Updated at 19:56,22-01-2021

Hockey championship in Belarus: breaking the ice with the world

George Plaschinsky, BelarusDigest

Yesterday Aliaksandr Lukashenka asked officials to make sure that foreign journalists would face no restrictions on media coverage of the Ice hockey World Championship in May.

Next month Minsk will host a major international sports event for the first time in the history of independent Belarus. It represents a great chance for Belarus to open up to the world despite some logistical drawbacks and controversies over human rights violations in the country.

Belarusian society should use the event to establish new international contacts and relaunch a dialogue with Western countries to strengthen its independence and promote the country's socio-economic modernisation.

Construction Hurdles and Accommodation Problems

As the championship is fast approaching, Belarusian citizens and international observers question the readiness of the Belarusian authorities and the methods of their preparation for the event. They point to the last-minute rush to complete the construction of hotels which may result in the absence of the necessary equipment or lead to mistakes with the buildings' construction similar to the notorious Sochi dual toilets.

The construction work being done for the championship is almost complete, despite the criticism surrounding the possible use of involuntary labour. The authorities finished the reconstruction of the Minsk-2 International Airport, brought the new ice hockey Chyzhouka-Arena for 9,500 spectators into operating condition as well as 13 new hotels that are ready to host about 3,500 guests. The last construction project, the Beijing Hotel, will be operating at the beginning of May.

Nevertheless, tourist agents expect issues with the number of available hotel rooms. Rental prices are likely to skyrocket due to the deficit. Citizens have already expressed their willingness to lease apartments for an average price of about $100 a day which is equivalent to a fifth of an average monthly salary.

The Challenge of Intercultural Communication

The Belarusian border authorities are operating on a visa free regime from 25 April to 31 May for all those who have a passport and a valid ticket for the tournament. According to the latest estimates, nearly 70,000 international tourists are headed to Minsk from more than 50 countries, including 33,000 people from the EU. The largest groups are coming from Russia, Latvia, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In addition, about a thousand journalists have applied for official accreditation, though only 400 of them will be able to get it and cover the hockey games in line with the IIHF’s quota. At first the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to restrict accredited journalists in their right to cover non-hockey related topics. However, in the end, they agreed to allow for non-restricted coverage after several Finnish media outlets such as YLE and Helsingin Sanomat protested the proposed restrictions.

This will probably be the most massive inflow of foreigners into Belarus since 1991 and it is likely to produce an intense period of information exchange. Many natives of Belarus will be able to make friends with visitors from Western countries, breaking the monopoly of state-run TV channels on information about how people live outside Belarusian borders. Both Belarusians and foreigners may even disprove many stereotypes about each other.

The championship may spark an interest in Belarusians to learn foreign languages to communicate better, but at the moment the situation is far from perfect. Official statistics say that only about 5% of Belarusians (approx. 500,000 people) can speak English, but in practise far fewer people are able to speak it fluently.

This is why foreigners may struggle to get assistance from local people if they need help. The organisers have sent at least 500 policemen to intensive English courses and they plan to deploy more than 1,000 volunteers in the city centre to resolve the issue.

However, foreign guests are still likely to face this problem whether they decide to spend time outside the city centre or enjoy the Belarusian countryside. Visitors may also be shocked by the lack of politeness and respect for personal space in public transportation and the service industry, but the organisers have promised to take preventive measures.

Boycott vs. Engagement: Opposing Views

Critics of holding the championship games in Belarus, such as activists of the campaign Don’t Play with the Dictator (Ostgruppen), argue that the event strengthens the authoritarian tendencies already at play in the country and legitimises Aliaksandr Lukashenka abroad. The Belarus Free Theatre holds the same view. These groups called upon the IIHF and national federations to change the event's location to force the Belarusian president to improve the human rights situation in the country and amnesty all individuals identified as political prisoners.

Another segment of Belarusian civil society, represented by such people as the rock musician Lyavon Volski and the journalist Viktar Martsinovich, considers the tournament to be a good idea. They think it will bring some change to a very isolated society. A small example - the Minsk underground has begun to use English for making public announcements.

Whatever position one holds, it is evident that Minsk now faces a boom in its service industry. Businessmen are opening new quality hotels, hostels and cafes almost every week and the authorities are improving the state's infrastructure.

As for Belarus in general, it will attract a lot of attention in the coming weeks that can result in a higher long-term interest in developments within the country. It is better for civil society and the political opposition to use this media attention for the spread of valuable information, rather than to ignore the event altogether.

A Chance to Open Up the Country

The hockey championship in Minsk is a great chance for Belarus to open up to the world and make a positive impression upon it. For example, Belarus was in the top-5 Google search queries in the United States when the Belarusian athlete Darya Domracheva won her third Olympic gold medal in Sochi.

To make the most of this opportunity, Belarus needs to release those people who are considered political prisoners by the EU and international NGOs. This would make Belarusian society freer and would foster its creative potential to facilitate the modernisation of the economy.

It would also be an excellent basis to renew more active relations with the EU and the US. These are necessary moves to re-balance Belarusian foreign policy and strengthen its position to negotiate with Russia on a number of issues, including oil and gas supplies.

The Crimean crisis has shown that non-NATO countries in Eastern Europe may face significant challenges to their security and independence. A well-developed national identity, strong international reputation and plenty of allies are necessary to survive the current period of regional instability.