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Lukashenko's 'European' Games

That the European Games in Belarus received little press coverage in the UK will be a relief to human rights organisations across the continent. The tournament in Minsk was the 2nd instalment of the Games, the hosting criterion of which seems to consist of undemocratic principles and authoritarian regimes.

Though 4000 athletes over ten days is a significant number, major European Olympic Committees generally sent significantly less athletes to Minsk than they did to Azerbaijan in 2015. Their lack of popularity, particularly in the west of Europe, can be attributed primarily to a conflict between athletics events.

The European Championships, held in Glasgow and Berlin last year, were the preferred competition of many athletics associations, and choosing the correct event is of utmost importance given national organisations are looking for revenue streams in a competitive international events market. This year, the EOC provided free travel in order to entice national orgs to attend, but this wasn’t enough to persuade many European organisations from choosing the Championships for their track and field athletes instead.

Perhaps disappointingly, the lack of attendance wasn’t prompted by any prioritisation of human rights. Aleksandr Lukashenko is ‘Europe’s last dictator’; sanctions on the country were renewed in February because the state continues to enforce the death penalty, infringe upon civil liberties such as freedom of the press, and hold undemocratic elections. Lukashenko will celebrate his 25th year in charge in 2019. That the IEC chose Minsk as a host is understandable – all other potential hosts pulled out of the process – but can the country be said to comply with their organisational commitment to ‘Olympism’, with its connotations of fairness, equality and education? Probably not.

Human rights aside, the move by Minsk to host the Games is an interesting one. This is a Belarus that relies heavily on its strong relationship with Russia economically and diplomatically – Russia is Belarus’s #1 trading partner, with the latter relying heavily on Russian natural gas, which It receives at a discounted price. Russia comfortably topped the Games medal table; Belarus came second and Ukraine third.

Belarus is not unaccompanied in its foray into sports events. Similar efforts can be seen elsewhere in the post-Soviet space (the recent Balkan world cup bid, Azerbaijan’s GP, Poland & Ukraine’s Euros, Russia’s mega-events) as sports events are becoming increasingly recognised as important diplomatic tools which enable nations to endear themselves to swathes of international tourists in person, online and via media coverage.

However, it’s unclear yet whether the European Games constitute part of a concerted strategy or a mere £50 million toe in the water. Not to say it can’t be turned into strategy – if visitors are charmed enough to return, and to parrot about Belarus to friends at home, then Lukashenko may consider hosting similar events in the future. This was their first major tournament.

To this end, Sport and Tourism Minister Sergei Kovalchuk stated that ‘the most important thing is that we got a huge and priceless experience of hosting a major sporting event’. Indeed, small or medium scale events offer invaluable opportunities to hone operational, organisational, and infrastructural procedures in preparation for future events. Kovalchuk went on to state that ‘Professionals should draw lessons and make adjustments as we host sports tournaments in the future’, highlighting that these Games are perhaps indicative of Belarus adopting a similar sports diplomacy strategy to nations such as Azerbaijan, Qatar and Russia.

Lukashenko’s unmistakably political closing speech confirmed the character of these Games and how they fit into Belarus’s desired international profile. ‘We do not say goodbye’, exclaimed the president, ‘We say: see you again in Belarus! Any time. You are always welcome here’. This was a Games for tourism, a sort of proving ground, and a signal to those west and east that the country is open, safe, and welcoming. Indeed, Lukashenko went on to claim that the Games ‘united millions of Europeans into one big family’, serving as ‘evidence of our capability, and the proof that we can move mountains…when we are together!’. Indeed, it was generally a well-run tournament. That Lukashenko wants it to yield more long-term returns in the form of tourism and image revamp is not surprising; his fervour regarding international image was made clear when he was left disgruntled after viewing road-side security barriers prior to the game. The interior minister resigned a few hours later.

Most intriguing was the end of his closing speech, however, as Lukashenko went on to describe Belarus as a ‘middle-size European country, living and developing according to her own laws and traditions…that creates no problems for anyone or makes any claims against its neighbours. And our neighbours are very different and sometimes not easy to get along with’.

Integrating an international relations-based slight into the closing speech of the European Games is very on brand for Lukashenko, but not so on brand for a country which he went on to claim ‘creates no problems for anyone’. However, the attitudinal dichotomy displayed by Lukashenko here perhaps indicates his confusion with regard to the nation’s strategic priorities and direction. Whilst in 2018 Lukashenko rebuffed Russian calls for further integration, keen to avoid a Crimea-style annexation, he has recently engaged in a number of deals with Russia, prior to the 20th anniversary of the Union State. With such reliance on Russia, and continued condemnation from the EU, the last thing Belarus needs is neighbourly issues.

Lukashenko recently stated that in future Belarus and Russia should consider hosting joint sports events, citing the European Games as evidence that Belarus is ready for such feats. In many ways, such a desire is emblematic of Belarus’s dichotomous strategic posturing. On the one hand, it seeks reputational improvement in Europe; it wants its relationship with the EU to ‘be given new substance’ and it hopes to appeal to a range of Western countries such as those that attend the European Games. On the other, it is actively using such events as springboards by which to deepen integration with Russia.

However, an increase in Belarusian event bids should be seen by Western NGOs, human rights activists and media organisations as opportunities by which to change Belarus for the better, or at least exert pressure towards that end.