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Opposition grows to Belarus as ice hockey co-host

December 4, 2020

Belarus has been brutally cracking down on protests against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko. Opponents, including co-hosts Latvia, say the country shouldn't be rewarded with the Ice Hockey World Championship.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko playing ice hockey
Image: Kremlin/dpa/picture alliance

Update: Since publication of this article, Dmitry Baskov, head of Belarus' ice hockey federation, was provisionally suspended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on December 7, alongside President Alexander Lukashenko in his role as head of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee (NOC). The IOC said the NOC leadership had "not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination."

Baskov, as a board member of the NOC, was sanctioned "in view of the specific allegations raised against him." The IOC also said that "all constituents of the Olympic Movement" – which includes the IIHF – should "respect these measures in the interest of protecting Belarusian athletes' rights."

Belarus hopes that the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship, which it is set to co-host with Latvia next summer, will be a "festival" for the country. But for one group of Belarusian athletes, exiled in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, there is precious little to celebrate.

"When you see how your people are beaten, how your people are arrested, when your family is unsafe, we couldn't celebrate," Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a former Olympic swimmer and now chair of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), told DW.

"The world championship should be a celebration for all people. But how can we celebrate in our country when we see the violence every day?"

Herasimenia, who won two silver medals at the 2012 London Olympics and whose father was recently arrested, fled her homeland after security forces began brutally suppressing anti-government demonstrators, who have been protesting against President Alexander Lukashenko's disputed election victory since August.

Human rights groups report that protesters, including prominent athletes, have been arbitrarily detained and beaten up.

Belarusian swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia with her bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics.
Former Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia now chairs the Belarusian Sport Solidarity FoundationImage: Alexander Vilf/dpa/picture alliance

Ice hockey chief accused of political violence

Coming under particular focus given the upcoming tournament is the role allegedly played by Dmitry Baskov, the head of the Belarusian ice hockey federation. He is accused of being personally involved with a masked gang that last month violently attacked the activist Raman Bandarenka, who later died from brain injuries in hospital.

This week, the BSSF, an athlete-led initiative formed after the August election, expressed its "deepest concern" about Baskov's alleged role in Bandarenka's death and called on the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to ban Baskov from the sport for life.

"Mr. Dmitry Baskov violated human dignity with his participation in an outrageous offense," the BSSF wrote in a letter to the IIHF, a copy of which has been seen by DW. "Moreover, Baskov has been taking advantage of his position as an ice hockey manager for the political agitation process, [he has] silenced those involved in ice hockey who were of different views and disregarded their right to express opinion."

Baskov, an ally of President Lukashenko, has declined to comment on the matter but neighboring Latvia, chosen as tournament co-hosts in 2017, has added him to a list of sanctioned Belarusian officials, banning him from entering the country.

 A general view of the stadium during the Ice Hockey World Championships quarterfinal game Russia vs France at the Minsk Arena in Minsk, Belarus
Minsk last hosted the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014Image: Salvatore Di Nolfi/dpa/picture alliance

Latvia no longer wants to co-host

What is more, Latvia no longer wants to hold the showpiece event with Belarus, pointing to ethical and security concerns. It has intensively lobbied the IIHF to strip Belarus of its hosting duties – a position shared by the BSSF.

"Most people associate ice hockey in Belarus as a regime sport," said BSSF director Alexander Opeikin. "It's a process of legitimization for Lukashenko. Delegations from other countries (...) will come to Minsk. It means that they accept Lukashenko, they accept the government. Most Belarusian people understand that. And they just really hate ice hockey as a game of Lukashenko."

Rene Fasel, the IIHF's president, has refused to be drawn into a political debate. Instead, he has fallen back on his organization's statutes, saying that the IIHF "cannot move a tournament for political reasons."

National ice hockey federations, such as Germany's DEB, have so far adopted similarly cautious positions. "We hope that sport can make a difference here in the role of mediator," said Franz Reindl, the DEB president and IIHF Council member, in an emailed statement to DW.

Members of the European Parliament, however, have taken a firmer stance, writing to the IIHF and asking Fasel to take the world championship away from Belarus.

"It is important that sport sends a message that it will not be associated with dictators and regimes which clamp down so brutally on demonstrators, opposition politicians and the civilian population," said German MEP Sabine Verheyen, who chairs the European Parliament's committee for culture and education, which is also responsible for sport.

"We call on the IIHF to consider whether this shared tournament can take place in one location, in Riga, or whether it can find short-term alternatives," she added.

Hosting decision expected in January?

Earlier this month, the IIHF decided it needed more time to consider the recommendations made by an independent group of experts, which highlighted safety issues and skepticism over the extent of coronavirus cases in the country. Some have suggested that the pandemic could provide ice hockey officials with a ready-made excuse not to go to Belarus.

The issue is firmly on the radar of the country's opposition politicians. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya thanked the IIHF on Twitter for "hearing us," adding: "We ask the IIHF Council to be firm on the matter."

BSSF director Opeikin says he appreciates the "very difficult situation" the IIHF finds itself in. However, he thinks the governing body will ultimately be left with no choice.

"The members of the IIHF Council understand that organizing the championship in Belarus is impossible in this situation," he said. "They are looking for alternative options. We understand that this is a process (...) and now they are just looking for an optimal solution."

While the IIHF hasn't indicated when exactly it expects to make a final decision, Bob Nicholson, an IIHF vice president from Canada, said recently that one would "probably" be made in January.

"We're going to continue to look at what happens," he told The Bob McCown Podcast. "There is a situation in Belarus, a political situation that's still ongoing. There's pressure on all sides. Even moving a world championship at this time is tough, so we're looking to see if there are options there."

Latvia may struggle to take on the entire tournament itself, with only one arena currently meeting specifications. Russia has been mooted as a possible replacement co-host, although that, too, could prove problematic if a WADA-imposed ban is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

A verdict on Russia's appeal is due by the end of this year.

DW's Herbert Schalling contributed to this report.