The international ice hockey federation (IIHF) has said it will not hold this summer’s world championship in Belarus, amid concerns that it would be a propaganda coup for the country’s hockey-mad dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.
In a statement, the federation said it had made the decision “in the face of the growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and Covid-19”. Minsk and the Latvian capital, Riga, were due to co-host the tournament in May and June.
The decision comes just a week after the IIHF president, René Fasel, dismissed pressure to cancel the tournament after Lukashenko’s ruthless crackdown on a huge protest movement over recent months. Fasel warmly embraced Lukashenko on a visit to Minsk and said he wanted the tournament to go ahead as planned.
Fasel said he believed Lukashenko was committed to serious reform in the country, something most observers of the country over recent months think highly unlikely. “Personally, I think that lot of people are underestimating the capacity of the Belarus government to move forward, modernise, and build a new constitution in the country,” Fasel said, after meeting the Belarusian leader.
The IIHF’s sudden change of heart appears to have come about only after businesses sponsoring the tournament started to pull out, wary of negative publicity.
On Saturday, Škoda said it would withdraw as a sponsor of the tournament if it went ahead in Belarus. “We’ve been a proud partner to the IIHF world championship for 28 years. But we also respect and promote all human rights,” the Czech car manufacturer said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, beaten or forced to flee the country since unrest began in Belarus after rigged elections in August. Hosting the tournament would have given Lukashenko a boost at a time when he has become an international pariah. He is passionate about ice hockey and is frequently pictured on state television playing the game.
“This is a very wise step – to support human rights & fair sport, not to cooperate with the regime in Belarus,” wrote Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled opposition politician, on Twitter on Monday.
Until Monday, the IIHF had insisted the tournament should be kept separate from politics, but this was always unrealistic in the current climate. Latvia recently banned the head of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation, Dmitry Baskov, from entering the country after he was alleged to have been present during an attack on the protester Roman Bondarenko in Minsk in November. Bondarenko later died of his injuries. The IIHF has said it is carrying out its own investigation into the incident.
The hockey federation said it would announce soon whether the tournament would be held only in Riga, or moved to a different location entirely.