The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has dropped Belarus as a co-host for the 2021 World Championship due to ongoing political unrest in the Eastern European nation.
Protests emerged across Belarus in June last year amid anger over the jailing of opposition figures, economic stagnation, and President Alexander Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by critics, claimed vodka and saunas could keep Covid-19 at bay before catching the virus and saying he recovered “on his feet” without showing any symptoms.
Last week, the IIHF announced that the 2021 World Championship would not be staged in the former-Soviet nation “in the face of the growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and COVID-19.”
The announcement came as a personal blow to Mr Lukashenko, who lobbied to have Belarus named as co-hosts alongside neighbours Latvia.
The Belarusian government had hoped that holding part of the tournament in Minsk would have brought normality back to the country, following last year’s disputed presidential election.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is believed to have won the 2020 presidential election, with most European countries, the United States, and Canada no longer regarding Mr Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
The IIHF decided to remove Belarus as a co-host for the tournament after major sponsors, Skoda and Liqui, said they would withdraw financial support if games were held in Minsk.
“We’ve been a proud partner [of the IIHF World Championships] for 28 years,” Skoda tweeted earlier this month. “But we also respect & promote all human rights. Therefore, Skoda will withdraw from sponsoring the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship if Belarus is confirmed to be co-hosting the event.”
Tournament organisers are yet to decide where the tournament will be staged, with scheduled co-host Latvia, and previous hosts Denmark and Slovakia considered leading candidates.
The Ice hockey World tournament is due to begin on 21 May but could be postponed to facilitate a change of hosts.