MINSK -- The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) says it has decided to move the 2021 World Championship from Minsk due to safety and security issues that are "beyond its control."
The January 18 announcement comes 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 an ongoing crackdown by authorities following a disputed election last year.
Losing the tournament is a further blow to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has cultivated an image as a jock, regularly taking to the ice to play hockey, his favorite sporting pastime.
"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," it said in a statement.
"It is a very regrettable thing to have to remove the Minsk/Riga co-hosting bid," said IIHF President Rene Fasel, adding: "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."
While the championship "should not be used for political promotion by any side," the council "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," Fazel said.
Belarus's opposition and many European countries, including Latvia, have been calling for the IIHF to cancel Minsk’s involvement because of Lukashenka’s violent crackdown on protesters who dispute August elections that kept him in power.
Czech carmaker Skoda Auto and other companies have warned they would not sponsor the championship if the event was held in Belarus.
Concerns have also been voiced about the country's ability to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called the decision to withdraw hosting rights "a very wise step – to support human rights & fair sport, not to cooperate with the regime in Belarus."
"We are grateful that the voices of Belarusians were heard," she tweeted
Writing on her Telegram channel, Tsikhanouskaya dubbed the IIHF decision a "victory,” saying “there will be no additional wave of repression" aimed at clearing out demonstrators ahead of the 2021 World Championship.
Swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medalist who heads the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, said the decision "restored the Belarusian community's faith in justice."
"Sporting events cannot be held in countries where violence and torture are used against civilians," she said in a statement.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, a fierce critic of Minsk hosting the competition, tweeted: "Democracy 1, Lukashenko 0."
The IIHF said the council must now “consider the status of Latvia as a co-host, and will also evaluate the possibility of moving to a single-venue format to facilitate COVID-19 safety regulations and team travel.”
Denmark and Slovakia have been named as possible hosts or Latvia could stage the world championship on its own.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country would "honor its commitment" and was "ready to evaluate" how it could host the entire event.