Keeping politics on ice at the Minsk hockey championship

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Even if the West decides not to use the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus as a means of pressure over the country’s dictatorial regime, Alexander Lukashenko will highlight the fact that he carried out the sports event in his 2015 re-election campaign, writes Uladzimir Matskevich.

Uladzimir Matskevich is chairs the Coordinating Committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership's Civil Society Forum.

“While debating the boycott of the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship, it is necessary to understand one thing – any decision of the International Ice Hockey Federation can be and will be exploited by political forces on their own account, and it does not contradict either the Olympic Charter, or the principle of keeping sports out of politics.

Sports should be free from politics, but it is very difficult to observe this ideal desire and ideal principle. Sports became such a considerable phenomenon of everyday life, culture, public activity, and economy that it is almost impossible to have it without politics. Even the idealist Pierre de Coubertin, while reviving the Olympic Games, had political ends as well. He wanted to reconcile nations, to make sports a basis of a new union of people in the 20th century, and he managed to do so in some measure. In point of fact, today the competition for the Olympic prizes sometimes influences relations between nations more than intergovernmental relations.

There is always and everywhere a temptation to use sports for political expediency, and in general this temptation can be understood and explained. In due time, the proposal to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow was a very strong step which drew wide public attention to the situation in the Soviet Union and «cold war», making people consider it. Although the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games did not take place to the full, it undermined very much the ideological beliefs in the USSR and provided rather high public support to US foreign policy in the future. Then, all politicians on both sides of the ocean used the Olympics in their political ends. While applying to host the Olympic Games, Moscow kept in mind its own political ends – it tried to make the Olympics a mirror of socialism, and Washington called for a boycott as it wanted to draw attention to the other side of the ostentatious Soviet reality.

Today, of course, European politicians who have depleted all means of pressure on the Belarusian regime come to the idea of grasping at the attempt of boycotting the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014. And yes, this is an intervention of politics in sports. But after all we should not forget that while there are such economic problems in the country, such an intense political situation, the non-legitimate character of Parliament, and political repression, President Alexander Lukashenko applies to host the World Championship having political reasons in mind. The presidential election will pass in Belarus in 2015 and during his election campaign Lukashenko will use to the full the fact that he did carry out the championship. Therefore, it would be wrong to accuse only one party of using sports for political expediency. Both sides use sports in their political ends.

Here, the very fact of the attempt to ask the International Ice Hockey Federation to transfer the championship from Minsk to a more democratic country is important. Still, even if the federation does not make such a decision, we will deal with a serious not only sports, but also political event. We will see the authorities’ attempts of using the events related to the Ice Hockey World Championship for their own benefit. The Belarusian authorities will behave like all dictatorial regimes usual behave. Fans will keep watching the hockey battles of their national teams like they always do. However, there are people who are not inveterate fans, but who have a civic stand. The World Championship will not be missed by them – they will certainly pay attention to all incidents, conflicts, corrupt practices of power structures, withdrawals of "wrong" symbols. All these will result in a wave of reports in the mass media, as well as propaganda campaigns in Belarus and abroad. Each political force tries to exploit such facts. And if citizens cannot leave all these without their attention, then how do they have to treat all these?

The decision of the federation to have the championship in Minsk will symbolically mean literally the following: the Belarusian regime is not recognised to be so bloody and so criminal that it could prevent the carrying-out of a sports event of the international level. And if it is so, then the international community cannot have any political requirements in connection with this event, i.e. it cannot demand to free political prisoners and to have fair elections. The Belarusian authorities will receive some additional confidence that the presence of political prisoners does not lead to complete isolation and it means that it is possible to continue their trade of political hostages and that it is possible to keep blackmailing the international community.

Nevertheless, even if there is a decision to have the championship in Minsk, it will still be possible to continue pressuring the Belarusian authorities. The championship can be boycotted by politicians, as well as by fans. Fans’ boycott will mean an essential blow at the business factor of the championship. Well, it is also possible to do it on the contrary! Foreign fans can arrive and raise white-red-white flags of Belarusian democrats during the matches of the Belarusian team. On the one hand, it will be a serious demonstration of solidarity of the international community with the Belarusian opposition. On the other hand, it will be an irritating factor which will cause corresponding reciprocal actions of the Belarusian regime. Then, what will foreign governments do when the Belarusian policemen will beat the foreign fans not for their incorrect behaviour during the matches, but for the white-red-white symbols? How will that affect interstate relations?

Sport promotes peace and mutual understanding between peoples, and those European politicians who now suggest boycotting or transferring the Championship work for the same purposes – for mutual understanding. They do try to make people from democratic countries pay attention to the dictatorial regime in Belarus and to the situation when human rights are infringed in our country. They do want the EU citizens to understand the policy of their governments concerning Belarus; to understand, to approve, and to support.”

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