(ATR) Belarus and Latvia co-hosting the 2021 men’s world championship remains the “first option” for the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Alexander Lukashenko meets with René Fasel on January 11. (Keystone/Nikolai Petrov/Pool)
But IIHF president René Fasel said the federation has told the Belarusian government what it must do if it wants to remain a co-host for the event, which runs from May 21-June 6.
Fasel, in a question-and-answer format on the federation website, provided details following a meeting earlier this week with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
The IIHF delegation also met with Roman Golovchenko, the Belarus Prime Minister and chair of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Organizing Committee, Sergei Kovalchuk, the Minister of Sports, and representatives from the Belarus Ice Hockey Association.
“We came in with specific requirements that the government should fulfill in order that the World Championship can take place in Minsk,” Fasel said.
“Among these was a pledge to find peaceful solutions towards improving the socio-political situation within the country, and to allow all Belarusian athletes the opportunity to return to and compete in their respective sports.
“Most importantly, the Belarusian government agreed to an open and constructive dialogue with the opposition to take the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship out of the political focus and to use sports as a mean to bring people together. We acknowledge that our requests are outside sport and going into the direction of politics, but we feel the end results of our requests were necessary to ensure a safe championship.”
Calls to strip Belarus of hosting the event have grown louder due to human rights abuses against athletes and political discrimination by the Lukashenko government. Widespread protests across Belarus began in August after Lukashenko was re-elected president in what is considered a rigged vote.
Lukashenko, who is also president of the Belarus NOC, is one of three senior NOC officials sanctioned and banned from attending the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee due to the abuses against athletes who have spoken out against the regime.
Fasel (back to camera) greets Lukashenko with a hug on Monday. (Republic of Belarus)
In his comments, Fasel also addressed criticism of his warm embrace of Lukashenko as seen in videos on social media and his picture with Belarusian Ice Hockey Association president Dmitriy Baskov. The IIHF is currently investigating Baskov, who has been linked to the death of a protester.
The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an athletes rights group, said it was "in disbelief" at the "cordiality and warmth with which Mr. Fasel talked to Mr. Lukashenko", saying it "gave the impression that the meeting was not taking place in the country where more than 30,000 people have been imprisoned during the past four months and where about 170 political prisoners are still behind bars".
Fasel poses with Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation president Dmitriy Baskov (right). (Twitter)
Fasel said “we regret the negative reaction that was caused by the pictures and videos that came from the meeting".
“If we made the impression that it was a just a friendly meeting, this is not accurate and was not our intention. This meeting was taken in a serious tone and with the IIHF bringing specific and difficult questions to the table. We expect that the Belarus government will follow through on its commitment to fulfill the IIHF requirements.”
Fasel said the federation wanted to meet face-to-face with its partners within Belarus, including the organizing committee and the government, before beginning dialogue with opposition groups. He added that the IIHF is now ”ready for dialogue with the opposition and welcome(s) a chance to discuss and see if the IIHF can assist somehow to improve the situation in Belarus”.
While Fasel said that there are no other options being considered “at this time” should Belarus fail to meet requirements to stay on as co-host, he did admit that the IIHF had received proposals from Denmark and are in discussions with Slovakia as potential alternatives.
The IIHF Council is expected to decide if Belarus will remain a co-host when it meets on January 25-26.
“We are still in the phase where we are collecting as much information as we can in order to present to the IIHF Council to decide on the best solution,” Fasel said.
“We expect to receive soon an overview of the Belarus government action items covering the specific IIHF requirements that were presented in Minsk. These are key issues touching operational and socio-political points related to the World Championship and we cannot move forward if these action items are not initiated soon.”
Written by Gerard Farek
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