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Belarus Understands the Diplomatic Power of Sport

It seems Minsk is becoming a fixture on the international sporting calendar despite the widely condemned human rights situation in Belarus.

The second edition of the European Games is set to kick off on June 21 in Minsk, Belarus. Events covering 15 different sports, from archery to sambo, will be contested over nine days. The 10 disciplines recognized as Olympic sports are especially important because they serve as qualifications for Tokyo 2020. However, complaints over the host country’s human rights record complicate the forthcoming displays of athletic prowess. Belarus finds itself trying to oversee a successful international sporting event while at the same time dismissing condemnation of its domestic political situation.

International organizations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch routinely criticize the human rights conditions in Belarus. Actions such as peaceful protests and membership in opposition organizations are basically criminalized under Belarusian law. Access to websites critical of the government is routinely denied, and press freedom curtailed. To add to this, Belarus remains the last country in Europe to employ the death penalty. These issues once again have risen to the fore when Belarus was selected to host the European Games that are thought to represent a different political culture.

The administration of President Alexander Lukashenko challenges these criticisms and defends its policies in the name of national security. Concerns over foreign interference in domestic politics — both Western and Russian — create a perceived need for a system that minimalizes dissent or disapproval of government actions. Former UN special rapporteur for human rights in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, alleges that basic rights have been infringed in exchange for complete presidential power held by Lukashenko: “Human rights have fallen prey to the maintenance of a state structure set up for the purpose of protecting his power. The result is the devastating human rights situation we see today.”

These views are echoed by Human Rights Watch, which strongly pushed the European Olympic Committees (EOC) for assurances that journalists can carry out their work unhindered during the games. For its part, the EOC states that it will appoint special observers to ensure press freedom, but critics contend this is not enough. Key questions remain about the conditions for journalists when the games are over, and whether the EOC will ensure action if serious issues arise.

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) went so far as to contemplate a boycott of the 2019 European Games. It was a half-hearted idea, as the DOSB viewed the maneuver as a last resort rather than an actionable response to the situation in Belarus. In the end, the requirement for athletes to achieve qualifications for the Tokyo Olympics quashed any sort of political activism.

Further, the Sports and Rights Alliance — a coalition of leading NGOs, sports organizations and trade unions — petitioned for positive advancements for Belorussian human rights prior to the commencement of this year’s games. It alleges that the EOC overlooks duties established in the Olympic Charter to protect human rights and dignity. At the recent Olympism in Action Forum, which focused on the relation of human rights and sport, David Grevemberg, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, stated that “You’re judged by the company you keep and what you stand for.”

Global Audience

Belarus has a strong sporting tradition, and its citizens are avid sports fans. The former Soviet republic commonly hosts World Cup events covering sports as diverse as gymnastics, aerial skiing, speed skating, table tennis and judo. Consequently, facilities for European Games events are already in place and additional construction could be completed at a price tag of $40 million, based on official estimates. The country hosted the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Men’s World Championships in 2014, which opened the country up to a global audience. Hosting the IIHF championship provided Belarus with two areas of proficiency: necessary experience in presenting a world-class sporting event and handling international criticism. Much of this knowledge is applied to the current sense of distaste around holding the European Games in Minsk.

As an avid ice hockey fan, President Lukashenko was determined to shape the championships into a success and a tool to legitimize his governing methods. He diverted public funds to beautify Minsk and make it more cosmopolitan for Western fans coming to root for their national teams. A visa-free entry regime was established for the duration of the competition. It was an excellent opportunity to present Belarus to those who barely gave the country any consideration as a viable host and to present a carefully constructed positive image.

Much like on the eve of this year’s European Games, the overarching concern over Belarus’ human rights record initiated scrutiny in 2014 as well. Belarusian journalists and protesters faced repression over unfavorable assessment of the tournament and raising questions whether it was the best way to spend public funds. International NGOs petitioned for a boycott or moving the ice hockey event from Belarus entirely. A collection of European human rights organizations coordinated a campaign called “Don’t Play with the Dictator!” that received European Union support.

Lukashenko remained unfazed by the criticism or the calls for boycott. In fact, when questioned over the matter, he retorted: “This is a purely politicized process, and it has nothing to do with sport. And if [a boycott] happens, this will be a blow to the world hockey federation’s image. Belarus deserves this championship.” Despite international objections, it played out well for the Lukashenko administration. The state demonstrated it could hold a successful tournament, and many were pleased with their experiences visiting Belarus. Sportscasters commented on the well-organized effort during televised matches.

This smaller-scale competition prepared Belarus to face criticism it assumed would come if it were to host a larger international sporting event in the future. It could be easily deflected by Belarusian officials as “politicization of sports” as Lukashenko suggested. Following the European Games, Belarus is set to co-host the IIHF Men’s Championships with Latvia in two years’ time. It seems, Minsk is becoming a fixture on the international sporting calendar despite its widely condemned human rights situation.

Baku 2015

Azerbaijan hosted the first European Games in Baku in 2015. Like the forthcoming event in Minsk, there were abundant complaints over the host country’s human rights record. Grievances over the status of individual liberties within the country, cases of numerous prisoners of conscience and a crackdown on press freedom (including Western outlets) compelled international NGOs to strongly lobby against the EOC’s selection of Baku.

In the end, the event was lauded as a major success. Commentators stated that the organizers set a high standard for future games under the EOC banner. Further, Azerbaijan was able to project its cultural traditions to a vast international audience, which proved to be an invaluable public relations campaign. Internal polling released by the Ministry of Youth and Sport revealed that an overwhelming majority concluded that hosting the European Games increased a positive image of Azerbaijan abroad.

It is apparent that the past experience of 2015 had little effect on the EOC, and that the organization will not shift its mandate to accommodate the demands put forward by human rights defenders. Baku 2015 provides a template and numerous lessons for Minsk 2019. In the case that Minsk can put on a well-managed spectacle with memorable moments of sporting excellence, human rights concerns will not overshadow the Belarusian edition of the European Games.

Further, the secondary purpose of hosting the games is to expose Belarus to a wider audience. The IIHF championship fulfilled that goal on a smaller scale, but now, with the prospects of even greater attention, Lukashenko hopes to reap the benefits. Last year, he asserted that the European Olympiad “will pay its way immediately” as Minsk already has many top-level facilities in place. A managed international spotlight on Belarus and its capital provides the perfect advertisement to reshape its public image. Lukashenko explained that “Visitors should get positive impressions of their stay in Belarus, in Minsk, and should take these impressions back home.” The president often refers to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and how the event improved opinions about Russia prior to the ensuing scandals linked to the Kremlin.

Lukashenko knows there is a tough task ahead of him in regard to the human rights lobby and criticism of his strongman style of governance. However, the EOC’s president, Janez Kocijančič, firmly stated that any human rights concerns would not overshadow the competition, and that it is not in the dominion of the sports committee to influence domestic politics of host nations. This is a reaffirmation that sport is to be kept separate from politics and goes neatly along with Lukashenko’s retorts to criticism.

Lightning Rod

It is naive to believe that sport and politics are separate, as much as EOC and Belarusian officials insist on that principle. While the actual sporting activities are guided by apolitical rules, both the atmosphere and the message of large-scale events are inherently political. Hosting duties bring international scrutiny of human rights offences, while the country anticipates a public relations makeover. Both require diplomatic nuance and managed interactions with the regional community. Thus, levels of political involvement are apparent.

Lukashenko is an avid sportsman, so he understands the diplomatic power of sport. For example, the Belarusian president often partakes in ice hockey matches with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Their last match occurred during the current dispute between Russia and Belarus over taxes, the budget and oil. After the match, Putin explained that while ice hockey was outside of the realm of politics, it still fostered better relationships between statesmen. In turn, better relations between individual leaders typically bring better engagement within the political framework and allows for positive messaging. It will be interesting to see if holding a successful European Games will result in the positive dividends in Europe that Lukashenko expects.

International sporting events held in countries with tainted human rights records often become lighting rods in the global community. It is of great importance to highlight these issues and to focus attention on states that regularly infringe upon basic freedoms. However, little perceptible success has been achieved by international NGOs advising boycotts or protective mechanisms by the umbrella organizations responsible for the events — in this case the EOC.

It is a difficult task to shift the development and implementation of a large-scale multidisciplinary event with a lot invested in its success on all sides. Campaigns need to expand their reach beyond those involved in the human rights movement who are already aware of calls to action. Social engagement must overcome the collective excitement over sport.

This edition of the games is indeed European insofar as the main purpose is to present Minsk in a positive light to the outside world. Few average Belarusian citizens will be able to afford tickets. Beautification of the city targets foreign visitors rather than the home audience. These games are clearly an image makeover for Belarus and the Lukashenko administration staged for the benefit of Europe rather than any pressing need at home.

It seems that sport governing bodies struggle with achieving a balance between spectacle and sport. This issue will continue to complicate the relationship between athletics and politics, as liberal democracies balk at the cost of hosting such events, while states with debatable democratic records seek legitimacy from the international community. Sports diplomacy delivers this through soft power.

Belarus hopes that hosting the 2019 European Games will bring positive results to its reputation and increase tourism. In return, the European community should expect that the domestic situation in Belarus improves as a result. Presenting a positive image encourages political exchange that was previously dismissed due to political tensions. The games offer an impetus to receive further praise for additional positive actions. In the case of Belarus, this includes liberalizing its domestic policies from the top down.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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