Hello my love! exclaimed Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, rushing across the room to give a hug.
The man in the dictators hug was not a co-authoritarian ruler but René Fasel, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Fasel was in Minsk on January 11 to spread the news that Belarus would not be impeached as co-host of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Cup and to discuss plans to co-host the prestigious international event with Latvia.
With Lukashenka currently cracking down on pro-democracy protests across Belarus, the friendly tone of the meeting sparked widespread criticism. It went a little wrong, I must say, Fasel recognized two days later. It’s a bit embarrassing.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was one of many to emphasize the precise nature of this embarrassment. René Fasel meets Lukashenka today, she tweeted. A few miles away, people are held in inhumane conditions as political prisoners.
After being denounced by the Belarusian opposition and facing protests from Latvia, the other host country said for the championship, Fasel said the meeting should not be seen as a sign of support for Lukashenkas’ regime. However, by holding this meeting and refusing to take the championship away from Belarus, the hockey chief has unwittingly joined a small club of those legitimizing Lukashenka’s crackdown on the international stage, including Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, China and North Korea.
I wanted to use this special relationship with Lukashenka to do something good, said Fasel. So that the world championships could be a kind of reconciliation between government and opposition.
It remains unclear how Fasel expects the May-June championship to help the Belarusian people reconcile with a regime that has beaten and arrested tens of thousands while allegedly shutting down hundreds. torture. After the bear cuddle meeting, a petition organized by Belarusian hockey player Yulia Abasava against the IIHFs recognition of Lukashenka jumped to more than 50,000 signatures.
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Despite regular protests to the contrary, sport has never been divorced from politics, and this year’s ice hockey championships are no different. Ice hockey is in fact an integral part of Lukashenkas politics. The top officials of Belarusian ice hockey associations have long been in the inner circle of the dictators. Before spending nearly a decade as Lukashenkas Minister of the Interior, Uladzimir Navumau served as the head of the organization.
At a time when the international community is trying to put pressure on Lukashenka, who is recognized by both the European Union and the United States as having stolen the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020, IIHF’s action gives the strongman a much needed lifeline of legitimacy. . Likewise, removing Belarus to co-host the championship and moving the event from Belarus would be a devastating blow to an increasingly illegal and violent regime.
Even if Fasel refuses to ditch Lukashenka, the championship is unlikely to run smoothly. Since the current pro-democracy uprising first erupted in August 2020, the people of Belarus have shown a remarkable ability to find increasingly inventive ways to protest the regime. In the current climate, it is almost certain that they will use human power to disrupt matches, prevent teams from traveling to arenas, and do everything in their power to ensure that the defining images of the championship are not of players on the ice, but of people in the streets.
Latvia is already leading the way by calling on Fasel and the IIHF to change course. Latvian officials are asking for permission to organize the championship together with another country. One of the most important questions now is whether the other countries that will participate in the championship will follow the lead of Latvia. Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark, Great Britain, Canada, Finland, the United States, Germany, Norway, Italy and Kazakhstan can still declare that if Lukashenka is their host, they will not take to the ice.
Championship opponents argue that a position in the sports arena is just as important as other international efforts to end the brutality in Belarus. The sanctions passed by the international community have sent an important message to the Lukashenkas regime, but these measures will have only so much effect. Lukashenkas’s international isolation must be complete until he resigns and orders his troops to stop violating the civilian population.
Perhaps Fasel inadvertently hit the nail on the head during a interview on January 12. We are not naive to think that hosting a world championship in Minsk will solve all problems in the country, Fasel said. But that doesn’t mean we can’t explore whether the IIHF can use some degree of influence to initiate positive changes in the country’s future.
The IIHF has more influence here than it realizes and may want to admit. One of the first things that comes to mind when we look back at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow is the international boycott of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Like it or not, the 2021 Ice Hockey World Cup is now in danger of being remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Fasel may be trying to skate past without controversy, but he and the rest of the IIHF will have to choose a side anyway. Either they stay in Lukashenkas to embrace and keep Belarus as host to the championship, or they side with the Belarusian people and the international community in recognizing that this privilege would only legitimize a violent authoritarian regime. It shouldn’t be a difficult decision.
Doug Klain is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Councils Eurasia Center. Find him on Twitter @DougKlain.
The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center’s mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the west to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the east.
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