Belarusian Authorities Crack Down on Football Fans

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In recent months the Belarusian police have intensified pressure on young football fans – followers of the 'ultra' subculture. In January police detained at least 69 young ultras.

In Salihorsk in late January 20 fans of a local team were detained for holding an unauthorised fireworks show. Several days later, on 31 January, police detained 49 fans at a FC BiarozaFC Garadzieya match in Minsk. This is a significant number of detainees for a country where football season starts in March with almost no matches in January.

The ongoing conflict between the police and radical football fans escalated after several Belarusian ultra groups openly supported Ukraine's own “revolutionary ultras”. They displayed banners online in support of the protesters in Kiev and chanted Ukrainian nationalist slogans from the stands.

The clashes between the ultras and riot police in Kiev at the start of 2014 made Belarusian security services very nervous. The authorities treat the ultra subculture as a group capable of organising anti-government protests during the presidential election in 2015 and are trying to intimidate youngsters by frequently detaining some of the more active fans among them.

A Genealogy of Belarusian Ultras

The history of Belarusian fan-culture goes back more than 30 years. The first ultras groups in Belarus appeared in the beginning of the 1980s when a group of Minsk youth united to support FC Dynama Minsk successfully play at the USSR's grand championship. Then all fans had to be seated in stadiums. The Police and KGB felt that some fans' more active approach to supporting their team with chants and colourful attributes had been borrowed from the capitalist West and were anti-Soviet by nature. And thus, the ultras were often targeted and persecuted.

Control over the various groups of ultras significantly decreased after perestroika started in 1985. During this era, the number of Dynama Minsk ultras rose noticeably. Hundreds of Minsk fans every year visited Vilnius for the away matches against the local FC Žalgiris which, for fans, became the main rival of the Minsk ultras.

In an independent Belarus, the ultras' subculture became popular at the end of 1990s when groups of them popped up in every major city throughout the country. Initially the fan subculture developed under the influence of Russian ultras who are infamous for their right-wing political views and xenophobia. But, at the turn of the decade another trend developed in the ultras movement. Many of the groups began using the Belarusian language on its banners, stickers, graffiti and sometimes even chants in Belarusian during their matches.

Several reasons could explain why Belarusian nationalism has substituted Pan-Slavic ideas on stadiums. The development of the Internet and improved mobility of the 2000s has allowed Belarusian ultras to travel to EU countries and engage with fan trends directly, not via Russia. This has coincided with the state offensive on Belarusian culture and many of the youngsters who did not agree with the official interpretation of history. They have found ultras subculture as a good platform for expressing their cultural beliefs as well as a way to protest against a pro-Russian political regime.

The Political Emancipation of the Ultras

Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed their political attitudes toward the current establishment in public. However, over the past year they have become one of the primary groups of individuals who have not been afraid of publicly declaring their views on the situation in Ukraine and have subsequently suffered repression as a result of being so vocal.

In the beginning of 2014, a court in Barysaŭ called for the arrest of a group of football fans of the 23 FC BATE Ultras for holding banners with slogans in support of Ukrainian protesters.

In May, before the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships began, dozens of ultras group members were put in jail for the duration of the tournament to ensure the "tranquillity" of the games. On 9 October, following the match between the Belarus national team and Ukraine, dozens of fans were jailed for 5-15 days for chanting a popular obscene anti-Putin song in the stands.

In 2014, the number of protests overall in Belarus witnessed a marked decline. Last year the traditional opposition meetings on 25 March and 26 April managed to gather only several hundred people. In fact, the protest at the football match against Ukraine in Barysaŭ could qualify as the biggest protest in Belarus in 2014.

Ultras versus Russian propaganda

The ultras of FC Partyzan put a video online where they disrupted a Russian nationalist sporting event in Minsk

By supporting Ukraine, the Belarusian ultras also attracted the attention of Russian propaganda outlets. Football fans serve as a good target for media attacks. Article “The Right Sector of Belarus” by Russian pro-government news-portal Lenta.ru published on 23 January can illustrate this.

The title draws a parallel between Belarusian ultras and the Ukrainian radical nationalist organisation “Pravy sectar” (Right sector). According to one Russian propaganda spin doctor “Last year the virus of Maidan has spread from Ukraine to Belarus and settled mainly in the stadiums' stands”. The reporter goes on to accuse the ultras of nationalism and claims that football fans have turned into a fighting force for the Belarusian opposition.

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that fans have no ties to the divided and demoralised Belarusian opposition, but even so they pose a threat to pro-Russian activists. In May, the ultras of FC Partyzan put a video online where they disrupted a Russian nationalist sporting event in Minsk. Some independent media reposted the video on their pages and most of commentators supported the action of the football fans.

Do the Ultras Pose a Threat to the Regime?

The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who were inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters on Maidan, are one of a few groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests. However, the number of ultras sitting in Belarusian stadiums remains much smaller than in Ukraine. Also a large chunk of the ultras' followers are underage. For instance 31 of the 49 fans that the police detained on 31 January in Minsk were under 18 years old.

On the other hand, the police are doing everything possible to curb their activism. They resort to the same tactics that were previously used on opposition activists during the 2000s and 2010s. Authorities may detain, beat, fine or arrest ultras in order to intimidate them. While this does not decrease the number of ultras in the stands, it does make clear their message – the riot police will not tolerate politics at the stadiums.

Despite attempts by some groups of ultras to publicly declare their political beliefs, an indisputable fact that they are not capable of organising mass protests alone for the president elections 2015. The fact that Belarusian secret police are taking very serious, and even investigating, youth subculture activities, only further demonstrates the weakness of political parties and NGOs, who due to similar tactics being used against them, are not capable of mobilising their forces during an election year.

Vadzim Bylina is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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