29 March 2020, Sunday, 23:24
People’s Quarantine

Freedom House representative: No one noticed championship in Minsk

Freedom House representative: No one noticed championship in Minsk

The Ice Hockey World Championship seems to have been held not exactly in the way as it was planned a year ago.

Vytis Jurkonis, project director of Freedom House office in Vilnius, said it in an interview with charter97.org.

– The ice hockey world championship in Minsk attracted attention to Belarus, but not to the problems that worry the international community. Why was the reaction so quiet, when it seems to be a good occasion to turn attention to human rights violations in the country, recall the abducted opposition members and political prisoners?

– The ice hockey world championship seems to have been held not exactly in the way as it was planned a year ago. Everyone knew there would not be much euphoria, because the championship was held just after the Sochi Olympics and ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Besides, the Stanley Cup finals were held in the same time. It was rather difficult for the authorities to advertise the country in this context, but it was an opportunity for civil society and opposition.

Unlike opposition, the authorities prepared for the championship and detained preventively scores of activists before its start. More than 35 of them were sentenced up to 25 days in custody. It's hard to count the number of warnings and threats. The preventively detained people were a signal to others to keep a low profile.

– How can you explain a rather passive behaviour of Belarusian opposition members during the championship? There were no statements or pickets... Why did almost no one turn attention to those detained during the championship?

– Unlike the regime, opposition was not ready for the championship. It was a combination of different reasons – ignoring, negation, fear, to some extent. The championship remained a missed opportunity except for several attempts by civil society representatives and the initiative hashtag ( provocative online gambling) on the problem of political prisoners.

Yes, human rights defenders recorded detentions. The new website posidelki.in appeared to inform about the arrested people. But the main question is whether they managed to get the inform through to the Belarusians. Or it is the independent media that should have done it? Or opposition? Or Brussels?

The championship again showed painfully that cooperation and coordination in the atomised and split society are a challenge. The divide and rule policy won't require much effort from the authorities unless everyone tries to hog the cover and unless the authorship of a project or visibility of an organisation are more important than the result and raising public awareness.

Nevertheless, we saw some good initiatives involving different organisations, such as OpenBelarus.by guide that allows seeing Minsk through different lenses – from sport and music to parallel reality and protests.

Others, like the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, monitored the barrier-free environment at the arenas. It turned out that both arenas comply with the barrier-free requirements and volunteers were careful, but hotels and roads to the venues were not available for disabled persons. The initiative said clearly and objectively that they see the efforts, but also see the problem and the lack of systematic approach.

The general inactivity is disappointing, but there are niches and initiatives that try to make their jobs well.

– How do you explain the silence of the international community over problems of Belarus? Repression of Lukashenka look almost “tolerable” in the context of in fact combat action in Ukraine. Russia's aggression against our neighbour played into the hand of the Belarusian regime in the international context. Many just ignored the championship only because Europe had more serious problems.

– Anyway, we cannot say that all missed the championship. A part of international human rights organisations tried to draw attention to human rights violations in Belarus. For example, FIDH made a couple of videos on the occasion of the championship about violations of human rights. Amnesty International made a virtual ice hockey stadium; Freedom House's initiative Fair Play attracted to 20 international organisations and foundations; a number of senators and congressmen released statements. The Guardian published an appeal of musicians and such stars as Laurie Anderson, Hugh Grant, Jude Law as part of the initiative of the Belarus Free Theatre.

– How would you describe the ice hockey world championship in Minsk in a couple of words?

– Speaking about the international community, the championship can be described as the championship that no one noticed. Speaking about sporting prospects, it was the championship to comfort the Russian national team after the defeat in Sochi.

I talked to Belarusians and I had the impression that the end of May in Minsk can be called “Mind the closing doors”. The championship gave the opportunity to see the Minsk with plenty of tourists and foreign languages, not only Russian. Minsk can be a European, not Soviet, city. The doors have closed after the championship, because the Belarusian government is not going to move in the European direction and is not ready to open the border for tourists or to seek a visa-free regime with the EU.