The Belarus football ultras who stood up to Lukashenko

WARSAW, ŁÓDZ, BYDGOSZCZ – The regime in spite of everything got here for Andrei right through the morning shift. An officer from the state safety carrier confirmed up at the manufacturing facility surface asking after him. News of the talk over with travelled up the meeting line, attaining the younger guy with the thrill reduce who was once becoming in combination drivers’ cabins for army vans. He grabbed his telephone and frantically started wiping the information.

After the unending pitched battles on stadium terraces, the wounds, insults and graffitied partitions, it could be a telephone name that sealed Andrei’s destiny. Factory employee by means of week and chief of the Torpedo Minsk ultras by means of weekend, Andrei had known as his perfect pal the former evening to talk about the anti-government protests sweeping Belarus. Little did he know that the protection services and products have been listening in. He was once picked up at his place of business the very subsequent day and bundled away to the police headquarters, forward of a marvel talk over with to the manufacturing facility by means of none rather than President Alexander Lukashenko himself – the objective of the protesters’ fury.

In administrative center frequently since 1994, Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving chief, depending on repression and Russian backing to take care of energy. In the summer time of 2020, his regime teetered on the point of cave in after his declare to have gained a disputed election ignited large national protests. Facing the largest problem to his rule in 26 years, Lukashenko felt it was once time to show that he nonetheless commanded the improve of the operating lots. The Minsk wheel tractor plant, or MZKT, Andrei’s place of business and the delight of the Belarusian military-industrial complicated, was once selected because the degree. 

Belarusian servicemen block a side road right through an opposition supporters’ rally in Minsk protesting in opposition to the disputed 2020 presidential elections effects. Photo by means of Tut.by means of/AFP by the use of Getty Images

On 17 August 2020, TV cameras filmed the embattled president, wearing a trade swimsuit, aboard a large army transporter parked within the manufacturing facility backyard. Some of the employees had long past on strike, becoming a member of the protests, however loads had stayed in the back of. They listened within the noon warmth as Lukashenko performed the wire-tapped recording of a telephone name over the general public cope with device – it was once Andrei and his pal. “We need to come out immediately, shout, tell [Lukashenko] to get out,” they have been pronouncing. “They can’t fire us all!” 

The pissed off crowd grew to become at the president, booing on are living TV. “Step down,” they chanted, “step down.” Lukashenko reacted to the PR crisis with trademark pugnacity. He was once filmed on cellphones squaring as much as one of the crucial staff who had heckled him. “I won’t beat you,” he mentioned. “It’s not in my interests. But provoke me and I will be cruel.” He ordered a employee to place down his telephone. “Be a man,” he mentioned, flanked by means of bodyguards. “There’s a whole crowd of you and I’m here on my own.”

The temper on the manufacturing facility echoed the tumult at the streets. At the police station the place Andrei have been taken that day, the officials struggled to stay alongside of the tide of detained protesters. “They had no idea what I was there for,” Andrei mentioned. After being wondered for ten hours, he took benefit of the chaos and secured a brief liberate. Then he were given right into a automotive and drove for 6 hours immediately to the Ukrainian border. His spouse joined him a couple of days later and existence, as they knew it in Belarus, was once over. “It wasn’t like we planned it,” Andrei mentioned, once I stuck up with him in a crowded pizzeria in Bydgoszcz, the Polish town that he now calls house. “It was fear.” He spoke given that his complete title was once withheld.

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Andrei’s warning was once justified. The regime’s crackdown on fighters actual and imagined has grew to become the fanatical supporters of Belarusian soccer golf equipment into marked males. Scores of outstanding ultras have gained long prison phrases for rather minor offences. The ultras’ unruly subculture, characterized by means of visceral rivalries between crews, has provided a judicial pretext for the crackdown. After the August 2020 protests, loads of ultras have been roughed up and held in custody, and one was once later discovered useless in suspicious instances. Dozens fled to close by Poland, a significant vacation spot for Belarusian refugees, the place they have got been adapting to new jobs, shared apartments and overseas stadiums – a destiny nonetheless preferable to that of the group contributors left in the back of in Belarusian jails.

This is the tale of ways the exhausting males of Belarusian soccer was dissidents, political prisoners and exiles. The tale’s roots are entwined with the struggle in neighbouring Ukraine, the place every other pro-Russian authorities was once overthrown in 2014. Nationalist Ukrainian ultras had equipped the muscle for the Maidan rebellion, and would finally end up on the entrance strains of the next armed battle in opposition to Russian-backed separatists within the east of the rustic.

In Belarus, a smaller extremely motion can be impressed by means of stories of Ukrainian soccer hooligans making historical past. Like the Ukrainians, the Belarusian ultras hostile Moscow’s affect over their nation on nationalist grounds. They would glance to Ukraine as a type for confronting Russia. Meanwhile, Russia would finally end up the use of the customer state of Belarus as a launchpad for its ambitions in Ukraine. “The fight for Ukraine is also the fight for Belarus,” mentioned Zmicier Mickiewicz, a supporter of Slavia, a membership from the southern town of Mazyr, who now lives in exile in Warsaw. “The West should look at a map. Had Putin been denied free entry into Belarus, Russian troops would not have reached the gates of Kyiv.”

Zmicier Mickiewicz. Photo by means of Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has promoted nationalism at house and in another country as an alternative choice to liberal democracy. Yet alongside Russia’s western flank, in nations reminiscent of Belarus and Ukraine, nationalism has additionally galvanised the resistance to Putin. Nationalism is necessary, Andrei mentioned, when it method “defending your country so that it is independent, and defending your culture so that it remains distinct from Russia.”

Wiry and athletic, Andrei attire in an identical tracksuit outfit and walks with the poise of the semi-professional boxer that he was once, again in his house nation. His speech is courteous however terse. “It was a shock. We had no idea where we were going or what we would do without money or work,” he mentioned, recalling the early days of exile. “There was the hope that Lukashenko would be gone by the new year.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, he thought to be crossing over to combat, becoming a member of the loads of Belarusian volunteers reputed to have entered Ukrainian ranks. But, he mentioned, his spouse “is not letting me go”.

[See also: “Scared, hopeless and silent”: anti-war Russians are pessimistic about mass protests]

To be an extremely in Belarus is to be at the sidelines of a sidelined game. Though soccer is claimed to were Lukashenko’s first hobby, he’s perfect referred to as a willing newbie ice hockey participant – even taking to the rink together with his patron, Putin – and development glitzy arenas for his favorite game. Overshadowed by means of the brand new “ice palaces”, the soccer stadium infrastructure has crumbled. Belarus’s soccer golf equipment emerged from Soviet-era factories and cooperatives, and they’re controlled like maximum state-owned enterprises within the nation – indifferently and inefficiently. They carry their house owners little in the way in which of benefit and haemorrhage their perfect avid gamers to wealthier leagues in Kazakhstan and Russia.

The ultras of Belarus firstly styled themselves after the violent English soccer hooligan “firms” of the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Over the previous few years, the affect of Italian ultras, related to a extra expressive genre, has additionally turn out to be obtrusive. The ultras’ presence within the stands is marketed with banners, chants and elaborate choreographed presentations. They also are more and more lively on social media, documenting away video games on Instagram and Telegram with stylised photographs of masked males posing in swirls of flare smoke.

As in different places, recruits to the ultras in Belarus are drawn by means of the promise of camaraderie, managed violence and collective delight. “You are representing your team and city,” mentioned Aleksander Morozov, the previous chief of the BATE Borisov ultras, hardcore supporters of traditionally the rustic’s maximum a hit membership. “You cannot parade in your team’s colours if you are unwashed, drunk or covered in your own vomit!”

Morozov was once jailed again house in a crackdown following Ukraine’s Maidan rebellion. Now founded within the Polish business town of Łódz, he wears a black tracksuit emblazoned with Belarusian progressive symbols. He is definitely over 6 toes tall, has a quicksilver wit, and turns out to understand everybody’s trade within the exile group. He muses in regards to the affect of Ukrainian refugees at the Polish labour marketplace – 3 million have arrived for the reason that Russian invasion. They will paintings for decrease wages, he mentioned, which is able to have an effect on “not only Poles but also the Belarusians” in Poland. He doubts the inflow can be reversed. “Many of these people, the young especially, will not go back after the war. It will be like it was with the Belarusians who left in 2020 – they realised that you can have a good life in Poland. You do not have to bribe anyone for it.” He stocks a small ground-floor condominium with two “guests” from Ukraine, and two Belarusians – each lovers of various groups. They lately welcomed a puppy kitten, Bajun. When the animal pounces on visitors, Morozov admonishes her, clasping her face in opposition to his personal.

Aleksander Morozov, the previous chief of the BATE Borisov ultras. Photo by means of Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Aesthetics and camaraderie apart, the ultras in Belarus additionally be offering younger males a method of rejecting the police state and its Soviet-era symbols. Hostility to the Lukashenko regime is certainly one thing of a commonplace denominator, extending around the ideological spectrum. The ultras of Partizan Minsk, for example, are firmly hostile to the regime even though their leftist-anarchist ideals lead them to outliers on a in large part nationalist scene. “It’s no secret that football fans in Belarus are right-leaning because it’s a form of protest,” mentioned Zmicier Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan. “Everywhere you are surrounded by Lenins and Stalins, hammers and sickles, and all that crap, so young people choose something diametrically different.” When their groups play in another country, the ultras incessantly carry out Belarus’s former white-and-red flag, successfully banned within the nation and an emblem of democratic opposition to the Lukashenko regime.

Mickiewicz sees the ultras in grand ancient phrases, as romantic heroes rebelling in opposition to the spirit of the age. “Who expanded Western civilisation and allowed it to develop? It was the adventurers like Columbus and Magellan, who could not stay at home.” Mickiewicz himself fled to Warsaw after being threatened with prosecution for sharing pictures of the 2020 protests on-line. Currently hired as a information anchor on Belsat, the Polish state broadcaster’s Belarusian channel, he’s carefully groomed and wears a chequered flat cap.

Long cautious of the ultras, the regime started tightening the screws after December 2010 when, in a well-known trend, Lukashenko’s declare to have gained a discredited election provoked side road protests. The resulting crackdown centered all suspected reservoirs of dissent, from the NGO sector to the unbiased media – and the ultras. Stadium regulations have been tightened: flares and balaclavas have been banned and banners required prior approval from the police. Accustomed to enjoying by means of their very own regulations, the ultras chafed on the new restrictions. Many deserted their conventional stands within the stadium, opting for as a substitute to disperse inside of the primary crowd. “The supporters in our sector would be sandwiched by police,” Morozov mentioned. “How am I supposed to watch the match while I am being watched by OMON [riot police] officers?”

With their style for mass brawls, ultras can pose a risk to public order underneath any type of authorities. Under authoritarian regimes then again, additionally they represent a political chance. Their clannish inclinations and low hyperlinks to the legal underworld lead them to probably the most few parts of society that lie outdoor the regulate of the state. For a regime reminiscent of Lukashenko’s, there was once a chance that small however unruly teams of ultras may instigate a much broader rebel.

Authoritarian governments in different places were identified to include and co-opt the ultras. In Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, Red Star Belgrade hooligans got weapons, uniforms and orders to hold out mass homicide in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, far-right hooligans have reportedly been recruited for struggle in jap Ukraine and as muscle to intimidate the regime’s home fighters. But there was once little probability of Lukashenko harnessing ultras whose anti-Russian Belarusian nationalism flies within the face of the regime’s pro-Russian orientation. “As nationalists, the [Belarusian] ultras are also paradoxically anti-state,” mentioned Przemysław Nosal, a sociologist on the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, western Poland, and a professional within the politics of soccer fandom.

Subsequent occasions in Ukraine showed the ultras have been a threat to the area’s Russia-backed regimes. In 2014, weeks of violent protests centred on Kyiv’s Maidan sq. would culminate within the overthrow of a central authority that had junked a handle Brussels in favour of nearer ties with the Kremlin. Well-versed in side road preventing, Ukrainian ultras joined the fray. They put aside inter-club rivalries and created a ragtag entrance that battled rise up police and defended the protesters. When Russia replied to the Maidan rebellion by means of backing armed separatists within the Donbas area, the ultras signed as much as combat in opposition to them. Many joined far-right paramilitary teams that have been scrambled in combination to improve Ukraine’s outflanked army.

The perfect identified of those formations, the Azov Battalion, drew its early recruits from a community of ultras related to the Metalist Kharkiv soccer membership. The workforce additionally attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists from around the area – associations it could later search to put off because it was once built-in into the Ukrainian army. Putin’s regime has constantly portrayed its enemies in Ukraine as Nazis – a declare that elides its personal use of neo-Nazis at the battlefield and at house, whilst interesting to collective recollections of Russia’s Second World War enjoy and hugely overstating the affect of the a long way appropriate in Ukraine. In 2014, the Azov opponents have been lauded in Kyiv for retaking the port town of Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists. In 2022, their successors have been a part of a drive resisting a Russian siege that has levelled the town, left hundreds of civilians useless, and compelled loads of hundreds from their houses.

Vladimir Putin meets with Alexander Lukashenko within the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photo by means of Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The normal mobilisation of Ukrainian ultras right through the Maidan would encourage awe around the border in Belarus. In 2014, hardcore BATE Borisov supporters, from a gaggle referred to as the 23 BATE Ultras, posted an image on social media with a message of improve. “Stick it out, Ukraine! We are with you,” learn their banner, along the white-and-red Belarusian flag. But Lukashenko’s regime was once gazing too, and the ultras quickly discovered themselves within the dock. “They had my phone tapped,” mentioned Aleksander Morozov, who was once a part of the gang prosecuted over the put up. “That photo collectively cost the three of us 40 days in jail!”

The draconian punishment seems to were a part of an effort to discourage the ultras from staging a Maidan in Minsk. After the rebellion in Ukraine, Lukashenko “understood that football fans needed to be cordoned off”, mentioned Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk extremely. The Belarusian government introduced a multi-pronged attack, concentrated on the ultras with police operations, complaints, blackmail and propaganda.

In 2019, 3 Torpedo Minsk lovers gained sentences starting from 5 to 9 years for a post-match scuffle at a petroleum station through which no person was once significantly harm. Dinamo Minsk lovers had gained ten-year prison phrases for the same combat two years previous. A pace-setter of the Dinamo Minsk ultras, referred to as Vitalik “Puma”, was once sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for sharing a condom industrial on social media – the courtroom labelled it pornography. The instances have been eagerly publicised by means of state media.

The state “adeptly turned popular discourse” in opposition to the ultras, in keeping with Radosław Kossakowski, a professional in soccer fandom and the pinnacle of the sociology division on the University of Gdańsk in Poland. “Fans were linked to reports of various crimes not associated with their football activity,” he mentioned.

The prospect of serving jail time for minor misdemeanours was once supposed as a deterrent to attainable recruits to the ultras. The impetus for the crackdown got here from pageant inside the forms, in keeping with Zmicier Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan. “Government departments fight for resources,” he mentioned. “That is why they invent new enemies, put more people in jail, ratchet up the repression.” The inner ministry’s infamous GUBOPiK division, nominally tasked with preventing organised crime and corruption, was once additionally put at the case. “Officers started going around the flats of prominent fans and taking down names at the start of the season,” Mickiewicz mentioned. Many have been blackmailed with Soviet-style “kompromat” – harmful data which may be used in the event that they refused to cooperate.

[See also: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU]

There was once, additionally, a in a position provide of incriminating subject material. “The football fan scene is heavily infiltrated by the police,” mentioned Anna Dyner, a political scientist and knowledgeable on Belarus on the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based assume tank. “Most match-goers would have had their own police file that could be drawn upon.” Those who ended up in jail have been incessantly subjected to solitary confinement and attack. “It became customary for ultras to be beaten twice as hard,” Dyner mentioned. Human Rights Watch has documented in style beatings and torture in custody, together with the management of electrical shocks, and in a single reported case the usage of truncheons to rape detainees.

The crackdown was once efficient. Harassed and surveilled, the Belarusian ultras subsidized clear of overtly confronting the regime. In 2020, then again, its dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidential election completed the unthinkable: it brought about the feuding ultras to come back in combination in opposition to Lukashenko.

When Europe went into lockdown, Belarus resisted any measures to curb the virus’s unfold. Instead, Lukashenko brushed aside an infection fears as a “psychosis” and extolled the well being advantages of ingesting vodka, riding tractors and visiting the sauna. Factories and workplaces stayed open and fixtures within the Belarusian soccer season went forward as scheduled. The broadcasting rights to the video games have been snapped up by means of overseas networks determined to fulfill audiences yearning are living game, and for a couple of ancient weeks, Belarus had the most-watched premier league in Europe.

The ultras, then again, have been alarmed on the authorities’s blithe angle to the pandemic. Supporters of rival groups wrote a joint letter to the Belarusian soccer federation, soliciting for the season to be suspended. When the request was once unnoticed, the ultras introduced a boycott: they stopped appearing up on the stadium. By leaving behind the arenas that had outlined them, the ultras have been briefly mentioning that the destiny of the country mattered extra.

After the primary wave of the pandemic, amid the regime’s crackdown at the protests that summer time, the ultras would query the morality of returning to the stadium. Were they conferring legitimacy on a police state by means of accepting the heavy police presence on the video games? “There were intense discussions among the ultras’ leaders,” recollects Aleksander Morozov, the BATE Borisov supporter. “By buying tickets and attending matches, we were dancing to the police’s guitar. We asked if it was still worth it, or whether we should just call it quits.”

Aleksander Morozov. Photo by means of Jaap Arriens/BIRN

As the regime hunted down protesters and dissidents, the ultras declared a truce. Fans of rival groups, who would possibly as soon as have overwhelmed every different mindless, started wearing round every others’ telephone numbers, aiming to be in contact and stay monitor of the crackdown. Inevitably, rival ultras ended up assembly in Belarusian prisons. “In jail, it doesn’t matter what colours you wear,” Morozov mentioned.

Over espresso on a cold Warsaw morning, Morozov in comparison notes about jail interiors with Eshet, the in a similar fashion exiled fan of every other Belarusian membership, who requested for his complete title to be withheld. Having served time in separate amenities, the lads established that the government should have had a planned coverage of denying mattress linen to political prisoners, forcing them to sleep on chilly mattresses. “You didn’t have a wall around the toilet in your cell?” Eshet requested, incredulous. Morozov responded: “We didn’t have a wall, we had a camera watching us, and the lights were always on. After a few days, it was not so much that you have a toilet where you live, but rather that you live in a toilet. We were burning newspapers to mask the smell.”

From the security of Poland, the previous inmate now arranges meals parcels for the ultras nonetheless jailed in Belarus. Morozov mentioned he tries to indulge each request – together with a up to date one for 2 kilograms of blue cheese, not possible to obtain in Belarus as a result of global sanctions. “Sure, we could publicise their cases,” he mentioned of the group contributors recently in the back of bars. “But if you were locked up in a cell, what would make you happier – seeing your photo on television or receiving a box of sweets?”

[See also: “Everyone is scared in Belarus”: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on confronting a regime of terror]

In exile, the ultras function a improve community for the households of group contributors that experience fled in another country. Among them are the spouse and daughter of Nikita Krivtsov, a 28-year-old extremely from Maladzyechna, a the city close to Minsk. During a protest on 9 August 2020, Krivtsov approached rise up police maintaining up the banned white-and-red Belarusian flag in entrance of a cheering crowd. Three days later, he went lacking. Witnesses mentioned he have been interrogated by means of the police, and the overall sign from his cell phone can be traced to a sanatorium. His frame was once discovered propped up in opposition to a tree, bruised, swollen and with a noose across the neck.

The government mentioned he had taken his personal existence however Krivtsov’s circle of relatives accused them of homicide. He can be certainly one of a minimum of 15 protesters discovered useless in suspicious instances following the 2020 election in August. “It was a desperate moment,” mentioned Morozov, recalling how he heard of Krivtsov’s loss of life. “We asked ourselves: if it is Nikita today, will it be me tomorrow?” Krivtsov’s funeral was once one thing of a watershed, attended by means of rival group contributors mourning facet by means of facet.

The long-term implications of the ultras’ truce are unsure.

Radosław Kossakowski from the University of Gdańsk mentioned such agreements “operate like a switch”: the ceasefires have a tendency to be “idealised” within the face of a commonplace enemy however don’t undergo. However, Przemysław Nosal, from Adam Mickiewicz University, argued that this truce may have lasting penalties, as there may be now a small “movement” of politically engaged ultras this is mindful of its collective energy.

While the connection between teams of ultras has a tendency to be antagonistic, particular person soccer lovers were identified to domesticate alliances at a non-public stage with supporters of alternative groups in another country. During the most recent crackdown, large banners have been unfurled at fixtures around the area in honour of the jailed Belarusian ultras. On a simpler stage, teams of Polish soccer supporters have equipped a security web for newly arrived Belarusian opposite numbers on the lookout for lodging and employment – a casual collaboration that overrides linguistic and cultural divisions, in addition to loyalties to rival golf equipment.

Fans of Legia Warsaw, the Polish capital’s maximum outstanding crew, helped submit Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk extremely and previous manufacturing facility employee, and his spouse Yelena once they needed to quarantine on arrival. Yelena mentioned Poles understood what was once taking place in Belarus as a result of their historical past underneath authoritarianism – they have been ruled by means of Soviet-aligned communists till 1989. “They were going through the same thing in the 1980s,” she mentioned. In the early months of exile, the couple trusted an extremely in his fifties to translate for them: like many Poles of his technology, he additionally spoke Russian. “He remembered [the 1980s] in Poland,” she mentioned. “We were like children to him.”

Andrei mentioned he was once allowed to put on his Torpedo Minsk colors at Legia Warsaw’s stadium and was once even invited to the infamous Zyleta, or Razor, terrace – reserved for Legia’s maximum fanatical supporters. He has declined the be offering in the meanwhile, as he waits for his seize of Polish to meet up with the chants.

The Polish ultras scene is notorious for its riotous pyrotechnic presentations and clashes with rise up police, making it a type for others within the area. Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan, mentioned he needed to get “totally wasted” after a 2011 talk over with to Poland published the gulf within the two nations’ building. “I could not return to my Belarusian reality and stay sober after having seen how far Poland had managed to come from a similar starting point.”

Admiration for his or her hosts however, the Belarusians can not believe discarding outdated loyalties. “These days, you can change everything: your name, your address, even the colour of your skin,” Mickiewicz mentioned. “But two things cannot be changed: your mother and your club.” Aleksander Morozov wears his allegiance on his pores and skin. Tattooed on his torso is the coat of hands of his town, Borisov, in addition to the standard “Pahonia” coat of hands of Belarus – a knight on horseback, maintaining a sword and defend. His collarbones are tattooed with a Latin word, vide cui fide, or “careful who you trust”, whilst his club of the BATE ultras is denoted by means of a cartoonish bomb with a lit fuse, tattooed at the chest. “It’s only for those who fight,” he mentioned. When he attends suits in Poland, he wears a crew shawl with the phrase, emigracja, or “emigration”, overlaid on BATE’s navy-and-yellow stripes.

Cast as dissidents by means of the regime, the exiled ultras appear to have grown into the position. “If I could take back time, I would do it all again,” mentioned Andrei. “I cannot imagine working alongside people who see these things and do nothing.” In Poland, he attends protests with Yelena calling out multinational companies that experience maintained industrial hyperlinks with the regime.

Other ultras go for a extra hands-on method. When the pinnacle of the Belarusian soccer federation and shut Lukashenko best friend, Vladimir Bazanov, visited neighbouring Czech Republic closing November, Morozov and his group packed a automotive with picket bats and drove for 4 hours to the border, hoping they could run into him. “Next time, Masha [short for Maria], you should come with us,” Morozov inspired me. “We would only break his legs.”

This tale was once edited by means of Neil Arun. It was once produced for the Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by means of the ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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