The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has dropped Belarus as a co-host for the 2021 World Championship due to ongoing political unrest in the Eastern European nation.
Protests emerged across Belarus in June last year amid anger over the jailing of opposition figures, economic stagnation, and President Alexander Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by critics, claimed vodka and saunas could keep Covid-19 at bay before catching the virus and saying he recovered “on his feet” without showing any symptoms.
Last week, the IIHF announced that the 2021 World Championship would not be staged in the former-Soviet nation “in the face of the growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and COVID-19.”
The announcement came as a personal blow to Mr Lukashenko, who lobbied to have Belarus named as co-hosts alongside neighbours Latvia.
The Belarusian government had hoped that holding part of the tournament in Minsk would have brought normality back to the country, following last year’s disputed presidential election.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is believed to have won the 2020 presidential election, with most European countries, the United States, and Canada no longer regarding Mr Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
The IIHF decided to remove Belarus as a co-host for the tournament after major sponsors, Skoda and Liqui, said they would withdraw financial support if games were held in Minsk.
“We’ve been a proud partner [of the IIHF World Championships] for 28 years,” Skoda tweeted earlier this month. “But we also respect & promote all human rights. Therefore, Skoda will withdraw from sponsoring the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship if Belarus is confirmed to be co-hosting the event.”
Tournament organisers are yet to decide where the tournament will be staged, with scheduled co-host Latvia, and previous hosts Denmark and Slovakia considered leading candidates.
The tournament is due to begin on 21 May but could be postponed to facilitate a change of hosts.
Analysis, by Luke James:
The IIHF’s handling of the crisis in Belarus has been myopic at best. At worst, it has been disgraceful. For months, it has been clear that Minsk would be unable to host the World Championship safely.
In September, Jokerit Helsinki refused to travel to Belarus for their KHL fixture against Dinamo Minsk amid growing unrest. Supporters of the Finnish franchise released a statement condemning state violence in Belarus.
“The transfer of matches is not exceptional in the KHL, nor in other series,” a group spokesperson said. “In our opinion, the current situation in the country provides all the conditions to demand the postponement of the match.
“Eteläpääty will support the team’s decision if the team decides not to go to Minsk and gives a direct surrender win to the opponent.”
Public condemnation of President Lukashenko’s government has been deafening since June, the IIHF should not have waited for tournament sponsors to tell them to do the right thing. The process should have been automatic and it is concerning that it wasn’t.
This decision is the right one but the IIHF’s next task is no easier than the last. Will the World Championship be hosted solely in Latvia, or will the games be moved to Denmark – for example? For an organisation that has struggled with diplomacy of late, a huge month awaits the world governing body.