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8 Dec

Evgeny Karpov (Belarus)
New Eastern Europe, 17.7.2014

Championship in a Strange House

Until recently Belarus was treated as a “strange house” somewhere on Europe’s periphery. The inhabitants of the neighbouring European “houses” were told stories of the spectres of communism walking behind the fence and that the owner of that house is the “Europe’s last dictator” who cruelly disposes of his household residents. However, this year the master of the estate decide to open the gates and to throw “a party” in order to demonstrate to his neighbours that all the rumours circulating around the continent are mere fictions.

The scale of the preparation of the Ice Hockey World Championship that was held in May 2014 in Minsk can be only compared to that of the preparation for the 1980 Olympics, some stages of which took place in the capital of Belarus.

To host the championship, 14 new hotels were built, another three renovated and a new ice rink, the “Chyzhouka-Arena” with a capacity of 9,280 spectators, was constructed in Minsk. All signs in the city were translated into English and even workers in public transport started speaking English, very unusual for an average Minsk resident. The declared budget of the championship was around 16.4 million US dollars. However, this number does not take into account the cost of construction of the infrastructure facilities. The “Chyzhouka-Arena” alone was worth $200 million.

Shortly before the opening of the championship, the beaming mascot, the bison Volat, became the face of the nation who shielded with its big shoulders and pushed into background all the world events and news. It was impossible to walk a couple of meters in the centre of the city and not face the images of Volat, as if he was saying that nothing else existed for Belarus for these 17 days. The only thing that mattered was the schedule of the hockey matches.

All efforts were hurled to fulfil the promise given by Alyaksandr Lukashenka to René Fasel, the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation, when he said: “I assure you that the championship in Minsk will be the best championship in history. It is such when there are no vacant places on the stands. I want to assure you that all matches will be sold-out. And I am sure that you will be proud of this world championship.”

Initially, the attitude towards “the hockey holiday” among Belarusians was dubious. After the Congress of the International Ice Hockey Federation, which took place in Bern on May 8th 2009, Belarus experienced several shocks. The first was in 2010, involving the break-up of the protest action against the results of the presidential elections. Another one was in 2011, due to the one-time depreciation of the national currency and the terrorist attack on the Minsk metro, which was a real shock for this peaceful country. The day before the opening ceremony, one of the biggest web portals in Belarus www.onliner.by held an opinion poll asking its users: “Are you going to participate in the festivities in connection to the ice hockey championship?” Out of 4,600 respondents, only 13 per cent replied yes.

However, several days after the tournament had started, the attitude among Belarusians changed. First, this was due to the unprecedented interest of tourists from Europe to the capital of Belarus. Such a concentration of foreigners on the streets of Minsk had been probably seen only during the years of different occupations. According to the official data of the National Statistic Committee of the Republic of Belarus, the number of organised tourists who visited the country in 2013 was 136,800; from which 114,200 arrived from the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

According to the expert estimations of the authorities, during the world championship more than 50,000 people arrived across the Russia-Belarus border and 31,000 via checkpoints at the border with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, as well as the checkpoint at the National airport in Minsk. As may be inferred from these figures, more than a half of the normal annual number of tourists visited Minsk during the 17 days of the championship.

The city authorities did their utmost to bewilder the guests of the country. They were even excluded from the scope of application of some laws, for example, alcohol consumption in public and inappropriate places. Instead of fines and administrative penalties, law enforcement officers could suggest that the tourists go home or walk to the nearest establishment.

Yet, the greater part of the work to create a friendly atmosphere was done by the Minsk residents. Fans from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Latvia and Russia who were strolling around Minsk avenues wearing “jerseys” of their national teams felt themselves like stars because there were so many local residents who wanted to take a picture with them. Lost wallets, bags and documents were returned and lost fans were literally taken to the places they were searching for on the map.

 In parallel, due to the increased attention to the country and the successful performance of the national team, the issue of self-identification and patriotism came to the forefront in Belarusian society, at least until the Belarusian national team lost to the Swedish team in the quarterfinal. Tens of thousands of people were chanting “Belarus” in the city streets –something Minsk had not witnessed in a long time. However, after the team’s loss, the society again divided into those supporting the Russian team and those supporting any of its opponents on the ice. 210,000 people participated in the celebrations of the victory of the eastern neighbours of Belarus in the final of the world championship.

 “The world championship brought to Minsk the feeling that a foreigner in the city is something normal and that this is not a unique phenomenon, not an exception, but the rule”, says Vlad Velichko, the head of the International Consortium “EuroBelarus” in a recent interview. “This is the main advantage of the world championships. Of course, it made the intercultural communication possible and the Belarusians had an experience which is not usually available to them due to the deficit of foreigners in our country.”

 “This is important because Minsk is not used to having many foreigners on its streets. In my view, it is our disadvantage, after all Minsk is the capital city, megalopolis. And any modern megalopolis is characterised by the large presence of people from other countries. Everyone is sick and tired of foreigners who only admire how clean and tidy Minsk is. As if everything worth admiration in our country is its cleanliness and order. If this is the only source of pride, then we either don’t show the right things or have nothing to offer … unfortunately, the political context of the world championship is also present,” Velichko said.

 Against the backdrop of the bloody events occurring in Ukraine, the president of Belarus wisely used the championship to boost his ratings inside the country. Initially received as “the feast in a time of plague”, the championship turned into a tranquiliser for Belarusians anxious about the neighbouring country. Professionally manoeuvring between thorny questions from western and Russian journalists, Lukashenka had sent the message: “yes, we have sanctions, and the majority of our government is not allowed to enter the EU, however, it is clean and secure here and we can organise the best holidays in the world.”

In spite of the comments of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, reporting that the Belarusian gross international reserves fell to a critically low level, Belarusians are indeed ready to cast their votes for clean and peaceful streets, as well as regular large-scale sport “holidays” with many guests from different countries.

Translated by Olena Shynkarenko

Evgeny Kaprov is a Belarusian journalist and recent winner of the 2013 “Belarus in Focus” journalism awards.

Originally published: http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/articles-and-commentary/1270-championship-in-a-strange-house