from Latvia (the previous hosts of the Championships) did not question the Belarusian president’s political leadership, the same is not true for another EU neighbour: Poland. The Polish team did not take part, but its media was there. And even the sports commentators didn’t forget to mention the tougher truths that were not on display in the shop window.
Civil society offered a different vantage point. Thanks to a variety of initiatives, the world learnt about political prisoners, forced labour, punishment for free-thinking, and above all that free expression of thought could be subject to severe punishment.
Belarusian human rights defenders managed to reach western audiences. Most often, the media quoted representatives from Viasna Human Rights Centre. Actors, artists, and directors from different countries joined forces to bring light to human rights issues in Belarus in an open letter published in The Guardian, and an article in The Hill, a blog for U.S. Lawyers and policy professionals did not forget to mention LGBT rights in Belarus.
In March, some questioned if the no-visa regime would live up to its promises. By and large, it did. Andrei Bastunets, from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, commented at a press conference in Warsaw that
apart from a few incidents, journalists have not encountered any particular problems in their work. However, the ‘cleansing’ of Minsk was carried out with the journalists in mind. So as not to give them the ‘wrong picture’ – and to do this by not hindering the work of journalists, but trying to clear people out of the frame who could 'spoil' it.
Polish journalist Łukasz Jasina (Kultura Liberalna), a regular visitor to Belarus, said
I noticed a lot of differences – the authorities didn't seem as powerful. They let us journalists do anything we wanted, to see that Belarus is no longer and empty and sad place but a place full of people and their ambitions.
Despite gripes about endless bag searches, poorly located seats, a ban on hanging cameras from the roof, and patchy Internet access, conditions for journalists' work proved adequate.
There were, however, a few isolated incidents in which journalists were prevented from working: a Minsk-based BBC correspondent had her accreditation revoked prior to the event; militsia intervened when a Finnish TV crew dared to interview people outside the stadium; and border guards asked a Channel 4 journalist to leave the train as his multi-entry work visa had purportedly been cancelled two months' prior to the event.
But now that tourists and international journalists have gone home, the crackdown on independent media inside Belarus has started. Svobodnie Novosti Plus, a non-state Belarusian newspaper, received a warning for its “negative coverage” of the Championships. Two more warnings within one year would effectively mean closure.
Drunken fans, delicious potato-pancakes and souvenirs – and what else?
Most of all, Lukashenka piqued journalists' interest with the idea of supporting Belarus-produced products, above all – beer and ice-cream. The image of fans holding pints of beer in a campaign, present in every photo-reportage, came to symbolise the “Volat” championships.
Corruption – or more precisely, the lack of it – was a recurrent theme in media both inside and outside Belarus. This drew a sharp contrast to the Sochi games which sparked allegations of money-laundering by government officials. As Belarus' president first rose to power on an anti-corruption ticket, such coverage should help bolster his clean image at home.
Media in the regions outside Minsk, however, failed to spill much ink on the event in a sign of “silent protest”. After all, it wasn't in their backyards that new hotels were built and 2,000 new jobs created. More to the point, everyone saw the Championships as Batka's personal PR project.
Hidden among the jumble of hockey symbols, important topics did not go unnoticed by outside media. Journalists explored topics ranging from the dictatorship, political prisoners, and the Championships as Lukashenka’s PR project, to attitudes to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the EU’s eastern policy.
Opening up Belarusian civil society
Never before has Minsk seen so many western tourists. Most likely the Championships will leave behind a certain imprint, along with the hope that Minsk can also be European. “From now on, Belarus will always be different. Her citizens will see that a colourful crowd of foreigners is better than isolation”, opined Lukasz Jasina.
Belarusians need some time to reflect on the event. This change will be noticed not only by those who have been in the West, but everyone who knows that a campaign of more than three people in one place can be viewed by the authorities as unsanctioned pandemonium.
And sooner or later, a third image will emerge that international media will rush to capture. Until then, initiatives that seek to shine a light on Belarus should continue.
Sandra Užule-Fons, Alexandra Kirby, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office
Solidarity with Belarus Information Office monitored international and Belarusian media during the World Ice-Hockey Championships.
Lukashenka: Russia Should First Cultivate Its Own Lands and then Proceed to Others
On 20 May Aliaksandr Lukashenka gave an interview to independent Russian TV Rain, a station known for being critical of the Putin regime. The interviewer was Ksenia Sobchak, previously a well-known socialite and now opposition activist.
Lukashenka demonstrated his independence of mind on the events that had been unfolding in the region. He criticised Russia for the Ukrainian turmoil and revealed some of his secret relations with big names like Berezovsky and Saakashvili.
Domestically though, he seems to be stuck in a deadlock. He does not trust a democratic transfer of power and does not know to whom to transfer it to, even if he were interested in doing so. He also admitted that his regime has yet to come up with a way to truly unite Belarusians as a people.
Criticising Russia on Russian Opposition TV
When speaking about Putin’s role as a 'gatherer of Russian lands', he advised Russians to stick to sorting out the issues existing in Russia. “You should cultivate, sow, harvest them… Uniting, annexation – you should be careful with that”.
Sobchak asked Lukashenka to comment on his words from his April address to the nation: “if Russia will decide to occupy Belarus, it is unclear which side the Russian soldiers will take”. “A Russian will never turn a gun on a Belarusian, here we are the most pro-Russian province in our mutual fatherland”, Lukashenka explained.
The popularity of Lukashenka among Russians indeed remains high, but the current situation with Russian public opinion is unclear due to the ongoing propaganda war in Russia and Lukashenka’s divergent stance towards Ukraine crisis. This may, at the end of the day, turn into a trap for him, as Russians may come to see yet another “Bandera fascist” in Lukashenka striving for sovereignty.
Lukashenka accused Russians for the the failure of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. According to him, Russia was afraid to create a union on equal terms and suggested instead that Belarus become a part of Russia. The Russian elite feared Lukashenka seizing the Kremlin and this was the reason that Belarus' relations with the west have deteriorated. “Are you afraid that Lukashenka will take your Monomakh’s Cap away?”, Lukashenka said in his characteristic humorous tone.
Lukashenka called the independence referendums in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics null and void from a legal point of view. He said that Belarusian security forces are monitoring the situation and have their informers in the regions: "The people in the regions are confused, and the separatists should not repeat Yanukovych’s mistake – the authorities should have the respect of its citizens”, he said. According to Lukashenka, Putin has no right to meddle in Ukraine as "this is the Ukrainian people’s private business”.
Saving Toppled Presidents, Dealing with Oligarchs and Russian Enemies
Sobchak was particularly curious about Lukashenka’s secret relations with famous oligarchs and former presidents. And he revealed some very interesting details.
Lukashenka said that Mikhail Saakashvili, former Georgian president and fierce enemy of Putin, “was fighting for Belarus in the West like no one else had done”. He was on good terms with the USA government and tried to persuade them that its policies towards Belarus should be changed, that no sanctions should be applied to Belarus.
Saakashvili invited Lukashenka to Georgia, but he turned down the invitation not to irritate Russia. Lukasheka indeed seems to have a keen sense of which lines cannot be crossed with Russia.
The Belarusian leader gave some details of how Kurmanbek Bakiev, former president of Kyrgyzstan ended up in Belarus. Bakiev was toppled in 2010 as a result of the Tulip Revolution. According to Lukashenka,
… at that time he was in southern Kazakhstan, with his children in his arms. Everyone abandoned him. I called him and asked what was going on, and he started to cry. He said, we have never been friends, but asked to save at least his children. And I promised him to save his entire family.
Shortly thereafter, Bakiev received Belarusian citizenship, and currently is building a mansion in the elite Drazdy area of Minsk – not far from Lukashenka’s own private residence. The Kyrgyz authorities continue to demand Bakiev's extradition, accusing him of numerous crimes, but Belarus will not do it.
Lukashenka revealed some details about his dealings with Boris Berezovsky, whom he met with the help of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the famous Georgian oligarch, and “some people in Russia”, declining to name names. When meeting him for the first time, Berezovsky was already wanted in Russia with serious charges being brought up against him.
Lukashenka reassured him that Belarus would never give him over, because “we (Belarusians) did not hand over Jews, even during the war”. Lukashenka mentioned that Berezovsky had indeed paid British PR manager Timothy Bell a heft sum to help improve the international image of Belarus as a sign of gratitude to Lukashenka.
Domestic Politics: Popular President with No National Idea
When asked whether he will ever hand over power, Lukashenka said that a rotation in government is not a cure-all in his opinion. Instead, he said he was following the will of the Belarusian people who elected him four times according to official results. Lukashenka thinks that if the opposition comes to power, the situation will be much worse than the situation currently unfolding in Ukraine.
Regarding a his possible replacement in the future, Lukashenka said he was not going to raise an heir, and whoever was going to take the reins should fight to create a name for himself. “Don't think that I seized power and enjoy it”, he reassured Sobchak. Given the current situation in the region, a transfer of power could indeed provoke turmoil, but generally it seems clear that Lukashenka neither understands nor accepts democracy in principle.
Lukashenka admitted he had to deliberately forge election results in 2010, because the true figure was above 90%. The West was ready to accept the elections if the figures were around 50%. So he indeed decided to force the electoral committee to draw lower figures (82%), a move that he now regrets. Ironically, the election result tampering that he admitted to simply demonstrates how local electoral commissions can manipulate the figures to to his liking.
Finally, Lukashenka admitted that Belarus had no "national idea". 10 years ago he ordered scholars and the authorities to create a unified idea (known in Belarus as its state ideology, a discipline one can find in universities), but so far it failed to unite Belarusian people.
Lukashenka could not accept the ethno-national ideas of the opposition in 1990s, but a better alternative has yet to appear in its stead.
This interview shows that in his foreign affairs Lukashenka somehow still manages to pursue a relatively independent policy and even criticise Russia, domestically he is at an impasse. Desperate about Belarus' future, he has no clear successor picked, nor does he have any ideas about how to unite the nation whose identity and integrity his authoritarian policies have weakened over the last two decades.