Weekly 15 August 2021

Olympian homophobia

Hello! This week our top story is a round-up of Russia’s Olympics, from state-sanctioned homophobia to apparent progress on eradicating doping. We also look at Belarus a year on from the beginning of its political crisis, publish an interview with a leading Belarus expert about the country’s future and analyze the consequences of this year’s devastating forest fires in Siberia.

How Russia will remember the Tokyo Olympics

The 2021 Olympics was less of a sporting contest for Russia — more of a political bunfight. One poll before the Games showed 97 percent of Russians couldn’t name a single Russian athlete. Instead, the competition will be remembered for the naked homophobia on state-owned television, contentious refereeing in rhythmic gymnastics and the ‘We will ROC you’ campaign. But there was one positive: there were (almost) no doping scandals. Here are the key moments of Russia’s Olympics:

Drama at the rhythmic gymnastics

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the Tokyo Games was the defeat of Russian rhythmic gymnasts Dina and Arina Averina. For the first time since 2000, Russia failed to win gold. World champion Dina Averina was beaten into second place by Israel’s Lina Ashram while her sister, Arina, came fourth.

Almost everyone had expected victory for the Averina sisters and their placings were controversial as Ashram dropped her ribbon during one performance — and still won gold. To add insult to injury, it’s possible this was Dina’s last Olympics: she is set to undergo surgery and may not return to top-flight competition.

Ashram’s victory was seen by many in Russia as not merely contentious — but proof of Russophobic political interference in sport. Russian media, especially state-owned media, went into overdrive with headlines including ‘Rhythmic swine’ (state-owned news agency RIA Novosti), ‘The Averinas – victims of politics’ (state-controlled Sport-Express), and ‘The judges gave outrageous scores to Ashram’ (state-owned Channel 1). On social media, popular opinion also favored political conspiracy. It was easier to believe in corrupt judging than the defeat of a Russian gymnast.

State propaganda turns on the LGBT community

Russian state-owned television was incensed by the performance of New Zealand’s transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and openly gay British diver Tom Daley, leading to an outpouring of homophobia.

State Duma deputy Alexei Zhuravlyov described members of the LGBT community as “scum” and “homos” on a primetime show. “We are very tough on this vulgarity and perversion,” he said. And the host of another show, Anatoly Kuzichev, wore a wig with two pigtails, parodying Hubbard. He said transgender people were “psychopaths”.

Olympic champion figure skater Tatyana Navka, wife of presidential press spokesman Dmitry Peskov, also joined the fray. She posted a video of Spanish gymnast Cristofer Benitez on Instagram and commented: “I’m happy that in our country we don’t have this and I hope we never will … who can grow up in Western society with such tendencies?!”

After the shows were broadcast, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demanded an explanation from the management of two state-owned channels. “There is no place for discrimination in the Olympic Games,” the IOC said in a statement. And there was also criticism of the homophobia by some prominent public figures, including well-known producer Alexander Rodnyansky, TV presenter and one-time presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, and actor Maxim Vitogran.

Advertising instead of the Ukrainian team

The political conflict between Russia and Ukraine also bubbled over into the Olympics. First, during the Opening Ceremony, state-owned Channel 1 failed to show the Ukrainian team. As soon as Uganda left the stadium, Channel 1 cut to a commercial break. Later, Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh ran into problems with top officials after she was photographed embracing her Russian opponent, Maria Lasitskene, after they shared the podium — although there was little in the way of criticism on social media.

Almost doping-free

For the first time in many years, Russian contestants at a major sporting event managed to avoid a doping scandal. Almost. Barely had the Games finished when it emerged Russian triathlete Igor Polyansky had tested positive for a banned substance. However, since he placed 43rd in his event, it’s hard to imagine this will have major repercussions.

Throughout the Tokyo Games, Russian athletes competed under a neutral flag and without national symbols or a national anthem — part of the country’s punishment for previous doping violations. When a Russian won gold, the Russian anthem was replaced with an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The restrictions led to Russia’s athletes launching a PR campaign – “We Will ROC You”, inspired by the Queen song where ‘rock’ is replaced with the abbreviation for ‘Russian Olympic Committee’. The effort was actively supported by officials: for example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wished Olympians luck using the phrase. As of Friday, there were more than 26,000 Instagram posts with the #wewillrocyou hashtag, while on TikTok clips with the same hashtag had almost 156 million views. The campaign was discussed by outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian.

Why the world should care

Despite the fact that Russia’s athletes performed well (winning 20 golds and placing fifth in the medal tables), the Tokyo Olympics will be more remembered in Russia for aggressive homophobia, and gymnastic failure. But the almost complete absence of doping suggests Russia is taking steps to resolve its problem — despite claims from politicians that all the doping allegations were baseless.

 

Belarus – one year on from disputed election

Monday marked one year since the Belarusian presidential elections that almost ended the 25-year career of President Alexander Lukashenko. The vote was followed by mass protests and a brutal police crackdown that continues today.

During the protests, one of the opposition leaders, Maria Kolesnikova, told The Bell, that either the opposition would triumph or “Belarus would be steamrolled under the asphalt”. So far, it seems it is the second path that has been taken. Kolesnikov and dozens of her colleagues are in jail, leading independent media outlets in Belarus have been destroyed, public organizations are shuttered and thousands have fled the country.

Sanctions

The first sanctions against Belarus were largely cosmetic as they targeted Lukashenko and his close allies. But in June, the European Union stepped up the pressure, imposing broad economic sanctions. These affected oil products, potash and tobacco — reportedly impacting 13 percent of Belarusian exports to Europe. But the most serious sanctions came this month when the U.K. banned the export of oil products from Belarus, and the U.S. sanctioned companies exporting Belarusian oil products and potash (the country’s second biggest export).

The effects quickly became clear. Belarusian banks faced a wave of complaints about problems with international transfers. The problem apparently lies in the SWIFT system and intermediary banks, which have yet to decide how to process transactions that could be linked to sanctioned entities. Lithuania announced that from December it would stop the transit of Belarusian potash fertilizer via the port of Klaipeda. Due to poor relations between Belarus and Ukraine, Russia is the only remaining export option. However, Russian companies have no burning to deal with sanctioned goods.

Lukashenko unleashed

Prior to last summer, there was evidence that Lukashenko saw some merit in thinking about the possible Western reaction to his decisions and sought to maintain a balance between Russia and Europe. Now, this consideration is gone.

Some of his erratic behavior has included a helicopter ride over protesters in Minsk, standing alongside riot police and brandishing an automatic rifle; and the forced landing of a civil airliner earlier this year that was carrying opposition blogger Roman Protasevich. On the anniversary of the protests last week, Lukashenko gave an epic press conference lasting 8.5 hours. A BBC journalist who asked awkward questions about the torture of protesters was subsequently expelled from Russia. The official explanation was this was a response to UK discrimination against Russian media.

Links to Russia

Russia’s support for Lukashenko has not been limited to allegedly expelling unwelcome journalists. There’s also financial backing and, more importantly, political support. Belarus currently receives about $1.5 billion of loans every year from Russia, which isn’t all that different from the level of support Russia previously provided (directly and through discounts). And some of this money goes to paying off existing debts to Russia. But the sum is less important than the message: Russia supports Lukashenko’s regime. It’s another question whether this is an asset that could become too expensive.

Migration crisis

Another front in the conflict between the EU and the Belarusian authorities is the migration crisis that has emerged on the Polish and Lithuanian borders in recent months. Migrants are flown into Belarus on aircraft from Iraq and Turkey – the same planes that bring Russian holiday makers to Egypt and Turkey. Then, the authorities organize bus trips for these ‘tourists’ to the Lithuanian border, according to Novaya Gazeta. Iraq announced the indefinite suspension of all passenger flights to Belarus earlier this month, but there is evidence Baghdad-Minsk flights are continuing.

Why the world should care

A year on from mass opposition protests, the political crisis in Belarus shows no sign of ending. Belarus and the unpredictable antics of its leader will remain a flashpoint in relations between Russia and the West for the foreseeable future.

 

‘Lukashenko is delaying any resolution of the crisis’ — an interview with Belarus expert Artyom Shraibman

To mark the anniversary of the Belarusian election and subsequent protests, The Bell spoke to Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman (who recently fled the country due to threats) about why protests failed, the role of Russia and what awaits Belarus:

How could the situation in Belarus develop?

There are many scenarios, and they are equally plausible. Lukashenko is delaying any resolution of the crisis. Clearly, he will not make any concession to the protests. But he is also postponing a resolution to the crisis through constitutional reform and a controlled transition — and that is striking. The longer this goes on, the greater the chance that changes will come not in a controlled way, but spontaneously.

There are many reasons for Lukashenko to procrastinate and not make any big decisions: it’s not clear how he can control his successor, sanctions are not a moment to step away, and, in general, the current constitution works to his advantage. So far, these outweigh any incentive to quit. But the longer he postpones, the more likely we are to fall into another cycle of violence and escalation. If this happens, a crisis could emerge very unexpectedly, we just don’t know when it might happen.

There is also a base case scenario in which Lukashenko ultimately manages to avoid making mistakes and carries out a controlled handover of power. But it is hard to say how long this might take — one year, maybe four or five. He has promised not to contest the next elections. And, it seems to me, it would indeed be difficult for him to contest new presidential elections — in Moscow’s eyes, in the eyes of his own nomenklatura and especially in the eyes of the Belarusian public.

Do you remember your feelings from a year ago? Did you feel that Lukashenko would be able to survive?

This year has seen so many emotional roller coasters that it’s difficult to remember. Before August 9 [the day of the presidential election — The Bell], there was a feeling the storm clouds were gathering and everything was building to a very serious confrontation — and that’s more or less what happened. There was anxiety in the air. Then the internet was disconnected, there was widespread violence — it came as a shock. Crowds were dispersed, people were beaten, rubber bullets were fired at the windows next to my house. At night you could hear the stun grenades.

For the next two weeks, there was a sense of triumph. It seemed the protests were about to succeed. Right after the election, on August 12, in the wake of terrible police violence, I wrote a piece on the Carnegie website in which I predicted the course of events [the article read: “if the protests fizzle out under pressure from the security forces — and this looks a likely scenario today — the authorities are unlikely to refrain from a show of force”]. For the next couple of weeks, I was thinking: ‘Damn, how did I get it so wrong?’. But then everything started moving back in line with my prognosis. I think everyone went through the same emotional process.

When did it become clear the revolution was not going to succeed?

I don’t think there was a single moment. It was an evolutionary process: gradually the rallies in the regions became less frequent, then we saw fewer people coming out in the capital. And, quietly, repressions began. By the end of August 2020 it was already apparent the authorities weren’t ready to give up and go peacefully, that the confrontation would either be very long, or very violent.

The moment when it became obvious that society was not prepared to radicalize in response to the violence was the death of Roman Bondarenko in November 2020 [Bondarenko was a 31-year-old Minsk resident who was beaten up by plainclothes security service officers when he tried to protect protest symbols outside his home. He later died in hospital — The Bell]. Even after that, the protests did not reach a significantly new level, neither in scale nor in radicalism.

Is it only journalists and activists who currently face repression?

Even random people with no interest in politics face repression. That’s how it was from the very start when everyone was lumped in with the protests. For example, after running into a café where some opposition supporters were sitting, riot police simply arrested everyone. That continued until the spring of 2021 when the last protests took place… Everyone vaguely resembling an organized group was arrested. For example, in March they arrested a group on a guided tour. The guide was given 15 days in prison. This happens all the time.

What would Lukashenko have done without Russia’s support?

If we’re talking about political support and economic support then, without it, Lukashenko would have found himself in a very difficult position. Potentially, he could have fallen from power. He would have kept fighting, but he would have been forced to make concessions to the EU and loosen the screws. He could not have crushed the protests so quickly and, sooner or later, that would have led to such political destabilization that he would have lost control of the levers of power and been forced to step down.

 

Siberian forest fires spotlight Russia’s carbon emissions

As a major supplier of fossil fuels, Russia has a big role to play in attempts to reduce the world’s carbon footprint. But there are few signs of any progress. Current forest fires in Siberia have highlighted how Russia not only exports huge amounts of hydrocarbons, but also releases enormous volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

  • “The situation with forest fires in Russia remains extremely tense,” Alexander Kozlov, head of the Ministry of Natural Resources said this week. According to him, 7.8 million hectares have already been affected by fires – that’s 20 percent more than last year. President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to consider deploying the military and has made additional money available.
  • The most serious situation is in the far northern region of Yakutia. Emergency Situations Minister Yevgeny Zinichev flew there this week as smog from the infernos spread as far as Kazakhstan and the North Pole. Fires are also raging in many other areas of Siberia — smoke shrouds cities and airports are regularly forced to close due to visibility issues.
  • The problem is that Russia stopped putting out forest fires in hard-to-reach locations in 2015 because this was felt to be ‘economically unviable’ and dangerous to firefighters. Now, fires are only extinguished when they approach settlements. If the cost of fighting the fire outweighs the expected damage, it will be ignored. Despite this, while Yakutia burns, Russia found the money to send several firefighting aircraft to help tackle blazes in Greece and Turkey.
  • The UN Climate Report, and its grim prognosis for humanity, was one of the big stories in the world this week. In Russia, average temperatures are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, according to one of the authors of the report, Sergei Gulev, director of the Russian Academy of Science’s Oceanology Institute. “In the Arctic Ocean, we have lost 30 percent of the ice in the last 30 years and it is continuing to thaw and melt. Plus, the permafrost continues to melt, and that covers about half the territory of Russia,” he said.
  • Last year, Russia exceeded a 10-year-old record for air pollution, and CO2 emissions in the Arctic were up more than a third compared with 2019. According to the Russian authorities,Russia accounted for 4.5 percent of all CO2 emissions in 2019 (behind China, the U.S., the EU, and India).

Why the world should care

Russia is more than capable of breaking its CO2 emission record this year — not least because forest fires already cover a greater area than 2020. When you factor in the fossil fuels sold by Russia, the country is one of the world’s greatest polluters.

 

IN BRIEF

Pressure on Navalny and allies increases

The Investigative Committee on Wednesday brought a new charge against opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, currently in jail, which could land him another three years behind bars. Similar charges were also filed against Navalny allies Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov, who are currently outside Russia.

Another Navalny ally, Lyubov Sobol, reportedly left Russia this week for Istanbul. Her departure was reported by media outlets including news agency Interfax, Ren-TV and state-controlled RT. Sobol herself has not yet confirmed or denied the reports.