Ice Hockey finals in Belarus still on schedule
The large, red 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship billboards and posters adorning walls in the Belarus capital are unlikely to come down anytime soon.
Despite international pressure to pull the venue from Minsk, a spokesperson for the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation told this website on Thursday (22 March) that he does not know of any European national ice hockey federation that wants the event moved.
In Finland, the response to the EUobserver query was concise. "We have absolutely no comment to make on this issue," said their national ice hockey federation spokesperson.
In Lithuania, the president of their national hockey federation, said there is no point in mixing politics with sports.
"I know the Belarus ice hockey federation and I know how much they have organised this event at the highest level. Politics should not be a factor," he said, adding that the sentiment is shared by federations in neighbouring countries.
But in Belarus, politics is never too far from removed from sports.
President Alexander Lukashenko is an avid ice hockey player and fan who, when not throwing his political opponents in jail, is also the head of the country’s national Olympic committee.
He has built 25 so-called ice palaces throughout the country with another 27 planned. Each ice-palace costs around €22.7 million, according to Fedynitch Gennadi, chairman of a Minsk-based trade union.
A call by the European Parliament in March to pressure the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to move the venue appear to largely have been ignored by the federations. The US passed a similar bill in January.
Both are demanding that Belarus release all its political prisoners for the event to continue in Minsk.
The IIHF, which organizes the championships, said it is possible the issue will be raised at the upcoming ice hockey congress in Finland this May. Delegates from the 70 national ice hockey federations would then put it to a vote.
But in a sign of decisions to come, the IIHF spokesperson noted that a statute in their laws does not allow them "to discriminate on religious, racial or political grounds." The vast majority of the federations already voted in favour of Belarus two years ago, when the country was officially selected.
Slovak centre-right MEP Peter Stastny, a former ice hockey star, said that European national ice hockey federations are largely funded by taxpayers.
Stastny wants the championship moved from Belarus, stating that MEPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of the European Parliament resolution condemning Belarus for trampling democratic principles and human rights.
"Ice hockey championships is like the Olympics, it's a matter of prestige and I don’t personally want ice hockey to be associated with the dictator in Belarus," said Stastny.
Stastny believes the US law passed in January essentially determines how the US delegation will vote if the issue is raised in May. However, the US Hockey Federation declined to comment, telling this website that they "are aware of the situation."
Meanwhile, Lukashenko on Wednesday (21 March) called the European Parliament’s proposal "a political move, nothing else."
In Minsk, massive construction efforts are currently underway to improve inner-city infrastructure. A new underground metro line is being purposely built to carry fans to and from anyone of the two selected venues.
The largest of the two venues is the Minsk Arena, a glass and steal building that can seat some 15,000 people.
Lukashenko has been known to awaken members of the Belarus national ice hockey team in the middle of the night to play the game. But the nocturnal forays are not restricted to Minsk.
Near Brest on the Polish border, one ice-hockey rink has become the infamous venue for midnight matches where police and the business elite can knock about a puck while discussing the orders of the day, says Gennadi.
"Rich people from Minsk go to play hockey there in the night and locals call it the NHL, for Night Hockey League," he says.