Vladimir Putin speaks with Alyaksandr Lukashenka during a hockey game in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters.

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The Lukashenka regime is livid at losing the right to host a high-profile sports event.

Government officials have decried the relocation of the upcoming Ice Hockey World Championship out of Belarus, but Belarusians who are no fans of the regime welcome the move amid continuing crackdowns on demonstrators. 

“I don’t know anybody at all who could speak positively about such an event,” says 38-year-old Anatoli, an open-source developer from Minsk. “I mean, all your friends were just raped by the results and events after the election, and then the rapist proposes to have a friendly championship — how [would] you feel?” (Those interviewed for this story asked that their identities be withheld because of safety concerns.)  

In January, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) withdrew Belarus’ right to co-host the championship with Latvia, set to begin on 21 May, amid the political unrest that has roiled the country since the contested reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka last year.

The IIHF said the decision was made after “a fair and unbiased due diligence process,” citing “growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and COVID-19.”

The move, which many consider to be a personal blow to Lukashenka and which the government says is “unfounded,” came after international pressure on the IIHF. Corporate sponsors including Nivea Men and Skoda threatened to remove their support if the event was held in Belarus, while members of the European Parliament called for a relocation of the tournament on human rights grounds. 

Lukashenka had already been hit with international sporting sanctions. In December, the International Olympic Committee barred the president and his son Viktar from attending the Tokyo Games this summer, and in March it refused to recognize Viktar Lukashenka’s election to succeed his father as head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee, or NOC, saying “the previous [NOC] leadership … had not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination.”  

Homegrown Protest

Much of the opposition, however, came much closer to home. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation – founded in August 2020 to support athletes facing retribution from the government for expressing their political views – played an active role alongside opposition leaders in lobbying for the tournament’s relocation.

The organization sent letters describing the crackdowns on protests to corporate sponsors and national hockey federations, as well as the IIHF. In January, the IIHF announced that after consulting independent experts andstakeholders, “the IIHF Council has determined that it is currently impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, spectators and officials while holding a World Championship in Belarus.”

BSSF chairwoman and Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia noted the importance of moving the tournament in an interview with Reuters. “Holding such a major tournament would have legitimized Lukashenka’s rule,” the three-time Olympic medalist said. “I think it’s a small step that helps shrink Lukashenka’s sphere of influence.” 

Two months later, Belarusian authorities charged Herasimenia and fellow BSSF co-founder Alyaksandr Apeykin with “deliberately disseminating false information” about the presidential election.

The Belarusian Sport and Tourism Ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but the government’s organizing committee for the tournament earlier denounced the IIHF in an official statement, saying “[The IIHF’s] decision creates a precedent where sports tournaments that are supposed to unite countries and peoples, promote peace and unity in the spirit of the Olympic principles, can turn into a tool of discord and pressure to please the interests of politicians.” 

Reuters quoted Dmitry Baskov, head of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation, denouncing members of the BSSF. “Today you are celebrating a victory, stripping the Belarusian people of a real celebration. After that you cannot call yourselves Belarusians! You are traitors!”  

Many Belarusians don’t see it that way. 

“Nobody cares about ice hockey at the moment – the sentiment of promoting the sporting event as a big victory for the government,” says Sergey, a 38-year-old tech consultant. “Nobody connects with this narrative; it’s exactly the opposite.”   

Lukashenka Suits Up

Belarus is not an ice hockey power, but the sport does receive attention from the public and, perhaps more importantly, sponsorship from the government. A fan of the sport himself, Lukashenka often can be seen playing in exhibition games against fellow government officials and occasionally with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukashenka’s official website features photos of the president taking part in many different sports. Photo from president.gov.by.

The president’s official website touts the country’s winter sports arenas and other sports facilities as first steps for children to “to become a powerful force under the Belarusian flag in the future.” In spite of past success of Dinamo Minsk in the Kontinental Hockey League and occasional surprise victories of the national team – such as against Sweden in the 2002 Olympics – the sport still fails to resonate among the public as much as the government would like, Belarusians say.

Although “there was a really strong tradition in the Soviet Union in hockey,” since independence “there is nothing compared to soccer,” 27-year-old Minsk resident Anton says. “There is not much focus on the sport. Hockey is presented more popular than it is.” 

But even those who profess little interest in the sport watched the world championship in 2014, the last time the IIHF hosted this event in Belarus. Much like this year, the IIHF had faced pressure to move the venue from institutions such as the European Parliament, over the country’s poor human rights record. Citing an inability to move the event for political reasons, however, Rene Fasel, head of the IIHF since 1994, let it go on. As a result, Belarusians experienced an opening of their country as the government eased visa requirements and hockey fans – more than 600,000 of them – streamed into Minsk to watch the games.  

“Nobody had seen so many tourists,” recalls Anton. “Many people work in factories, so they’ve never visited European continent. This was the only way they could see people from Europe.” The tournament also fostered some professional opportunities: Some of his friends found jobs as translators.  

And the political climate loosened somewhat.  

“We were actually able to time some NGO and civic events during the time the championship was on,” says Sergey, who volunteers at several civil society organizations. “It was an atmosphere of festivities, people of different countries coming together. It was great.”  

“Disappointment and Hatred”

The atmosphere in 2021 is decidedly different. Demonstrations and crackdowns after the contested election results of 9 August 2020 have led to thousands of protesters detained and hundreds jailed. Opposition groups believe four or more protesters have been killed. Among those allegedly responsible is Baskov, who is under investigation by the IIHF for alleged involvement in the death of opposition activist Raman Bandarenka. Bandarenka was attacked by a masked gang that opposition figures believe were Belarusian security forces. The BSSF has called on the IIHF to ban Baskov for life in light of these allegations.  

“The situation is really awful now,” Sergey says. “People are really scared for their safety, and it’s not an atmosphere where I think the experience of the last championship could be repeated.”  

Anatoli finds it difficult to address the political situation even among friends. “We try not to discuss these things when we [get together], because emotions are so strong that it doesn’t even matter if all people are on the same side of the fence.” The disappointment is overwhelming, he says. “There is nothing you can do, nothing you can change. No arguments, no dialogue is happening.”

People are starting to refer to the other side as “them,” he says. “Every new day brings news about new laws that make everything even worse than yesterday. More punishment, more media control and sanitization of thought. That only builds up disappointment and hatred. Like a real-life plot by some sadistic narrator.”

While Anatoli notes that holding the tournament in Minsk could have brought some economic gain to the city, he questions who would benefit. Sergey concurs. 

“The impression of the ice hockey sport and the industry around that is that people think it’s the government sport,” he says. “If anyone benefits – if anyone builds a hotel or an ice hockey structure – it would be [Lukashenka’s] cronies: his friends, oligarchs.” 

Accordingly, many in Belarus will be delighted when the puck hits the ice in Riga, not Minsk, at the world championship next month.

Transitions editorial intern Nathan Kornfeind is pursuing a double major in government & law and German at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.