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SPIEGEL ONLINE

05/03/2012 03:59 PM

No Ice Hockey for Lukashenko?

German Lawmakers Seek to Block Championships in Belarus

German parliamentarians are questioning whether the authoritarian country of Belarus should be allowed to host the 2014 world ice hockey championships as planned. The move comes amid demands to relocate European Football Championship matches scheduled in Ukraine in reaction to the Tymoshenko case.

First, it was Ukraine. With the situation of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko worsening by the day, several German lawmakers this week have wondered aloud if the country is an appropriate host for the European Football Championship tournament set to start early next month.

Now, though, parliamentarians in Berlin have found a new target of criticism. Belarus, commonly referred to in the German press as Europe's last remaining dictatorship, is scheduled to host the world ice hockey championships in 2014. But a new draft motion making the rounds in the German parliament, according to a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, is critical of the choice.

"The situation in Belarus is much more dramatic that it is in Ukraine," Green Party parliamentarian Marieluise Beck, who is also responsible for issues pertaining to Eastern Europe, told the paper. "We should exert timely pressure on the associations to move the 2014 ice hockey world championships to a different country."

According to the Süddeutsche, the draft motion, backed by the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens, would request the German Ice Hockey Federation to formulate a plea to the International Ice Hockey Federation to find an alternate host for the 2014 tournament given Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's questionable human rights record.

A War of Words

Parliamentarians from Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, which pairs her conservatives with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), are likewise uncomfortable with allowing Belarus to host the event. They are, however, concerned about exerting political pressure on the sporting event. Still, as FDP floor leader Birgit Homburger said on Wednesday: "We do not want the world ice hockey championships to be held in Belarus."

The protest comes as Germany is engaged in a war of words with Ukraine over the upcoming European Football Championship tournament, of which Poland is also a co-host. SPIEGEL reported in this week's magazine that Merkel is considering asking her cabinet ministers not to attend matches in Ukraine while several parliamentarians have demanded that the games scheduled for Ukraine be played elsewhere. Kiev responded by accusing Germany of using Cold War tactics.

Leaders in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe are concerned about the treatment of Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years behind bars last October on charges of abusing her office while prime minister, a verdict widely seen as politically motivated. Since then, she has suffered a herniated disk, but has refused medical treatment in Ukraine for fear of being poisoned. In late April, she began a hunger strike after being forcibly taken to hospital and, she claims, beaten on the way there. Kiev has thus far refused German offers to provide treatment in Berlin.

Still, as noted by Green parliamentarian Beck, the human rights situation in Belarus is, if anything, worse. Following protests in the wake of widely criticized presidential elections in the country in 2010, Lukashenko had both regime opponents and opposition candidates rounded up and thrown in jail. Just this week, an entire cinema audience in Minsk was arrested while watching "Europe's Last Dictator," a documentary film critical of Lukashenko.

'Political Neutrality'

The country did recently take steps to improve the situation. Lukashenko pardoned and released two imprisoned opposition members in late April, thus defusing a quarrel with the European Union over sanctions levied early this year. At the time, Minsk suggested that Poland and the European Commission should withdraw their representatives, whereupon ambassadors from other EU member states departed as well. They are returning this week.

It remains unclear how the German Ice Hockey Federation (DEB) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) might respond to the demands from the German parliament. DEB head Uwe Harnos told Süddeutsche that the sport "cannot hide behind claims that it is not political."

That, though, would appear to be exactly what the IIHF is doing. Last week, IIHF President René Fasel told two FDP parliamentarians that they would not change the tournament's location, citing its statutes which state that "the IIHF observes strict political, racial and religious neutrality."

Still, the final word may not yet have been spoken. In a statement provided to SPIEGEL ONLINE, the federation noted that it "would ... like to invite a broader discussion whether it is recommended to generally use sports as a political tool and, if yes, how to implement across-the-board consistency in such actions to avoid that certain sports and championships are arbitrarily singled out."

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