Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka greeted the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in Minsk as if he were welcoming his long lost brother.
“Hello, my dear,” Lukashenka said as he enfolded Rene Fasel in a massive bear hug on January 11.
It was a spectacle of a sort rarely seen since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago. The two maskless men chatted amiably, laughing and holding hands for several seconds before moving on to the more substantial portion of their meeting.
Belarus is set to co-host with Latvia the 2021 world ice hockey championships in May and June, but Riga and many other European Union capitals have been calling for the IIHF to cancel Minsk’s involvement over a brutal crackdown against protesters and the political opposition.
Fasel was in Minsk to discuss the matter, which is expected to be settled at an IIHF meeting on January 25-26.
Lukashenka has faced ongoing protests since a disputed August 9 presidential election that 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.
Losing the hockey championships would be a tough blow to Lukashenka, an ardent hockey enthusiast who regularly takes to the ice himself.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been in Lithuania for several months after being threatened by Belarusian security officials, posted on Twitter that just a short distance away from the warm scene between Lukashenka and Fasel, “people are imprisoned in inhumane conditions as political prisoners.”
She added that while Fasel, who is Swiss, was hugging Lukashenka, “Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen Nataliia Hersche was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison by the regime for participating in peaceful protests in Belarus.”
'A Lot Of Pressure'
Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova struck a similar note: “More than 30,000 detained. People were shot and beaten to death by security forces. There are 169 political prisoners. And president of the International Ice Hockey Federation Rene Fasel is enjoying a warm meeting…in Minsk.”
Lukashenka told Fasel that Belarus was ready to host the championships with or without Latvia. If Riga refuses, Lukashenka said, “We will hold the best world championship in Belarus.”
Lukashenka also assured Fasel that Minsk could hold the event safely and that there would be no danger regarding “the coronavirus or political security or physical security.”
“I agree with your recent statements: Sport should unite nations, not divide them, and sports and politics should not mix as much as possible,” Lukashenka said.
For his part, Fasel merely stated that he was “happy” to be in Minsk “and to have an opportunity to discuss the situation.” He conceded that the IIHF had “come under a lot of pressure” over the issue.
Former Lithuanian Defense and Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius posted on Twitter that "in dictatorship there is no difference between sports and politics."*
“Naivete of some sport bureaucrats is simply lamentable,” he added.
Former European Parliament deputy Rebecca Harms posted that the encounter between Fasel and Lukashenka was “one more example for the shamelessness of international sports organizations.”
Current German European Parliament Deputy Viola von Cramon countered the argument that “sports and politics don’t mix” by writing: “How about mixing sports with integrity, human dignity, morality, and other principles that your Charter claims to uphold?”
She added a link to an open letter to Fasel from December signed by 51 European parliamentarians urging the IIHF to “live up to its own principles, not validate brutality, and make sure that the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is not held in Lukashenka’s Belarus nor it is relocated to Russia, which remains the only source of Lukashenka’s legitimacy.”
“The ‘puck’ is in your court,” the letter concluded, using a mixed sports metaphor.
Some 44,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the championship to be relocated.
Russia-based German analyst Jens Siegert noted that Lukashenka told Fasel that “in Belarus no one is storming government buildings,” seemingly a reference to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol building by violent supporters of President Donald Trump.
“That’s right,” Siegert wrote on Twitter, “because the opposition is protesting solely peacefully. They don’t carry arms. They got arrested only for gathering or waiving [sic] flags.”
Fellow analyst Janis Kluge responded: “Lukashenka has already thoroughly ‘stormed’ the Belarusian parliament.”