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Democracy advocates and U.S. lawmakers are pressuring the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to cancel a championship event hosted by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator who oppresses his citizens in the nation that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described as "the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
“Though I am a passionate hockey fan, I am adamantly opposed to Belarus hosting the 2014 World Championship of hockey,” said Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), one of the Senate’s chief human rights advocates, in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. “This would be a political and economic boon for the Lukashenko regime, which violently oppresses all dissents, violates human rights, and steals from its citizens. Alexander Lukashenko and his cronies do not deserve the honor of hosting a major international sporting event.”
The Obama administration has yet to apply pressure on the hockey federation despite the outcry from Congressional allies and human rights groups. That has led one pro-democracy activist to call for more action.
“The U.S. government could be doing more on this,” said David Kramer, president of Freedom House, a pro-democracy group.
Pressure from advocacy groups must be backed by strong governmental action such as the threat of a boycott, Kramer said.
“It’s been pretty quiet,” Kramer explained. “It’s letting civil society take the lead, and that’s not the best approach. I’d like to see [governments] taking a stronger approach on this.”
Lukashenko is said to be an avid hockey fan.
The event may boost Lukashenko’s ego and provide fuel to his anti-Democratic crackdown, said Kramer.
“Belarus is called Europe’s last dictatorship for a reason,” Kramer said. “You have a thug running the country, and this matters a lot to him. He loves hockey, and we’re rewarding him.”
A bipartisan delegation of Capitol Hill lawmakers has petitioned IIHF President Rene Fasel to move the tournament, citing the ongoing imprisonment of several Belarusian dissidents.
“The United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the European Parliament have each expressed opposition to holding the Ice Hockey World Championships in Minsk while political prisoners continue to languish in Belarusian prisons,” the lawmakers wrote. “Today, we reiterate this call and urge each member of the International Ice Hockey Federation to demand that Belarus release all political prisoners or forfeit the honor of hosting the Championship.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) made a similar call from the floor of the Senate, where he explained how the event would “honor” Lukashenko.
The IIHF, however, has refused to cancel or relocate event, arguing that it does not want to mix politics and sports.
The IIHF did not respond to a request for comment.
The IIHF created a political crisis the moment it decided to hold the hockey game in a country currently sanctioned by the U.S. and Europe for human rights abuses, experts argue.
“They didn’t want to mix politics and sports, and that’s a terrible decision,” said Kramer, whose organization teamed up with the Center for European Policy Analysis to call on the IIHF to cancel the event. “You can’t be blind to the implications of letting Lukashenko host this. It’s an outrageous decision.”
Twenty-three experts from across the U.S. and Europe endorsed Freedom House’s call to action, which urged the IIHF to stand “on the right side of history” by relocating the event to “a more democratic country.”
If polite pressure fails to sway the IIHF, a full-scale boycott targeting the organization’s sponsors might be warranted, Kramer said.
“The obvious approach is to try to persuade them that this is not in their interest to sponsor an event in Belarus.”
Sporting events such as the Olympics typically confer honor and legitimacy on the countries that host them and imply that those participating share universal values, noted another foreign policy expert.
“Honestly, sports are important and games are important politically,” Anna Borshchevskaya, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center, told the Free Beacon. “Sports are about something larger [than the game], such as friendship, cooperation, and these shared values we speak about. Lukashenko and his government certainly do not share these values with us, and therefore they can't be a reliable partner.”
President Obama signed the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act earlier this year, stipulating, “It is the policy of the United States to call on the International Ice Hockey Federation to suspend its plan to hold the 2014 International World Ice Hockey championship in Minsk until the government of Belarus releases all political prisoners.”
The administration has not yet indicated whether it will live up to the promise of the bill by applying pressure on the IIHF, however.
“The echoes from the 1936 Berlin Olympic games are so loud right now that it’s hard to ignore the disgrace and downright offensive notion of having an international sporting match in a country under sanctions for its human rights abuses,” said one senior GOP foreign policy adviser.
“It’s unconscionable to chose this venue, and we shouldn’t be in the position where we are talking about a boycott,” said the source.
If the administration allows the U.S. to participate, it would be sending a worrisome message to the world, said the aide.
“Our athletes know they are symbols of America and diplomats on skates, and they know the U.S., the European Union, and others believe Lukashenko and his despotic regime have murdered citizens, and we should not provide our tacit approval,” the source said.
American values are ultimately at stake, said the Atlantic Council’s Borshchevskaya.
“This is about allowing dictators, these thugs, to dictate the rules of the game and whether they should be allowed to do that, whether we should allow these thugs and thieves to win, ” she said.