Belarus’ 100-year-old exiled government, which still fights to return democracy to “the last dictatorship of Europe”, takes stand against President Alexander Lukashenka’s exploitation of the European Games as a political event.
The media coverage of international sporting events is often colored by the fact that publications have spent a fortune buying TV rights to the events and sent journalists and photographers to cover them.
This year’s biggest Olympic sports event in Europe – the European Games in Minsk, which the state-owned Danish public service media company DR has purchased the broadcasting rights to – is no exception.
Last week’s Danish media coverage of the European games in Belarus, which is called “Europe’s last dictatorship”, has largely been influenced by the Danish reporters’ focus on the Danish athletes’ sporting ups and downs during the games.
On the other hand, criticism of the authoritarian host nation, which for 25 years has been ridden hard by president Alexander Lukashenka, a former Soviet military officer, has been absent in the media just as democracy is absent in Belarus, as Lukashenka’s critics believe.
In his welcome speech to the more than 4,000 athletes participating in the games in Minsk, including about 60 from Denmark, “Europe’s last dictator”, who for 13 years has been regarded as a national security threat in the United States, left with mentioning Belarus as “a beautiful, hospitable and cozy country”, “home to the most honest and friendly people”.
In comparison, international human rights and press freedom organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists emphasize that Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule is severely hampering any political resistance and arresting journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders who are questioning his regime.
Therefore, Sportspressen.dk has asked one of the most persistent critics of Alexander Lukashenka’s government to comment on Belarus’s hosting of the European Games. The country’s more than 100-year-old democratic government, The Council of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, formed on March 25, 1918 in the middle of World War I and the Russian Revolution, was forced to emigrate in 1919 and has been functioning in exile ever since.
The still existing government-in-exile continues to struggle for democratic reforms in Belarus. And it claims to be backed by thousands of Belarusians both inside Belarus and abroad, in countries such as Britain, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Estonia and Belgium, who are a critical opposition to Alexander Lukashenka’s regime.
“Belarus, as an independent country in Europe, is certainly entitled to host major sporting events. We welcome both the event as such and the opportunities for developing international contacts it provides. On the other hand we categorically can’t welcome that the incumbent regime of Lukashenka seeks to exploit it as a political event”, says an official representative of the Belarusian exile government who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from Lukashenka’s government.
“Ever since the 1936 Olympic Games, European dictatorships have seen sporting events as useful tools in political propaganda. Belarus is also today an authoritarian one-man regime. The human rights and political rights situation remains unacceptable. Trying to obscure it through an international sporting event, which aims to make the international community, especially in Europe, consider the situation in Belarus as normal, is not something to be accepted for a modern European country.”
Three years ago, the European Games host was awarded to Minsk by the EOC, an association of half a hundred European Olympic Committees, which currently holds the Danish Sports Federation / Danish Olympic Committee Chairman, Niels Nygaard, as Vice President.
The EOC has constantly been criticized for placing the games in a country that does not respect international human rights. And Belarus’ exile government also does not believe that the European Games in Minsk do anything good for the democratic development in the country:
“Something that makes the existing government feel self-confident and internationally accepted, yet does not motivate it to undertake economic and democratic reforms, does not help re-establish democracy in Belarus,” said the exile government representative and elaborated on the criticism of Alexander Lukashenka’s regime:
“Under Lukashenka, over the years, the authorities in Belarus have spent a lot of money organizing sports events as a means of propaganda and self-promotion. A responsible democratic government would have prioritized other areas such as health, education, national culture and environment. For Lukashenka’s regime, the purpose of using public money on sporting events has been to control the country’s public life and shift its attention away from political affairs so that Lukashenka and his inner circle can maintain their power and economic control. It has created a feel-good atmosphere with the celebration of large mass festivities at the expense of material and social improvements to the people’s living conditions. This self-centered political strategy on international sporting events is not good for the development of democracy in Belarus.”
Fear of Russian annexation
Ever since the Belarusian democratic government was forced into exile a hundred years ago, it has had the reintroduction of democracy in the country as its overriding goal. Several presidents of the government have changed in exile, the present one is Ivonka Joanne Survilla, living in Canada. The exile government has, among other things, collaborated with and advised governments in democratic countries on political conditions in Belarus.
Currently, exile leaders are following the current political negotiations for increased cooperation between Belarus and Russia, which began six years ago by the presidents of the two countries, Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin.
In January this year, the negotiations led the exile government to issue a statement on its website warning of a possible Russian attempt to annex Belarus.
But even though Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev stood at Alexander Lukashenka’s side during the European Games opening ceremony at Dynamo Stadium in Minsk last Friday, and Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the weekend’s closing ceremony, the exile government spokesman believes the timing is random:
“The negotiations have more or less been going on for over 20 years. Strategically, Belarus’s authoritarian regime seeks to benefit from the economic and political support of the West and the EU without showing any signs of progression in relation to democracy and human rights of the people of Belarus”, he says, continuing:
“For this purpose, the European Games are intended as a PR event both internationally and nationally. Unfortunately, the Olympic establishment has been reputed to ignore the host countries’ difficulties in complying with international human rights and laws ever since the 1936 and 1980 Olympic Games. In some European sports assemblies, human rights and democratic rights still seem to be more of a “matter of opinion” than about inalienable rights. Unfortunately, despite their persistent and well-documented human rights violations, the arrangement of major sporting events in Russia or Belarus has not changed this line of thought”.
Political game around Kadyrov
When the European Games opened last week, the Russian republic of Chechnya’s disputed political leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was just behind Dmitri Medvedev in the VIP lodge. And just before the opening ceremony, the Chechen who was accused, among other things, of being behind murder of political opponents and of being responsible for violent attacks on homosexuals in Chechnya, received a Belarusian friendship order by Alexander Lukashenka.
Both these facts are considered by Belarus’s democratic government-in-exile as an expression of Lukashenka’s more than two decades of experience of playing complicated games with Russian top politicians and security professionals.
“It may have something to do with trying to navigate between different clans in Putin’s regime. Lukashenka’s behavior in relation to Kadyrov may be due to the fact that he has abandoned any hope of developing peaceful relations with the top leaders of the Russian army and the FSB in Moscow, and that he is now trying to find a new shortcut to influence Putin”, the exiled government representative explains.
“By aligning with Kadyrov, Lukashenka may be trying to find support in Putin’s inner circle outside of Moscow’s Federal Security Service and the military leadership in Russia. But the fact that Lukashenka assigns a state Belarusian order to a man like Kadyrov for political and tactical reasons to secure political support in Russia, is deeply regrettable. Unfortunately, this practice has been widely used in Belarus under Lukashenka’s one-man rule for over 20 years”.
The European Games will end on Sunday. But Alexander Lukashenka’s rule over Belarus will continue. Next month, the president celebrates his first 25 years of power.
By Lars Jørgensen
27 June 2019
(Translated from Danish)