A Belarusian hockey honcho and ally of embattled President Alyaksandr Lukashenka got an earful when he appeared at a hockey tournament over the weekend at a rink in southeastern Belarus.
Dzmitry Baskau, the acting president of the Belarusian hockey federation and head of the Dynamo Minsk hockey team, was met by jeers not cheers when he took to the ice on August 30 in Homel.
As the 42-year-old Baskau handed over the trophy to his tournament-winning team, fans among the crowd of 1,500,whistled loudly, as video footage of the events makes clear.
Baskau has been a vocal supporter of Lukashenka, who has faced unprecedented protests since his disputed reelection on August 9, and has appeared at state-organized rallies for the Belarusian strongman.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since the election, with several thousand detained and hundreds beaten in police detention, sparking international outrage.
Workers at state-run plants and factories have joined labor strikes, dealing another blow to the country's economy, already hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which Lukashenka has dismissed as "mass psychosis" and met with refusal to institute any lockdown measures.
Athletes, many of whom depend on state money to train and compete, are adding their voices to the growing calls for the 66-year-old Lukashenka to step down.
The criticism from athletes may be extra hard to swallow for Lukashenka, who has cultivated an image as a jock, regularly taking to the ice to play hockey, his favorite sporting pastime.
The authoritarian leader never misses a photo op when he laces up his ice skates, especially in games with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has also burnished an athletic image.
Baskau is, in fact, the coach of Lukashenka's presidential team. He is also the personal trainer for Lukashenka's youngest son, Mikalay.
In June, Baskau penned an open letter slamming Belarusian athletes for criticizing the government. "At a difficult time, when the government is being criticized from all corners for whatever reason, it is insulting to read the comments of athletes for whom much has been done."
His letter came after some athletes spoke out against the arrests and disqualifications of many strong opposition would-be contenders. In one of the more biting barbs, basketball star Mikita Meshcharakou posted in a since-deleted Facebook post: "Candidates are put in jail; people are gagged. This is not the future of Belarus."
For his loyalty, Baskau appears to have been rewarded by Lukashenka.
Baskau secured a 15 percent stake in a controversial car-battery factory near Brest, the independent Belarusian news website TUT.by reported in May.
The former owner of the plant, Viktar Lemyasheuski, was detained in 2019 on charges of giving and receiving bribes. He was released from police detention at the end of the year in a case shrouded in secrecy.
The factory, which lies in the southwestern corner of Belarus on the border with Poland, will make car batteries that contain highly toxic lead. Activists say the factory does not adhere to environmental standards and could cause a catastrophe.
Brest has witnessed protests going back to 2018 over the plant.
When production starts, most of the batteries will be earmarked for export, namely to China, which has financed construction of the plant.
Besides his business dealings, Baskau's star continues to rise in the world of ice hockey in Belarus, a country on the fringes of the world's elite. On August 26, Baskau was named acting president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Belarus.
Belarus is set to co-host with Latvia the 2021 world ice-hockey championships, although Riga has expressed doubts given what is happening now in Belarus.
Latvia has warned the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) that it could withdraw from hosting the event unless the hockey governing body allow Latvia to host the event with a nation other than Belarus. "It is difficult to imagine how we could possibly organize this tournament together with Belarus at the moment," Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said on August 17.
Unfazed by the threat, Baskau has suggested Belarus could host the event on its own.
For its part, the Zurich-based IIHF has said it still plans on Belarus co-hosting the event. "The main objective for the IIHF remains to play the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk and Riga," the hockey governing body said on August 18.
The World Championship is scheduled to be held in Riga and Minsk from May 21 to June 6, 2021. Minsk is due to host the semifinals and final.
With hockey his favorite sport, Lukashenka has courted the country's top players, other athletes have charged.
"Hockey is a special case," said Maryna Arzamasava, a world-champion middle-distance runner who was among the 350 signees of an open letter calling for the August 9 presidential vote to be annulled and for all "political prisoners" to be released.
"We can only guess how much hockey players are paid. But today they are hiding, being silent. How can you live at the expense of the people, the citizens, and not support them?"