Belarus and Ukraine Football Fans Unite against Putin

On 9 October, during a Belarus-Ukraine qualifying match to Euro 2016, Ukrainian and Belarusian fans demonstrated an unprecedented level of solidarity. They shouted the national slogans of both countries and chanted an infamous anti-Putin song.

Although the police detained around two dozen fans before and after the game, their response was rather restrained. This light punishment" could be a signal to the Kremlin that Belarus does not support its imperialist politics in the post-Soviet space.

Belarus' security services see the hardcore fans, known as ultras, as a threat to society, as during the Ukraine crisis they proved to be a formidable protest force. But because of the decentralised nature of their activity, which is mostly non-political and popular among a younger crowd, the ultras are hard to control. This may play into Lukashenka's hands, as they may be used by the regime in its games with Russia.

Preemptive Measures of Police

A week before the match Belarusian fans announced that they would be making a show of solidarity with Ukrainians. They made stickers and banners with national Belarusian and Ukrainian symbols, saying “Brothers Forever” and “Together Forever”.

The Belarusian security services, of course, were preparing for the possible political implications that the game could carry. On match day, Ukrainian sport and fan web sites reported that Belarusian border guards denied several dozen Ukrainian fans entrance into the country because they cited the football match as the aim of their visit.

Belarusian ultras also reported the police detaining known fans at home and at work. Police told them that they had to sign some papers at the police station, and upon their arrival, they were sentenced up to 10 days in custody. Many were arrested on their way from Minsk to the match, which took place in Barysaŭ, a town not far from Minsk.

Belarus and Ukraine – Together Forever

This game, as many commentators noted afterwards, was made by the fans, not by the football teams. Ukrainians brought an atmosphere of freedom to Belarus, where security services restrict any unauthorised activity and carefully control the ultras. This seems to be the first time that the fans of any two countries displayed such a high degree of solidarity over the whole course of history of football in Belarus.

Taking turns, the Belarus and Ukraine fan sectors shouted famous national slogans from both countries: “Slava Ukraini-Heroyam Slava!” (Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes!) and “Žyvie Belaruś!” (Long Live Belarus!).

The fans also jointly sang the famous obscene chant about Putin. Belarusian fans sang patriotic songs in the Belarusian language. The stadium was indeed filled with an unbridled spirit of enthusiasm as many visitors would go on to state later.

Interestingly, the match became widely popular in Ukraine thanks to the massive support for Ukraine displayed by the Belarusian fans. For instance, the web site censor.net had 130,000 views for its piece on the phenomenon just in the first night following the game.

However, the captain of Belarusian team Cimafiej Kalačoŭ in an interview with Euroradio said that he regards the behaviour of fans improper. “Shouting political slogans was wrong. And anti-Russian songs were really stupid”, Kalačoŭ said.

He also accused the Belarusian fans of being somewhat uncultured because, in his opinion, they provided their home team with weak support. His claims stirred up a wave of anger among fans on the Internet, as most of them were enthralled with the actions of the fans - and disappointed with the team.

Regarding the game itself, Belarus lost 2:0, but neither Ukrainian nor Belarusian fans were satisfied with their teams and wrote the game off.

Authorities Dole Out Light Punishment

Such unprecedented action from the fans could not, of course, go unpunished. The Minsk regional police office reported detaining 41 fans, 14 of them being Ukrainian citizens, accusing them of 'hooliganism' and being drunk in public.

In reality, some of them simply had national symbols on clothes or banners, which is more than enough reason for the Belarusian police to detain them. Fans themselves claimed that around 130 people had been detained. A majority of those who were detained were then quickly released.

One Ukrainian was accused of possessing a swastika and received 10 days in prison, while a few others received 5 days for using foul language. For their troubles, the Belarusians got US$60 fines.

However, a Dynamo Kyiv Ultras representative going by the name of Vitali claimed in an interview to Football.ua that the Minsk police transferred six Ukrainians to Homiel, a city near the Ukrainian border, where local police took them outside of the city limits and beat them.

On 11 October, a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman reported that all of the detained Ukrainians had been released and were already home. He said president Poroshenko personally dealt with securing their release.

The authorities, it would appear, gave out the most minimal punishment possible for such a massive anti-Putin action. Although the police anticipated it and took measures in advance, in the end, they largely acted with restraint. The punishment served out was more of a formality, a reminder that the authorities are in control. Many senior officials in Belarus, including the president, may have rather enjoyed the anti-Putin chants.

Solidarity of Ultras

The Belarusian police view the ultras as potentially dangerous groups and try their best to control them. They are known to apply overly restrictive regulations on their activities, and detentions are a widespread practise during sporting events. One should hardly be surprised to find out that Belarusian ultras are not the biggest fans of Aliaksandr Lukashenka's repressive regime.

Many Belarusian ultras, much like other ultras, hold right-wing views and do not shy away from promoting blatantly racist views. At the same time, they are one of very few groups engaged in reviving national identity and employing the Belarusian language, national symbols and historical episodes that have been rejected by the state's official ideology.

Being nationalists, and therefore rejecting the imperialist ideas of Russia, Belarusian ultras were themselves on the side of Ukraine when the whole crisis erupted. Currently, they present perhaps the only social group that regularly tries to express its position on the Ukrainian conflict publicly.

On the one hand, this is inconvenient for Lukashenka, as he tries to extract money from the Russian budget, all while maintaining his official disagreement with Russian policy towards Ukraine.

On the other, this kind of behaviour by fans may actually be quite useful for him, as it demonstrates to Putin that Belarusian society does not support his imperialist behaviour -- a society that democratically elected Lukashenka enjoys the support of.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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