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R-E-S-P-E-C-T

It means more to Europe’s last dictator than he lets on.

by Katerina Barushka 26 June 2013

MINSK | In May Uladzimir Makey, the Belarusian foreign minister, received an invitation to a ministerial meeting in Krakow, Poland.

 

It was a rare opportunity, as Makey was then among the Belarusian officials who had been banned from entering the EU since January 2011, a month after police violently broke up demonstrations against the country’s presidential elections.

 

A still from Belarusian singer Alyona Lanskaya's official video for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest. Photo from a video by Eurovision Song Contest/YouTube.

 

Eleven people from that dragnet remain behind bars and relations between the EU and Brussels have frozen over the issue of political prisoners.

 

In an attempt at a thaw, Poland’s Foreign Ministry extended the invitation, which Makey turned down. The minister sent his deputy instead.

 

It was left to Alyona Lanskaya, the country’s entrant in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, to polish Belarus’ image abroad with her song “Solayoh.” The song, “A heavenly chorus and love all around,” was to take the audience “to a new dimension, Sola-a-yoh, Sola-ayoh.”

 

During the first two weeks of May, prime time newscasts of state-run Belarusian media were devoted to developments in the Swedish town of Malmo, where Eurovision was taking place. News from rehearsal halls, rumors about possible voting outcomes, and updates on Lanskaya's health were momentous enough to be broadcast even in some city buses.

 

The import of the contest for the Belarusian public was summarized, tongue-in-cheek, by Belarusian poet Dzmitry Rastayev:

 

So what if our hockey team are losers

So what if Ban Ki-moon for us is a nuisance

 

So what if our tractors rust in stores

Alyona's in the finals, our Fortuna rocks!

 

For quite a while now we've been abused by the West

these stupid lenders would not forgive us our debts,

 

The world was laughing at us, like a bunch of swine,

But now it's time for Alyona! It's Eurovision finals, and she shines!

 

The entire nation was mobilized to boost Lanskaya's chances in the international arena. Reportedly, instructions were sent to the members of the government-supported Belarusian Republican Youth Union to “like” her YouTube videos.

 

But despite these efforts, on 18 May, Lanskaya placed 16th of the 26 finalists.

 

Meanwhile in Krakow, the meeting of foreign ministers from countries on the EU’s eastern borders took place. Participants discussed the preparations for an upcoming summit in Vilnius – the third Eastern Partnership event at the presidential level. Lukashenka was not invited to attend the previous two.

 

A poor human rights record and frosty relations with the West have diminished Belarus’ presence on the world stage. Most recently, references to the country in the international media seem limited to headlines about fatal beaver attacks and its preeminence in sending junk email.

 

But with an administration unwilling to renounce its repressive style of governing, and therefore shunned from the club of Europe’s wealthy democracies, the country has resorted to apolitical, sometimes even silly, ways of capturing the world’s attention.

 

“Official Minsk participates in the kind of international events where people don’t ask questions about political prisoners or freedom of speech,” said Andrei Fiodarau, a political analyst. He noted that the foreign minister also ignored an invitation to attend a Dublin gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Belarus is a member, in December.

 

More to the point, he said, decisions about foreign trips and representation are made by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, “and from Lukashenka's perspective there was no point in adhering to diplomatic protocol” at the time of the Krakow meeting.

 

Indeed, May was not the best moment for Lukashenka to go courting international, or at least European, support.

 

The presence of political prisoners and a lack of civil liberties in Belarus were among the reasons Belarusian lawmakers were not invited to a meeting that month of members of parliament from Eastern European countries outside the EU and their counterparts within the bloc. Instead, opposition figures from Belarus were invited to represent the country.

 

Lukashenka has effectively chosen not to play the diplomacy and politics game with the EU. Instead, he is counting on ice hockey to train a different kind of spotlight on his country.

 

Belarus_silly.350.2Souvenirs for the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championships are already on sale in Minsk, almost a year away from the tournament.

 

Belarus will host the Ice Hockey World Championships next May, and the stakes are high for the president, according to Ales Lahviniets, a political scientist and a leader of the Movement for Freedom opposition group.

 

“It's vital for Lukashenka to show the world that the country is thriving under his rule. He’ll do anything to accomplish that,” Lahviniets said. Not to mention the boost his image would get at home if he received international plaudits for a well-run event.

 

“He wants to look like a strong leader who impresses Europeans without giving in to their demands,” Lahviniets said.

 

The hockey championship will be the most significant event  by far to be hosted by Belarus, which previously put on spectacles like a mobile phone throwing contest in 2010 and the 2012 World Logging Championship, which promised a display of “virtuoso skills with chainsaws.”

 

And just six months before the logging games, Belarus blew another chance to get closer to joining the Council of Europe  by executing two young men for the bloody 2011 bombing of a Minsk metro station.

 

So far, most Belarusians seem skeptical of the government’s ability to pull off a successful hockey tournament, and they have done much grousing in public and online about the event's rumored high price tag.

 

CHARM OFFENSIVE

 

Lukashenka likes to appear to spurn the West and, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, he often assumes a rough-hewn image alien to the calm and tact of European diplomacy.

 

The Belarusian president once famously remarked, in response to criticism from the openly gay German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, that he’d rather be a dictator than gay.

 

Lukashenka also called European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso “a scumbag” and said then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy had “no balls.” When in July 2012 Swedish activists air-dropped teddy bears bearing pro-democracy signs from a small plane, Swedish diplomats were expelled from Minsk, and Belarusian diplomats were recalled from Stockholm.

 

But for all his tough-guy bravado, Lukashenka sometimes betrays a need to please the West that only trips him up.

 

In 1995, he told the Handelsblatt newspaper in Germany that Adolf Hitler deserved a bit of credit.

 

“Germany was raised from the ruins thanks to the firm authority of Adolf Hitler, and not everything connected with that well-known figure was bad,” the president said. “German order evolved over the centuries and under Hitler it attained its peak.”

 

In the aftermath, Lukashenka faced massive criticism at home and abroad. He later declared that the recorded interview was “a fake, fabricated in Poland with the help of the opposition.”

 

Though there have been obvious exceptions – in October he called journalists from Britain’s Independent newspaper and the BBC “imperialists” – Lukashenka “is a successful politician who bases his power on charisma,” Viktar Martinovich, a well-known Belarusian journalist, said. “He tries to turn any person he talks to into his adept. He hopes that after a 15-minute interview a journalist will go and write an article about all the advantages of the Belarusian system.

 

“But he functions within his own world,” Martinovich said, with the distance between Lukashenka the former collective farm manager and the graduates of elite schools who populate the top echelons of European journalism an almost unbridgeable chasm.

 

“His concepts of democracy come from Soviet times, when human rights were narrowed down to the right to work, and democracy and stability were one and the same thing,” Martinovich said.

 

Whichever approach Lukashenka tries – talented impresario, straight-talking strongman, or sage observer of history – he likely will get little respect in the West while his country remains an autocracy. 

 

Lukashenka is a “violent and comical reminder of communist leaders that have been extinct since 1989,” said John Sweeney, an investigative journalist for the BBC's Panorama series and author of the book Big Daddy: Lukashenka – Tyrant of Belarus. “The general attitude toward Lukashenka in the West can best be described by a quote from the movie Casablanca. When a man selling exit visas asks the main character, Rick Blaine, whether he despises him, Rick replies that if he gave him any thought he probably would.”  

Katerina Barushka is a journalist at Belsat TV in Minsk and Warsaw. 

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