Following an IIHF delegation meeting with members of the Belarus government concerning the status of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World championship, IIHF.com sat down with President René Fasel to get the latest updates on the situation in Minsk.
You have just returned from Minsk, what was the purpose of the visit?
We initially requested a meeting back in December with the President of Belarus and members of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association, in an effort to obtain clarification on the government position related to the issues affecting the country and the preparations for the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Due to COVID-19, the IIHF General Secretary and I were not able to travel for the December meeting, however we insisted on keeping this meeting and were finally cleared to travel this week.
In a normal season visits like this are a common practice, an IIHF delegation typically meets once or twice with the heads of state for a host country to discuss issues surrounding the tournament. Under the current circumstances, a visit with the government was absolutely vital for the IIHF to address its concerns directly to the Belarus President, concerns that related not only to the organization of the tournament but to the whole situation in Belarus.
Who did the IIHF meet with?
Together with the Belarus President, we also had in attendance the Belarus Prime Minister and the Minister of Sports, as well as other representatives from the Local Organizing Committee and the Belarus Ice Hockey Association.
What was communicated to the Belarus government regarding the IIHF position?
Our position is this: the 2017 IIHF Congress awarded the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship to Minsk/Riga and the IIHF has entered into a trilateral contract with the respective Minsk/Riga Organizing Committees to deliver this Championship.
This objective has not changed, but a lot of other things have: the IIHF is deeply concerned over the capability of the organizer in Minsk to deliver the tournament safely in a COVID-19 environment, there is an ongoing investigation by the IIHF into the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President, and there is unrest within the country that has significantly impacted tournament preparations and raised a number of justifiable concerns from teams, fans, and government officials.
We cannot ignore these concerns, but we also have teams and partners depending on us to find a way to hold a World Championship in 2021. But to solve these problems we needed to open and maintain a constructive dialogue with the Belarusian leadership, as it starts with the government.
Were there any requests made to the government by the IIHF?
We came in with specific requirements that the government should fulfill in order that the World Championship can take place in Minsk. Among these was a pledge to find peaceful solutions towards improving the socio-political situation within the country, and to allow all Belarusian athletes the opportunity to return to and compete in their respective sports.
Most importantly, the Belarusian government agreed to an open and constructive dialogue with the opposition to take the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship out of the political focus and to use sports as a mean to bring people together. We acknowledge that our requests are outside sport and going into the direction of politics, but we feel the end results of our requests were necessary to ensure a safe championship.
With the current issues occurring within the country, do you think this visit gave a negative impression?
Yes, and we regret the negative reaction that was caused by the pictures and videos that came from the meeting. As mentioned before, IIHF delegations regularly meet with government leaders of a World Championship host country. We had a video call with the Latvian Prime Minister a few months ago, but for this visit we felt it was absolutely necessary to meet with the President of Belarus in person.
We requested this meeting because we wanted the opportunity to talk to the president directly and use our position to bring our concerns directly to the leadership, so that they understand the seriousness of the situation.
If we made the impression that it was a just a friendly meeting, this is not accurate and was not our intention. This meeting was taken in a serious tone and with the IIHF bringing specific and difficult questions to the table. We expect that the Belarus government will follow through on its commitment to fulfill the IIHF requirements.
Did you talk to the opposition?
We wanted to start face-to face discussions first with our contractual partners within Belarus, the Organizing Committee, and the government.
But we are ready for dialogue with the opposition and welcome a chance to discuss and see if the IIHF can assist somehow to improve the situation in Belarus.
Why is the IIHF attempting to play a mediating role in the situation?
We are not naive to think that hosting a World Championship in Minsk will solve all problems in the country, but that does not mean we cannot explore whether the IIHF can use some degree of influence to initiate positive change in the country’s future.
Back at the Olympics in PyeongChang 2018, while it led to historic meetings between them, a Unified Korea team did not solve the problems or magically change relations between the two countries of Korea and DPR Korea. But was it worth it? Absolutely.
What needs to happen now?
A lot needs to happen. We are still in the phase where we are collecting as much information as we can in order to present to the IIHF Council to decide on the best solution. We called a special Council session today to discuss the Minsk visit and what the next steps are going forward. We also have to contact the participating teams that are not represented in Council to inform them of the IIHF’s visit, which will begin immediately.
If we move forward with Minsk as a tournament host, we also must establish a system where we can be assured that the Belarus government is taking concrete actions towards fulfilling the pledges made to the IIHF, otherwise it will not be possible to hold a World Championship in Minsk due to the elevated safety issues.
We expect to receive soon an overview of the Belarus government action items covering the specific IIHF requirements that were presented in Minsk. These are key issues touching operational and socio-political points related to the World Championship and we cannot move forward if these action items are not initiated soon.
Do you think the Belarus government is ready for dialogue and change?
Yes, at least this is the message we have received from the meeting with the President and our partners in Belarus. Personally, I do think that lot of people are underestimating the capacity of the Belarus government to move forward, modernize, and build a new constitution in the country. This will not happen overnight; we know this and have to give it time but whatever the IIHF can do to help push the agenda forward we will try.
What are the options on the table related to hosting the 2021 Worlds?
The first option remains to have a World Championship in Minsk and Riga 2021, under the conditions outlined by the IIHF. There are no other options being considered at this time.
Could the World Championship be moved exclusively to Minsk?
This was discussed but is not being considered for the moment, the IIHF intends to ensure that both Minsk and Riga co-host the tournament.
Has there been any proposals from alternative host nations?
Our responsibility right now is to get as much information to the Council so that the Council can make the best decision. This includes doing our due diligence and evaluating the readiness of other countries to potentially host the event. We have received proposals from Denmark and we are in discussions with Slovakia.
What is the position of the participating teams?
We owe it to the teams to ensure that we can establish a safe environment for them to compete in, and we will do so. We are staying in close communication with each of the teams through the IIHF Office and the IIHF Council.
Would you face commercial consequences from not hosting the World Championship?
Yes, there is a risk. We have a signed contract and we have to seek for the right way to address this exceptional situation and fulfill our contractual obligations.
How do you assess the COVID-19 situation in Belarus?
It is not to the international standard we would expect for the World Championship, but we have received a pledge from the government to follow all IIHF guidelines. There is still a lot to do but they are ready to listen and we have the blueprint from a successful World Junior Championship bubble to work from.
What is the status of the IIHF Baskov investigation?
Belarus has agreed to cooperate with the IIHF, and to evaluate all relevant witness statements, videos, and other evidence to support the IIHF Disciplinary Board in its own investigation. They have now acknowledged the seriousness of these allegations and have pledged to obtain all facts possible. The IIHF will continue its independent investigation and will expect to receive evidence from the General Prosecutor to aid in this investigation.