Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has urged the International Ice Hockey Federation "to be firm" as they consider pulling the 2021 World Championships from the country amid a row with cohost Latvia over ethical and security concerns because of a crackdown by authorities following a disputed election.
The Zurich-based IIHF has said it is having " serious discussions" over the status of the tournament because of issues surrounding protests over the August 9 election, Latvia's threat to withdraw as cohost, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the issues at hand, the IIHF said on November 18 that it needs more time to review the situation and decide on the "best course of action" given the tournament is its crown jewel and must be played somewhere.
"While the regime terrorizes Belarusians, we must deprive Lukashenka of the world's recognition. @IIHFHockey announced that they need more time to review the situation with playing the 2021 IHWC in Belarus. Thank you for hearing us. We ask the IIHF Council to be firm on the matter," Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for neighboring Lithuania due to security concerns for her and her family, said in a tweet on November 19.
Embattled strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has faced almost daily protests calling for his resignation since the presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged and the West has refused to accept.
Several protesters have been killed and thousands of people arrested since authorities declared Lukashenka the landslide winner of the vote. There have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.
Most of the country's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, including Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenka lashed out at the protesters on November 13, vowing not to hand over power to anyone just days after the death of a 31-year-old Belarusian man who is believed to have been badly beaten by masked security forces.
The turmoil prompted Latvia to blacklist the head of Belarus’s ice hockey federation on November 16 as the Baltic country seeks to prevent its neighbor from cohosting the 2021 world championships.
Baskau, the president of the Belarusian hockey federation and head of the Dynamo Minsk hockey team, is a close ally of Lukashenka.
Losing the tournament would be 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.
“We must be assured that a World Championship can take place in a safe and responsible way, for everyone,” said IIHF President Rene Fasel.
“These are very real and very serious considerations, as this tournament is the most important asset of the IIHF and supports so much of what we do.... If you take a normal season situation it wouldn’t be realistic right now that Belarus and Latvia could guarantee their capability to conduct World Championship tournament operations,” he added.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins has spoken with Fasel to discuss Latvia's ability to hold the tournament on its own.
In response to the crackdown on protesters, the European Union and Western countries have imposed sanctions on dozens of Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka.
The Baltic states and Poland have taken the lead in pressing for a tough stance against Belarus.