BRUSSELS -- Few things seem to irk Belarus's hockey-mad president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, as much as the suggestion that his country might be stripped of the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship in two years' time.
The Belarusian president this week dismissed the notion "as a political move with no relation to sport" and said such a move would be "a serious blow to the image of the International Hockey Federation (IIHF)."
Lukashenka's personal affection for the game has convinced former hockey player and current European lawmaker, Peter Stastny of Slovakia, of the need to relocate the games in order to see some political changes in Belarus.
"I know he is an avid hockey fan, he enjoys [it], and he is passionate. He plays hockey two or three times a week,” Stastny says.
“It just hit me that if you touch upon somebody's hobby and passion, you might just get good results, he might react and he might kind of open up gradually. You know the only condition is to release immediately those political prisoners."
'Peter The Great'
Stastny is one of the main drivers behind efforts to persuade hockey's governing body to change the venue of the championship during its annual congress in Helsinki in May, and his name carries some gravitas.
In 1980 he defected to Canada to become one of the first major hockey stars from the then Eastern bloc to join the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America. After 15 successful seasons, "Peter the Great," as he was known to fans, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He now fears that his beloved sport might be turned into a propaganda tool for the Belarusian president, who already has built and refurbished arenas and hotels in the run-up to the championship.
"To get to organize such an important event, it’s a matter of prestige, a matter of privilege, a matter of being rewarded. What is Belarus and the Belarusian regime right now being rewarded for? That is a question that bothers me," Stastny says.
Stastny is now trying to have one of the 70 delegates -- consisting of the presidents of all the national ice hockey federations -- put the question on the agenda at the meeting in May. If that happens, he hopes a majority will endorse the change of venue.
With the U.S. Congress having passed a resolution calling for a relocation and the European Parliament preparing a similar text, Stastny says the sport's governing body might decide to take heed.
"It is a clear political and social message to those competent and those competent are delegates and delegates are presidents of the ice hockey federations and most of them are mostly funded by the money of citizens,” Stastny says.
“They get some sponsorship, but believe me, most of them are mass organizations funded by the governments, by the taxpayer, by the citizens. I would advise that they should listen and act according to the will of the people."
Mixing Politics And Sport
So far Brussels has not backed calls to move the games -- though there is support from member state Finland.
At an EU foreign ministers' meeting on March 23, a statement said that "the EU will keep International and National Ice Hockey Federations informed about its deep concerns as regards the lack of respect by Belarus for human rights, the rule of law, and democratic principles."
EU officials have also told RFE/RL that they think that a removal of the games would hurt the population at large and that one should not mix sports and politics.
Stastny says he has a certain understanding for this line of argument but maintains that moving or boycotting sports events has worked before and that it can be used in extreme cases.
"Look at the African countries which consistently boycotted the Olympics to bring down apartheid in South Africa,” Stastny says.
“Eventually they succeeded. Sometimes it is a legitimate tool, in extreme situations."