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Defense Minister: Football Association's statement does not go far enough

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Hanno Pevkur.
Hanno Pevkur. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

According to Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform), the Estonian Football Association's (EJL) announcement that Estonia would not play in international competitions with Russia's U-17 teams did not go far enough. In Pevkur's view, the EJL should also decide that Estonia will not participate in, or host, any tournament involving Russia.

Hanno Pevkur, who is also vice-president of the Estonian Olympic Committee (EOK), said that the EOK had very clearly and swiftly outlined its position on the matter. "My extremely clear position is that there is not even a debate that we would consider playing with Russia," Pevkur said.

"A further problem, and something I would expect further clarification from the Estonian Football Association (EJL) on, is that the EJL has been chosen as the host [of the men's U-17 European Championships in 2027 – ed.] and so now there's the question of whether the federation is saying that Estonia won't play. However, in that case, I would like to hear that either we will not participate or we will not host if Russia should be allowed back in," said Pevkur.

The statement released by the EJL, which followed protests from key sponsors, was one side of the equation, Pevkur said. "The other side of also has to be spelled out here. That is, if Russia is allowed back and Estonia is to host the tournament, then then the correct for Estonia to do would be withdraw from [that tournament]," the defense minister said.

"I don't see any possibility that we could organize a tournament which involves Russia," Pevkur said.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) said that he shared Pevkur's view on the issue. Tsahkna emphasized that Estonia's policy is one of isolating the aggressor, and sport plays a crucial role in that as it has long provided Russia with a platform to gain political leverage.

"The closer we get to the Olympics, the more pressure there is and all sorts of interesting suggestions come up. For example, that it's okay for Russian athletes to take part in the Paralympics, let's start from there. That really is the wrong path to go down. Also, this talk that children should not be punished for the actions of their parents. I would generally agree with that, however, Russia is also using sport as a political tool to influence young people," Tsakhkna said.

According to Tsakhkna, Russia is starting to quietly work its way back into various places from which it has been kept away until now.

"This pressure is very strong and I will say it straight out that Russia has got its soft power leverage machine going again, and is trying to get its back foot in the door at all kinds of different levels. In this case, we have to follow the principle that an aggressor state cannot participate or use any international events or organizations for political purposes," the foreign minister said.

"No matter how much we would like to keep sport and politics separate, for Russia they are linked. Part of isolating Russia also involves not allowing them to participate in international competitions," said Minister of Health Riina Sikkut (SDE).

Sikkut drew a parallel with the World Health Organization's (WHO) decision to relocate its non-communicable diseases center from Moscow to Copenhagen. "This decision was very painful for Russia, despite the fact that it only seemed to be a small step," she said.

Regarding the issue of whether Estonia should participate in the 2024 Paris Paralympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are permitted to take part, Pevkur said it is something of a double-edged sword because, if Estonian athletes do not take part, then no one will remember that afterwards. The Estonian Olympic Committee has not yet made a decision regarding its course of action should that eventuality occur.

Pevkur pointed out that relatively few countries have voiced opposition to the participation of Russian athletes in major sporting events. "Russia has been very successful in Africa, South America, Asia in pushing through its soft power policies, of let there be this little conflict in Ukraine, but in other areas, health and sport, let things carry on as they were," he said.

Tsahkna said that if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also decides to allow Russian athletes to compete at next summer's Paris Olympics, France itself might not admit Russian athletes into the country. "I would not completely rule out the situation whereby the IOC may make a decision but the athletes will not be able to physically participate," he said.

Football Association chief: We will not apply for special permission for Russian athletes

In a written statement, the Estonian Football Association (EJL) said it has never indicated that it wants the Russian youth team to participate in the men's U-17 European Championships, which are due to be held in Estonia in 2027.

"The news has created the impression that the Estonian Football Association wants Russia to play in the finals tournament in Estonia. This is not true. If Estonia organizes a finals tournament, then Russia cannot participate. This was stated by (EJL president) Aivar Pohlak last week. We immediately informed [European football's governing body] UEFA about this. There is absolutely no danger that Russia could reach the final tournament in Estonia or that Estonia could face Russia somehow," said Mihkel Uiboleht, director of development at the EJL.

On September 27, President of the Estonian Football Association (EJL) Aiva Pohlak said: "If the current situation continues, then the Estonian Football Association will, of course, comply with the binding decisions of the government of the Republic of Estonia regarding the non-admission of Russian athletes to the country. We do not see any possibility of applying for an exemption for a major tournament like this, unless we receive a clear signal that the attitude towards youth athletes has changed."

Aivar Pohlak. Source: ERR

On Thursday, Pohlak, told ETV show "Aktuaalne kaamera," that, as a sporting organization the EJL has tried to avoid making political statements. However, he said that he understands that in this case there has been a societal expectation for different communication. Pohlak added that the EJL does not intend to ask the Estonian state for special permission, which would allow Russian athletes to participate in the tournament in Estonia in 2027.

"Should Russia should qualify for this competition, and, we don't know today whether Russia will even participate in the qualifiers, then we have stated that we are absolutely loyal to the Republic of Estonia, which is one of our basic underlying principles. If it so happens that Russia does qualify for this tournament, we will not seek an exemption from the Estonian state. This is our very clear and principled position. Now, if the Minister of Defense really did say that we ought withdraw from a regular tournament in which Russia is not participating, then that does sound a bit strange."

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Editor: Michael Cole

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