Back in 2009, the IIHF's Annual Congress accepted the bid of Belarus for the 2014 IIHF World Championships. The bid recognized the country's growing presence in the international hockey community, and their desire to build some world class facilities to host such events in the capital city of Minsk. There was little concern given towards the country's political status at the time, despite the fact that President Alexander Lukashenko had been in power for fifteen years at that point with relatively few democratic checks on his power.
But the Belarussian election of 2010 sparked a new wave of authoritarianism from the nation's leader, who himself is a huge hockey fan who still takes to the ice nearly every day. The election officially stated an overwhelming 80% support for Lukashenko's regime, but has been deemed fraudulent by the international community. Since the election, Lukashenko has taken to imprisoning opposition leaders and shutting down media outlets that support the opposition. The clampdown has been brutal: protesters have been beaten by the police, imprisoned and the trials against the protesters have been a farce. Here is one account from the New York Times on the trial of Dmitri Medved, a 51 year old arrested in the protests:
Mr. Medved’s supposed victims were officers from the elite police special forces, or Spetsnaz, burly men with buzz cuts who are trained to thwart insurrection.
Human rights workers, independent journalists and international observers have accused them of pummeling unarmed demonstrators with clubs and bare fists at the protest, in some cases breaking limbs and cracking skulls.
In their testimony, however, the police officers portrayed themselves as having been besieged, though no photos or video have yet surfaced that show the police in such a position that night.
"The people pounced on us, punching us," said Aleksei Sakach, the first officer to speak. He said he lost his shield and his helmet in the fray, and had to seek medical attention for an injured left arm.
Others offered similar, sometimes identical, testimony.
Needless to say, President Lukaschenko has become an international pariah, and sanctions have now been imposed on his regime from the United States and European Union. And now, the United States and the EU are looking to the IIHF to withdraw Belarus' winning bid for the 2014 World Championships, led by current Member of the European Parliament and Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Stastny.
Stastny and United States Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) wrote a letter to IIHF President Rene Fasel urging the organization to revoke the awarding of the World Championships to Belarus, stating that until Lukashchenko releases all the political prisoners currently incarcerated that the country should "not receive the international sanction or legitimacy that would be conveyed by hosting the 2014 Championship."
Attempts to reach out to Sen. Dick Durbin's office were made, but they were not ready to comment on the matter at this time.
The issue was brought up during the IIHF's Annual Congress, but little has been said publicly about the discussion. The IIHF's website makes no mention of the issue, while I have only seen some commentary come up via Twitter from Finnish Ice Hockey Federation President Kalervo Kummola, in a translation by Juha Hiitelä, a Finnish sports writer. The comment was apparently made in an interview with Finnish television station YLE:
Kummola said in YLE interview: "EU Parlament can't force us to take World champs away from Belarus in 2014."
Silence appears to be the name of the game right now. Few questions have been asked, and fewer answers have been given. Its the nature of the uneasy relationship between politics and sports, something that came up quite often with the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. What will the 2014 World Championships mean for the various international federations? Will the proceedings be marred with national federations being told to boycott if the political situation remains toxic with Lukaschenko still in power? Can, and should, the IIHF backtrack from their awarding of the games? Or will the political grandstanding just be ignored and the sport will simply go on unaffected by the autrocities?
Its hard to imagine right now in 2011 that Lukaschenko will either step aside or allow reform. Recent bombings in Minsk could offer the IIHF an out for security reasons. The country appears to be unraveling due to economic factors related to the political situation. In the midst of this, Lukaschenko remains defiant, even blaming the bombings on too MUCH democracy in the country:
"Above all, the government is to blame for this," Mr. Lukashenko said in his annual state of the nation address. "We have had so much so-called democracy that it has made us nauseated."
The IIHF might not need to make a courageous political stand to enact further pressure on Lukaschenko's dictatorship. It might simply be in the IIHF's members best interest, security-wise, to seek an alternative host for 2014.
Of course, according to Belarus, the IIHF won't be changing course. We'll see.