World Ice-Hockey Championships boosts Belarusian authorities’ approval rating
The Belarusian authorities had mobilised public resources to ensure the World Ice Hockey Championships’ success. Spirits rose in Belarus thanks to a successful performance by the national ice-hockey team and good reports about the event’s organization. However, given the crisis developments in the economy, the Championships will have a short-term effect on the authorities’ approval rating.
The World Ice-Hockey Championships in Minsk have set an attendance record for similar tournaments.
For the Belarusian authorities, the Championships were a sports event with a political subtext. They aspired to impress visiting foreign fans and to raise popular ratings of state institutions thanks to the Belarusian team’s successes, as well as good organization. President Lukashenko underscored that “sport has long become a big politics…”
This is the first time that Belarus has organised such an international event as an independent state. It has succeeded. Unlike the Olympic Games in Sochi, the Championships in Minsk were void of major corruption scandals. In addition, Minsk managed to set a new attendance record, which to some extent was ensured by administrative means – civil servants, military personnel and students were used to fill up the stands. The successful performance by the Belarusian hockey team has lifted Belarusians’ spirits.
The organisers ensured a pleasant atmosphere for international fans. During the Championships, there were no reports of serious clashes between tourists from different countries, an important indicator amid the protracted Russo-Ukrainian conflict and growing tensions between Russia and the West.
However, along with tight public safety measures, the authorities tightened screws for the political opposition and the independent media. Political prisoners were not amnestied and dozens of opposition youth activists were detained across the country before and during the Championships. The secret services strengthened persecution of the independent media, especially in the regions.
Belarus’ successes on and off the ice-rink did not help to reconcile the deep value split in Belarusian society. During the Championships’ second half, Belarusian fans were heavily using the Belarusian state symbols, which created an impression of growing patriotism. It is difficult to predict whether this will lead to an increase in the civic consciousness of Belarusians, who have united through the sporting successes of the national team. The overwhelming majority of opposition activists continue to use the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia emblem as national symbols (these were the state symbols before President Lukashenko came to power).
Despite some initiatives by the opposition to approximate their positions with those of the authorities in order to overcome the value split and threats to Belarus’ sovereignty, the Belarusian authorities did not enter a dialogue. In an interview with ‘Dozhd’, an internet channel, President Lukashenko acknowledged that the Belarusian authorities were unable to formulate a national idea despite numerous attempts: “I set the task perhaps 10 years ago: we are a nation, but what is our national idea? When we were Soviet, it was clear what the ideas were. And now what? We have brainstormed this issue with the whole of society, but I said ‘no’ to what was proposed”.
It is worth noting that prices on some foods and services went up during the Championships. The population has started to link the price hike with the Championships in Minsk.
Belarusian propaganda will use the IIHF World Championship to demonstrate the authorities’ successes in Belarus’ socio-economic development. However, given the crisis developments in the economy, the Championships will have a short-term effect on the authorities’ approval rating.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.