Discovering a new Minsk during World Ice-Hockey Championships

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Discovering a new Minsk during World Ice-Hockey Championships

Photo from TVP Info

Łukasz Jasina, Polish historian, writer and commentator bought a ticket to the World Ice-Hockey Championships in Belarus and … discovered a new Minsk. 

I’ve been to Belarus many times, and would go there more often if it weren’t for the procedures. You need to apply for a visa, you need to develop a plan for your trip - you can’t take a snap decision to go. But this time, I just bought a ticket for a match on the internet*. And, unlike many, I even went to this match. But all my previous visits to Minsk had been different. No matter what season, or what time of day, Minsk gave the impression of being a dead city. Of course, clubs and restaurants were open, parties were held at homes. But this time, from the moment I landed, everything seemed different. This usually dead airport was now full of people, the bus to the city was overcrowded and on the first night I realised that the city was also full of people. And not only on May 9th, but also in the days to come.         

Who could you meet on the streets of Minsk?  

Firstly, a huge amount of tourists, mainly from Russia. This isn’t surprising because Minsk, alongside Bangkok, is becoming a kind of Las Vegas for Muscovites**. I noticed that Minsk residents and even the police treated Russian tourists negatively, because they were behaving like the British behave in Poland - drunk and irresponsible. When they heard us speaking Polish (most of my Belarusian friends had studied in Poland), they came up to us and shouted: "Minsk is not Kiev, Minsk is not Kiev." In other words, propaganda that Poland is responsible for the situation in Ukraine has worked. In addition, there were huge numbers of tourists who had nothing to do with Belarus: Czechs, Slovaks, Norwegians, Finns, who had just come to the Championships because they love hockey. And what they saw: the free atmosphere, good and cheap food, alcohol and pretty girls – did not contribute to them leaving Minsk with the conviction that Lukashenko is a terrible dictator. There was a third group of tourists, like me, for whom hockey wasn’t the main reason. During this time, a lot of Poles travelled to Vitebsk, Pinsk, or Polotsk, proving that there is a sizeable group of tourists who would start travelling to Belarus if the visa issue were resolved. And the fourth group, that Minsk’s residents were especially pleased to see, was Belarusians from other cities. They came to sightsee, or go shopping. In the Chizhovka stadium where the less prestigious matches took place, 90% of people in the stands were Belarusians, even if the Belarusian team wasn’t playing. It was another world.  

So Belarusian society has stopped being afraid?

This time I couldn’t really feel the fear that I had felt among Belarusians before. People with common sense knew that the authorities would be hands-off for these three weeks. Before, my friends in Minsk and I would try to speak quietly, not drawing attention to ourselves, because you never knew who you would come across, and because there are certain people among my friends who the authorities follow. But now I saw that people had stopped being scared. No one believed that these changes were there to stay. But people in Minsk knew that they had a three-week holiday.  

Journalists could also feel more free and use the situation for professional purposes...

It was simplest of all for new media journalists. Journalists working for electronic media can easily prepare a report using a smart phone. It was a similar situation for radio journalists. Actually, only television lost out. And this raises the question of a revolution in the media. Television plays a significant role in Belarus, even the main opposition media Belsat is a classical channel. The situation in 2010 showed that changes can only rely on new media. Old media will be blocked by the authorities, you can’t bring a big camera, everything lies in the hands of new media and journalists who can take the initiative, not even like me, but so-called citizen journalists.

That’s as far as local journalists are concerned. But did you come across any Western journalists?

No, they weren’t visible, which is due to the fact that media in the West did not appreciate the Championship’s potential. Firstly, they perceived it merely as a sports event that a couple of sports correspondents could be sent to. Secondly, Belarus disappeared from the international media’s field of interest due to the events in Ukraine, which I think is a huge mistake as Batka’s attempt to become independent and what is happening now in Belarusian society are of great significance. This was missed by classical media, but not by normal people. Public opinion nowadays is not formed by western TV. In fact, the Facebook profile of a Czech fan will show more about how it was during the Championships than a reportage on Czech TV. And in the few reportages that Western media made, Minsk was presented as a Lukashenko propaganda picture – clean, tidy, with even pavements. But at the same time, the West also showed Belarusians as decent and interesting people. For example, German TV audiences saw that Minskers do not throw rubbish on the ground not because they are afraid, but because they would never dream of doing so. In other words, TV showed the picture of a civilized country, at times reminiscent of Scandinavia.

Western media missed the Championship not only as a sporting event, Ukraine has eclipsed everything. So what sources can you get information about Belarus from now?

From Belarusian portals, and, I must admit that a lot of good information about Belarus is written in Russia. This is due to the fact that there was a period when Putin allowed Lukashenko to be criticised that still has not ended. I don’t read much written by Belarusian emigrants because, as a historian, I know that their texts can be coloured with emotions. I do not read what they write in the West. The "Belarus in Focus" competition shows that there are few professional texts. I could list a few journalists in Poland who know how to write about Belarus. Things are improving, especially with regard to factography - it’s no problem to find economic data, but worse with the thesis.

Recently, Belarus has been presented in Western media in a few contexts: Lukashenko’s policies vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russian, the Eurasian Economic Union, its weak economy run on ageing principles, and the dictatorship. What context, in your opinion, is it worth writing about Belarus?

In all the contexts you have listed, but least of all in the context of the dictatorship because this is already known. It needs to be remembered, but it’s worth writing about other topics, for example, independent Belarusian culture, media, social life, the role of tourist articles showing the beauty of Belarus. The more texts there are about why it’s worth visiting Mir, Navahrudak, or Niasvizh, the better***. It’s worth writing about a society that is developing despite the dictatorship, and thanks to simple human initiative.

Lukasz Jasina wrote a series of articles about the Ice-Hockey Championships in Belarus within the series ‘Putiniada’ for Kultura Liberalna.

* During the World Ice-Hockey Championships, hosted by Minsk in May 2014, visitors with a ticket to ice-hockey matches were not required to have visas. 

**Casinos were outlawed in Moscow on July 1, 2009. 

*** Navahrudak is the birthplace of the poet Adam Mickiewicz, Mir and Niasvizh are both castles listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. 

Author: Handbook on Belarus for International journalists