As the 2019 European Games kick off in Minsk, Belarus is sending a signal to the rest of the continent that they are open for business. But opening their arms to Europe's sporting elite cannot mask the fact that they are the only European nation that still uses the death penalty. Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko claimed the European Games would have a positive impact on the image of the country, but can the spectre of sport help them emerge from the shadow of a poor human rights record?
"We are glad that Belarus has been given the honour to be at the origin of this grand project. We are happy to be given an opportunity to introduce our guests to genuine Belarus – a beautiful, hospitable, and cosy country," said Lukashenko.
"You will see for yourselves that it is home to the sincerest and kindest people, that our friendliness is not simple courtesy, but a trait of our character, a natural state of the soul.
"You will see that tolerance and relations built on mutual trust and respect is how Belarusians live. And we gift it all to you!” he continued in the opening speech of the games.
But will this be enough in the eyes of the rest of Europe to outlive the country’s darker truths?
The only European country left with capital punishment
Human rights observers sounded the alarm over the former Soviet nation's poor human rights record.
Belarus was selected two years ago to host the second instalment of the European sporting competition.
But just seven days ahead of the games’ start, the EU spokesperson for foreign affairs condemned two recent executions in Belarus.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that still uses capital punishment.
While the death penalty has not been completely abolished in Russia, it has been indefinitely suspended under moratorium.
“It’s a little strange that the European games [are happening] in the last country in Europe that uses the death penalty,” Valiantin Stefanovic of the Belarusian Human Rights Centre “Viasna” told Euronews, adding the move didn’t seem very “European”.
Aliaksandr Zhylnikau was executed within the last month, according to human rights groups in Belarus and the EU foreign affairs spokesperson. The groups say it is highly likely that Viachaslau Sukharka, who was sentenced at the same time as Zhylnikau in Belarus, was also executed.
"The European Union expresses its sincere sympathy to the families and friends of the victims of the crimes committed,” an EU spokesperson for foreign affairs said in a statement last week. "At the same time, the EU reaffirms its strong opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances and calls on Belarus to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition.”
"The continued application of the death penalty goes counter Belarus' international commitments,” the EU spokesperson said in the statement.
In the same week, representatives from Belarus and the EU met in Brussels to discuss the human rights situation in the country.
The EU stressed that while it applauded Belarus' recent willingness to promote human rights in the international spectrum, it still needed to do more to ameliorate the country's human rights record.
"Belarus’ recent openness to cooperation in promoting human rights in international fora, including cooperation via UN mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review, is a positive development. At the same time, further cooperation by Belarus with UN special procedures mandate holders is needed," said a statement.
Euronews contacted the government in Minsk for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication. We will update the article with Belarus' response.
A poor record
The former Soviet country of roughly 9.5 million people has only known one president since the fall of the Soviet Union: Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko will mark his 25th anniversary as leader this year — earning him the nickname "Europe's last dictator" by Western opponents.
Human rights activists and civil society are routinely harassed in the country.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that there were significant "counting and tabulation" problems during the presidential elections in Belarus which "undermined the integrity of the election".
The European Council prolonged an embargo in February on arms and equipment the EU said could be used for "internal repression" in Belarus.
The EU lifted some restrictive measures, but extended the existing measures, including an arms embargo in 2016 and said "respect of international law and human rights" remained key to the bloc's relationship with Belarus.
This is not the first time an international sporting event has faced criticism from human rights groups.
The first European Games took place in Baku, Azerbaijan, and just ahead of the games, Azerbaijan arrested the country's best-known investigative journalist and targeted independent organisations.
These countries "whitewash their human rights records, repress journalists and civil society, and bask in the glow of major athletes and world leaders," said Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch's director of Global Initiatives.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was heavily criticised amid claims of Russia and China exploiting workers and censoring media ahead of hosting the Olympics, and FIFA's choice of Qatar for the 2022 World Cup has drawn condemnation, with reports of infrastructure companies using and mistreating migrant workers in the lead up to the event.
Minsk will host roughly 4,000 athletes at the European Games this year (down from 6,000 in the 2015 games) in a competition lasting 10 days (compared with 17 days in 2015). Several sports, such as swimming and track, are absent from the games.
The Rio summer Olympics in 2016, by comparison, welcomed 11,238 participants. The winter Olympics in South Korea played host to 2,833 athletes.
“For Belarus, this is a unique opportunity to popularize the country and to show that Belarusians are prepared to host world-class sports events at the highest level,” sports minister Sergei Kovalchuk told state TV on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The games are regulated by the European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 national Olympic Committees.
An EOC spokesperson told Euronews: "In principle, we believe we help to improve human rights standards through sports, but of course, we are not able, nor is it within our power, to resolve everything."
Concerns about press freedom
Police often arrest journalists and have raided the offices of independent media, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a joint report issued ahead of the European Games.
Belarus ranked 155th out of 180 countries on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom index in 2018.
When Belarus hosted the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship, members of Belarusian opposition and civil society activists were arbitrarily detained by authorities, human rights activists in the country said.
"You would expect with a major event like the European games coming to town that Belarus would have spent the two years before to actually clean its act up, and in fact, the opposite has happened," Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives, Minky Worden, told Euronews.
Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists said 2019 was on track to be one of the worst years for media freedom in Belarus.
The country’s top media watchdog documented a total number of 26 police searches of journalist homes and media offices in Belarus last year.
"The European games will hardly improve the situation. There are no pre-requisites for that," deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Barys Haretski, wrote in a statement provided to Euronews.
"Literally a few days ago a document was put online in which officials order their subordinates not to give any information and to call the police if a journalist introduces him or herself as a freelancer, an employee of Belsat, or a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists,” Haretski said.
An EOC spokesperson told Euronews that in keeping with their “commitment to media freedom and policy of transparency, a dedicated point of contact for journalists has been put in place”.
"Any major regional sports tournament like this is supposed to celebrate human ingenuity and human achievements and in a climate where there is a chokehold on civil society and journalists in the country is at complete odds with this Olympic ideal," Worden told Euronews.
The UN estimates that Belarus has executed roughly 400 people in the past two and a half decades.
“No one knows what happens with the bodies. The relatives can never say goodbye to these people,” Stefanovic told Euronews.
“On the one hand, the country wants to be closer to Europe, to be called a European country, it hosts the [second] European Games, and on the other hand, it does not share the human rights values and remains the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union where people are executed by shooting," said Andrej Paluda, coordinator of the campaign Human Rights Defenders Against Death Penalty in Belarus in a statement posted on Viasna’s website.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) general rapporteur on the abolition of the death penalty put out a statement condemning Belarus just three days before the international multi-sport competition started in Minsk.
“Belarus has once again shown that it does not fully subscribe to basic European standards, and its use of the death penalty continues to prevent the development of deeper relations with the Council of Europe,” said Titus Corlatean, PACE general rapporteur on the abolition of the death penalty.
“We hope that the journalists who come to Belarus for the European Games, they will write not only about the games but also about the general situation of the country and about Belarus itself,” Stefanovic told Euronews.
"At least they haven't detained people like they did with the Ice Hockey Championship," he added.
"Hopefully they will not detain people."