In recent years, the Belarusian government has been trying hard to assure the outside world that Belarus is a democratic and safe country.
Of course, there’s more to the country than the “last European dictatorship” tag. But Alexander Lukashenko still wants to change this perception of Belarus. And in step with other authoritarian states, Lukashenko’s officials have turned to sport to achieve this, lobbying to hold the Second European Games in Minsk this June.
Here, I will explain what Belarusian citizens are having to go through as a result of this decision.
First of all, we need to point out that for the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, the tickets for these games are not affordable. These will be games for the rich and privileged - mostly bureaucrats, top police officials and, of course, foreign guests.
Meanwhile, with practically no investors eager to bankroll this show, most of the funds necessary for hosting the games are being drawn from the Belarusian state budget - to the tune of $112 million. To put this in perspective, Belarusians earn around $150-250 per month.
Today, Belarus is extremely dependent on foreign loans. After 25 years of Lukashenko’s rule, Belarus requires serious funds to keep its huge repressive apparatus running - for controlling the political sphere, brutally managing civil protests and disobedience. The country currently has one of the highest rates of police personnel per capita in the world.
This doesn’t mean the Lukashenko regime is averse to playing politics. In 2015, Lukashenko released a number of political prisoners in order to push the EU to remove financial sanctions from him and businessmen in his circle. The European games are serving the same aim: to improve the image of the authoritarian regime in the eyes of western societies.
But for Belarusians, the 2019 European Games are likely to be a hard burden. Civil society is expecting preventative arrests of civic activists and opposition leaders, much in the spirit of the World Hockey Championship - held in Minsk in 2014.
Five years ago, the Belarusian government, attempting to avoid any protests or political actions in front of foreign guests, detained members of opposition political parties, anarchists and football fans ahead of the hockey championships. Given that Belarusian law does not provide for “preventative detentions”, people were arrested for alleged offences such as “minor hooliganism”, urinating in a public place and other absurd charges. At least 37 activists were detained in order to “avoid the possibility of provocations”, as Lukashenko demanded from the police.
Each of the people detained spent 10-15 days under arrest, just enough to keep them away from the Hockey Championship. For example, two opposition activists - Mikhail Muski and Dzmitry Kramyanetski - were brutally detained at their place of work just ahead of the championship.
“I do not know what we were detained for,” Dzmitry Kramyanetski said. “Mikhail and I were working on a construction site. We went out to buy some food. When we were on our way back we were approached by people in civilian clothes, who pushed us to the ground, beat us and dragged us away into a van. We were brought to a police station. I was fined and Mikhail received 20 days of arrest.”
In order to “clean the streets” and hide the “unpresentable face of Minsk” from foreign eyes in 2014, city police detained prostitutes and homeless people. According to human rights defenders, temporary detention facilities were overcrowded as a result - police even had to move detainees to facilities outside Minsk. Roughly 350 women involved in sex work were detained.
Now, before the European Games, activists, human rights defenders and civil society is worried that this mass “cleansing” may happen again.
Just as the government also intends to clean the streets of “undesirable” people, stray animals are going to face even worse treatment. In Belarus, these animals do not receive care when caught. They are kept in shelters for three days and then killed. Animal rights defenders expect mass killings of stray animals on the streets of Minsk before June, and have collected more than 5,000 signatures to stop it.
With more than 5,000 athletes due to visit Minsk, five Belarusian universities are evicting students from their dormitories to make space for these foreign guests. As reported on Telegram, one of the few free sources of information for Belarusians, some students have been evicted from their residences five months ahead of the games.
The government promised that all students facing eviction would be given other accommodation. But it turned out to be a broken promise, and most students had to return to their hometowns, where they were left to manage their problems on their own. Those who did receive accommodation found it to be in poor condition: many have to live in small rooms with four or five beds.
The European Games in Belarus are presented as a joyful festival of sport for both Belarusians and foreign guests. But in fact, they are being held to satisfy the ambitions of the Belarusian leadership and polish the country’s international image - which is associated with dictatorship, repression and severe human rights abuses.
Foreign tourists will enjoy the clean streets with no signs of political life, no unhappy people - because they will all be in temporary detention. Guests of the country will be surprised that Minsk has no stray animals - because all of them will be killed prior to their arrival. And the athletes will be settled in free and comfortable campuses, without realising that someone was resettled for them to live there.