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Sport, Integrity, Tajikistan & Belarus: Call of Bets on Dictatorships

I wrote this piece for BNE Intellinews along with a further analysis for Emerging Europe to reaffirm my belief that in allowing sports matches to continue in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko is responsible for a public health disaster. Covid19 is making dictators in Tajikistan, Burundi and Nicaragua due to our ignorance of the circumstances in countries where life is short, cheap and cruel.

Christina Petru Ph. D.

COVID-19 has rightly grounded almost all sports fixtures—with one big exception being football matches in Belarus’ Premier League. The usually minor matter, on the international scale, of a derby between FC Minsk and Dinamo Minsk on March 28 earned global attention, thanks to the desperation of gambling companies and their equally desperate customers. It’s time to desist—lest we kill enough people to make up an entire league of sportsmen and women—while stroking the ego of a moustachioed psychopath.

Belarus’ President Alexander G. Lukashenko is often described by international media outlets as “Europe’s last dictator”. In power since the exact date of the presidency’s creation, July 20, 1994, Lukashenko has expressed his chagrin toward this label on a number of occasions, often causing bilateral controversy in the process.

Guido Westerwalle—Germany’s first gay foreign minister, who tragically passed away in 2016—took the full brunt of the strongman’s ire, when he called out Lukashenko’s dire human rights record in March 2012. “It is better to be a dictator than gay!” Lukashenko snapped. Besides being prurient and incredibly pathetic, Lukashenko’s remark was also very stupid—as Europe wanted to squash Lukashenko with sanctions at the time. The diplomatic incident which followed did not play well for Europe’s last dictator. Westerwalle quietly reaffirmed his “determination not to move one inch from my initial commitment to human and civil rights in Belarus”. Then, he served Lukashenko with one of the most punishing smack-downs I can recall. One off-colour homophobic remark ended up costing the government of Belarus billions of dollars—while the football team the world is currently betting on also found itself in sticky circumstances.

By July 2012, Westerwalle had helped crash brutal sanctions against Belarus, targeting more than 200 politically affiliated people for their roles in the country’s awful record on human rights under Lukashenko, and the president’s brutal crackdown on any form of political opposition.

Left without a bus

One of the individuals hit was Yury Chyzh—owner of Dinamo Minsk—who literally found himself unable to hire a bus to transport juniors to a soccer tournament. The coach hire company’s bank in Lithuania returned Chyzh’s payment, after the football team and 17 other entities owned by Chyzh were sanctioned.

Sanctions against Chyzh were ultimately lifted on July 13, 2015, as despite the ownership of a very large swathe of Belarus’ highly corrupt economy, it could not be proven that President Lukashenko actually benefited financially from Chyzh. I thus underscore my remarks—for the avoidance of all doubt—with the reminder that the European Union has exonerated Chyzh of financing a dictator, and that Chyzh is not guilty of any crime before law.

However, I’d posit that Chyzh, his football team, and Belarus’ football league, are now helping Lukashenko to polish his horrible image, in a very horrible way—even though his horrible image is well-earned. The coronavirus has put a freeze on just about all global sporting events, for very well-founded public health reasons. Thus the many remarks on how Belarus now has the only soccer league left to bet on. By betting on Belarus’ top league, you’re prettifying a president whose understanding of public health is killing people.

‘Best cured by drinking vodka’

I can find no better way to illustrate this point than to point at Lukashenko’s recent remarks to news outlet Belsat. He considers the virus to be silly Western hogwash—best cured by drinking vodka.

Here are Lukashenko’s remarks: “We have survived viruses before. There were more complicated viruses: swine flu, bird flu, and atypical pneumonia”. Lukashenko also mused, urging calm while advocating absolute insanity: “There should be no panic, all you need to do is to work. I am happy when I watch TV and see people labouring in the fields, driving tractors, and no one is talking about the virus. There the tractor will cure everyone. The field will heal us all”.

Pontificating further on the pandemic—with a monologue that deserves condemnation from the World Health Organisation (WHO)—Belarus’ only president since the collapse of the Soviet Union cracked a joke which will likely lead to the loss of human life.

“I am a non-drinker, but at this time I jokingly say that you should not just wash your hands with vodka, but probably also poison this virus with it [from within],” Lukashenko chuckled. “In terms of pure alcohol, 40-50 grams per day should be consumed. But not at work!”

Belarus’ Ministry for Foreign Affairs, as is customary, declined all comment. Their website does, however, note a record attendance at the game. It’s a great shame for Lukashenko that Westerwalle is no longer with us—for if he were, he’d wryly point to Lukashenko’s own musings on disease, in March 2003, when the president fuelling Europe’s pandemic made the following observation.

“The ideology of the state is like an immune system for an organism. If the immune system weakens, then even the smallest infection becomes simply fatal.”

Lukashenko then reiterated that the “state” and introducing “a pro-state ideology into the minds of ordinary citizens” was a necessary step to protect the country “from any possible infection”.

This is sadly the Lukashenko doctrine—which endures, despite the easing of EU sanctions. Silencing dissent is so important to this autocrat that even a global pandemic can be used to consolidate the “state”. But we must find other ways besides sports betting to while away our time in isolation—for when laid bare, betting on football in Europe’s last dictatorship gives us little leverage in condemning this public health disgrace.

Christina Petru Ph.D (Кристина Петру), is an economist, academic and financial journalist. A contributor to Emerging Europe and U.S News & World, Dr. Petru has consulted for international lenders and third sector organisations such as the World Bank across the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s.

Lukashenko’s Death Match

Here is one of several pieces I published last week on Alexander Lukashenko’s disgraceful stance on COVID19 epidemic for Emerging Europe.

Recent news that Covid-19’s mass cancellation of sports fixtures has led gambling companies to offer bets on some of the only soccer matches still being played (in Belarus) is neither a wild-card punt for desperate gamblers, or a quirky fact. Betting on sport in “Europe’s last dictatorship” amounts to tacit support for one of modern Europe’s most repellent leaders – and negligence for the real human impact.

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko is often described by international media outlets as “Europe’s last dictator” – as he has held power in Minsk since the exact date of the presidency’s creation on July 20, 1994.

Lukashenko has expressed his chagrin for this label on a number of occasions – often causing bilateral controversy. When the late Guido Westerwalle – a true statesman, who was Germany’s first gay foreign minister – accused Lukashenko of being the bloc’s last dictator, the president of Belarus publically proclaimed [that] “it is better to be a dictator than gay”.

“The remarks speak for themselves” Westerwalle shrugged, with the malaise he often showed ex-Soviet dinosaurs. “I’m determined not to move one inch from my initial commitment to human and civil rights in Belarus”. Lukashenko grew an even bigger moustache in response and developed a bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin instead – who is indubitably the region’s manliest bad guy.

Lukashenko often chest-bumps Putin during televised competitions on the ice rink – in which state television has been known to doctor footage of the Russian president face-planting on the rink. These peculiar matches are almost all we hear of sport in Belarus, and make for depressing entertainment that I thought could not be topped.

Yet as the Covid-19 epidemic spreads – cancelling almost all global sporting events – almost all matches were off in other leagues, and all bets were too – except for bets on Belarussian soccer, which is still being played.

If you’re betting on Belarus’ soccer fixtures, you’re prettifying a president whose understanding of public health is killing people. Public sports fixtures are prohibited in almost every other country on earth, due to the risk of infection. Emerging Europe recently ran an editorial advocating better dialogue between Brussels and Minsk. I feel differently. Belarus is making a packet from sending sportsmen and women to play in highly risky conditions – on the mandate of a former agricultural collective manager, whose misunderstanding of public health is surpassed only by his knowledge of tractors.

As Lukashenko recently told Belsat, Covid-19 is essentially silly western hogwash – invented, I assume, by Euro-Atlanticist spy chiefs, CIA operatives, the LGBTQ community and Federica Mogherini – perhaps in cahoots with educated women, EU diplomats and migratory birds.

As Lukashenko told Belsat: “We have survived viruses before. There were more complicated viruses: swine flu, bird flu, and atypical pneumonia”.

Urging calm (while advocating insanity) Lukashenko added, “There should be no panic, all you need to do is to work. I am happy when I watch TV and see people labouring in the fields, driving tractors, and no one is talking about the virus. There the tractor will cure everyone. The field will heal us all”.

Pontificating further on disease – with a monologue that deserves condemnation from the World Health Organisation – Belarus’ only president since the collapse of the Soviet Union cracked a joke which will likely lead to loss of human life. “I am a non-drinker, but at this time I jokingly say that you should not just wash your hands with vodka, but probably also poison this virus with it [from within]” Lukashenko chuckled. “In terms of pure alcohol, 40-50 grams per day should be consumed. But not at work!”

A former collective farm manager – who is renowned for his moustache, and unbending authoritarianism – Lukashenko abhors all that is economically rational and democratically plural. While others in the EU’s near abroad have done their utmost to win plaudits with Brussels by shunning one-party rule and the blatant harassment of opposition politicians, in favour of democracy that meets the Commission’s very low bar, Lukashenko has remained firmly dictatorial.

Lukashenko once chaired a sort of “naughty club” for former communists, kleptocrats and war criminals, ideally situated in Europe’s near abroad. Belarus’ president welcomed anyone limited in their travel plans – by EU visa bans and international arrest warrants – showing a vile return to form in 2014 when he congratulated Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on his electoral triumph.

In those days, Lukashenko was Euro-Atlanticism’s moustachioed menace – a leader whose second term as president in 1998 began with a European Union visa ban. He’d evicted international diplomats from their digs – as he saw little reason to fraternise with foreign imports (such as pluralist democracy, or Covid-19). The country does lack many of the facilities necessary to squander ill-gotten gains, and can’t compete with Cap Ferrat (or Cannes), but was still a safe-haven, in those days, for those determined to elude international justice.

Lukashenko voiced support for Serbian war-criminal Slobodan Milošević, frequently fraternised with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and reportedly procured passports for senior members of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Unfortunately (for Lukashenko) the world is changing. The dictator who likes to call himself “Batka” (an affectionate term for “father”) has only one confidante left – in Moldova’s president, Igor N. Dodon. Yet given Dodon’s difficulty sustaining elected office, and persistent political instability in Chișinau, it seems probable that Lukashenko may soon be truly alone. Following Moldova’s abysmal reaction to the Covid-19 epidemic, and increasingly precarious economy, it seems certain that Dodon – still unable to hang his presidency’s failure on oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc – may be accepting that it will soon be time to cede power to the tycoon.

While the United States Embassy in Chișinau has stated that it is in the process of attempting to extradite Mr Plahotniuc from the US, a source happy to be identified in this editorial as a senior diplomat to a European Union member state, told me, by telephone [that] “in light of President Dodon’s reticence to push this topic in public but refrain in private, it is beginning to look as though Dodon has accepted that he will lose face further if he attempts extradition proceedings. Regardless of the allegations Plahotniuc faces, [the businessman’s] rights are safeguarded by many treaties, including the ICCRP”.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mandates that Moldova, the requesting state, must show that any trial will not prove “unjust” or “oppressive” for the extradited party. As the same diplomat explained, “The financial costs Moldova would incur would be huge, and the time needed to navigate exhaustive appeals channels would ultimately cause Dodon more damage than good”. Yet Dodon can’t accept that in trying to fell Plahotniuc, he will first destroy his own career, and intends to pursue this route. Lukashenko will soon be the last dictator on the bloc, though hopefully not for much longer

Ideally, Lukashenko will meet the same fate, in a bloodless revolution that sees him face international justice. Until this happens, please desist from betting on blood sport fixed for your viewing pleasure by a tubby sociopath. There’s nothing at all funny about football players losing their lives because western audiences can’t punt ten dollars on the Premier League.

Gambling companies – whom I will not name yet – should consider warning their customers likewise.