Belarus was on Monday (18 January) stripped of its role as co-host of the 2021 ice hockey world championship over “growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and Covid-19”.
Belarus had been due to co-host the event with Latvia in May and June, but ice hockey’s governing body, the IIHF, said the decision to move the world champs from Minsk was “unavoidable… due to safety and security issues that are beyond the IIHF’s control”.
The ex-Soviet state has been shaken by protests against strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule ever since he claimed a sixth term in a disputed election last August.
The opposition says the vote was rigged, sparking months of political unrest and a brutal police crackdown.
Protesters believe political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who ran in place of her jailed husband and fled to neighbouring Lithuania shortly after the vote — was the true winner of the polls.
Tikhanovskaya, writing on her Telegram channel, dubbed the decision to withdraw hosting rights a “victory because there will be no additional wave of repression” aimed at clearing out demonstrators “before the World Championship”.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, a fierce critic of Belarus hosting the worlds, tweeted: “Democracy 1, Lukashenko 0.”
Lukashenko has claimed democratic processes in Belarus, which is routinely criticised by rights groups, were “completely normal”.
Despite that claim, the European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies.
IIHF President Rene Fasel said it was a “very regrettable thing to have to remove the Minsk/Riga co-hosting bid”.
“During this process, we had tried to promote that the World Championship could be used as a tool for reconciliation to help calm the socio-political issues happening in the Belarus and find a positive way forward,” said Fasel.
“And while the (IIHF) Council feels that the World Championship should not be used for political promotion by any side, it has acknowledged that hosting this event in Minsk would not be appropriate when there are bigger issues to deal with and the safety and security of teams, spectators, and officials to prioritise.”
The IIHF added that it had implemented a bylaw providing the council the ability to withdraw hosting rights “if there is reason for concern that the well-being or the safe freedom of movement of the players, officials, travelling spectators and media is in doubt”.
“The IIHF Council has determined that it is currently impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, spectators and officials while holding a World Championship in Belarus.”
The IIHF said it would now consider Latvia’s status as a co-host — the country already having said they did not want Belarus involved — and also evaluate the possibility of moving to a single-venue format to facilitate Covid-19 safety regulations and team travel.
Latvia’s Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins welcomed the IIHF’s decision, saying the Baltic state was ready to organise half of the games as planned or alternatively “discuss who will cover the costs… if all the games are played in Riga”.
“Additional costs are an issue because due to Covid safety measures the games will have no fans present, which means no income from tickets and hence high costs,” he told reporters.
Czech carmaker Skoda and German motor oil manufacturer Liqui Moly had both threatened to pull out of sponsoring the event if it took place in Belarus.