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Belarus Protest Continue. Football goes on.

Embattled Belarusian dictator Alexander G. Lukashenko may be an internationally condemned pariah, with a ridiculous mustache, whose regime was once best know for conducting executions using bullets and for torturing his critics with grizzly impunity. Now, the pig farmer turned President is facing pan-continental condemnation for atrocities perpetrated against thousands of protesters for the past 14 days. In the wake of rigged Presidential elections, Belarusians took to the streets to condemn the deeply unpopular tyrant’s supposed victory. Lukashenko has governed the nation since 1995, and alleges that he received 80% of the votes cast. It’s glaringly obvious that Lukashenko did not. His solution to mass unrest involved soccer. According to state propaganda mill Belsat, the nation’s top soccer honchos have announced the line-up for Belarus’ UEFA Nations League. To quote the press release:

“Head coach of the Belarusian national football team Mikhail Markhel has named the final roster for September matches of the UEFA Nations League, BelTA has learned.

The roster included 23 players:

goalkeepers: Alyaksandr Hutar (FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk), Yahor Hatkevich (FC Isloch), and Syarhey Ignatovich (FC Dinamo Brest);

Defenders: Alyaksandr Martynovich (FC Krasnodar), Maksim Bardachow (FC Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino), Alyaksandr Sachywka (FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk), Nikolay Zolotov (FC Ural Yekaterinburg), Maksim Shvyatsow (FC Dinamo Minsk), Nikita Naumov (FC Zhetysu), Roman Yuzepchuk (FC Dinamo Brest), Alyaksey Lyahchylin (FC Neman Grodno).

Midfielders: Stanislaw Drahun, Ihar Stasevich, Pavel Nyakhaychyk, Evgeni Yablonski (all FC BATE Borisov), Max Ebong (FC Astana), Yury Kavalyow (FC Arsenal Tula), Ivan Bakhar (FC Dinamo Minsk), Dzmitry Padstrelaw, Aleksandr Selyava (both FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk), Andrey Khachaturyan (FC Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino).

Forwards: Maksim Skavysh (FC BATE Borisov), Vitaly Lisakovich (FC Lokomotiv).

The Belarusian national team will start their training camp in Minsk on 31 August. Footballers will train at the center of the Belarusian Football Federation in Vesnyanka. Belarus will play their first match of the UEFA Nations League against Albania on 4 September. The Belarusian football players will then face Kazakhstan in Almaty on 7 September.”

While Europe’s “last dictator” appears somewhat wobbly (he’s trapped between Putin, Pompeo and 100,000 protesters who believe he’s not right for the job) sports has become a standard tool of deflection and revenue for this deeply unpopular despots, whose macabre tactics for crushing dissent have brought his regime global revulsion. Yet Lukashenko is naturally flipping the bird to the international community. Sport (or “sports washing”) has been reinvented by Belarus during the Covid-19 pandemic to mask what’s really going on. If we stopped watching league games and gambling on the results, it’s possible we’d see Lukashenko for what he is. A coward, trapped in a post-Soviet hinterland of casual violence and flagrant authoritarianism. By supporting Belarus’ league we risk propping up a thug.

Blood is reportedly running from prison walls in Belarus’ jails. Thousands have been beaten by riot police. Even President Donald J. Trump has stated that he is “worried” (in fact “very worried”) which is a heartening statement of bilateral concern. But assaults continue in the former Soviet state’s capital. Lukashenko seems generally indifferent. He’s retired to the countryside to engage in elaborate war games, with armaments purchased from the United States and other Western states in Belarus’ near abroad. Slackening of prior sanctions on the state by the European Union and United States has allowed Lukashenko to amass a dizzying array of armaments. As Belsat also reported, Lukashenko spent Saturday 23rd driving Grad rocket launchers through hay bails, which he examined maps like a stern scout master, organizing a grizzly orienteering exercise while protesters back home in Minsk were beaten with clubs.

Countless commentators have remarked on Lukashenko’s propensity to use smoke and mirrors like soccer to stuff his cronies Maltese bank accounts with gambling dollars and divert international attention from his regime’s atrocities. At #redcardcovid19.org we believe Belarus serves as the most prescient example to date of how sport can be used for evil, just as much as it can be used for good.

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