Belarus has blasted the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for its decision to move this year's World Championships from Minsk due to safety and security concerns amid a violent government crackdown on protests over a disputed presidential election last year.
The government's organizing committee on January 19 called the IIHF's decision, which is a blow to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, "unreasonable," while the head of the Belarus Ice Hockey Federation Dzmitry Baskau said it was "deplorable" that the Zurich-based governing body changed its mind on holding the tournament this spring in the capital.
"[The IIHF's] decision creates a precedent where sports tournaments that are supposed to unite countries and peoples, promote peace and unity in the spirit of the Olympic principles, can turn into a tool of discord and pressure to please the interests of politicians," the Belarusian committee's statement said.
The IIHF's announcement on January 18 came amid mounting pressure from European countries and sponsors for Belarus to be stripped of its role as co-host of the tournament in May-June with Latvia because of the postelection crackdown.
Lukashenka has faced ongoing protests since a disputed August 9 presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged, handed him a sixth presidential term.
The European Union and the United States have declined to recognize Lukashenka’s reelection and have imposed sanctions in connection with the crackdown on protesters.
Several prominent Belarusian athletes have been handed jail terms of 10 to 15 days for their open support of the ongoing protests, demanding Lukashenka's resignation.
Nearly 350 Belarusian athletes and other members of the sports community threw down the gauntlet to Lukashenka by signing an open letter calling for the presidential election to be annulled and for all "political prisoners" and those detained during mass demonstrations that followed to be released.
"It is a very regrettable thing to have to remove the Minsk/Riga co-hosting bid," IIHF President Rene Fasel said in the announcement of the decision.
“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...And while the 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 prioritize.”
Losing the chance to co-host the tournament is also a further blow to Lukashenka, who has cultivated an image as a jock, regularly taking to the ice to play hockey, his favorite sporting pastime.