Police Crack Down on Pro-Euromaidan Ultras in Belarus

photo: belultras.by

A photo of 20 well-known Belarusians holding a banner in support of FC BATE Barysau ultras stirred up the Belarusian internet at the end of January. The photo also featured rock star Liavon Volski, writer and journalist Natalka Babina, screenwriter and film director Andrei Kureichyk.

Not far back, it was hard to imagine intellectuals expressing support for groups of football fans well-known for violence, hateful chants and slogans. But the latest confrontation in Ukraine has brought together completely different groups of people from Belarusian society.

Police initiated their stifling of the football fan sub-culture members after they declared their support for Ukrainian protesters on Maidan. In anticipation of the World Ice Hockey Championship Minsk will be hosting in May, the authorities seek to prevent protests that can spoil the event. Security agencies regard ultras as a group that can provoke unpredictable street protests during the tournament. 

A Photograph - Reason Enough to Imprison Activists

At the beginning of February, the court of Barysau called for the detention of the group of football fans known as the 23 FC BATE Ultras. The reason for punishing the youngsters was an picture published online. It featured 23 young men with retouched faces were holding the Belarusian national white-red-white flag and banners with the slogans “Stick it out Ukraine! We are with you” and “Glory to the heroes!” – a Ukrainian nationalist slogan often used during the protests in Kiev.

The arrest created a precedent in which police can punish and detain activists for posting a photo on the Internet. The court regarded the photo as an incidence holding an unsanctioned mass gathering, something which is forbidden in Belarus.

As a result, two members of the FC BATE Ultras group were arrested and put in jail for five days. Many other ultras from different cities in Belarus were summoned in for questioning.

Independent media provided wide coverage of the incident. It lead to a decidedly negative reaction from human rights activists and intellectuals. According to Valiantin Stefanovich – vice chairman of the the human rights organisation “Viasna”, the photo cannot be qualified as a public event, as technically it is unknown where the photo was taken and for that reason the arrest of football fans is clearly illegal.  

To show support for the young football fans, writers, musicians and artists took a photo with the same banners that the football fans held. Writer Natalka Babina stated: "This is a gesture of human solidarity. I support the slogans of the young men from Barysau wrote on the banners. I admire and sympathise with these them.”

The screenwriter Andrei Kureichyk said, “First of all, I’m a BATE fan. Second, I’m a lawyer by education and I would say that it’s a shame how the courts operate in our country. To adjudicate people because of an event from just one picture - it should not be like that. Third, people have a right to support whatever they wish.”

The International Solidarity of Ultras

This was not the first time when individuals from the ultras subculture in Belarus openly declared their political views. In addition to the BATE fans, the Dnepr Mahileu, Dynamo Minsk and Tarpeda Minsk Ultras have vocalised their support for Euromaidan.

In Ukraine, ultras and similar groups from a majority of the nation's football clubs have declared their support for Euromaidan. Normally these groups are at war with each other, but football fans have united to defend the protest participants from “titushky” - roaming mercenary groups of young men, dressed as civilians, whose goal is to assault and disperse peaceful demonstrations. There is ample evidence that suggests that these "titushky" are paid by pro-government forces and perhaps the government itself

Many members of the Ultras have taken part in the street clashes in Kiev. In Dnepropetrovsk, several ultras were injured during the clashes with the riot police and “titushky”. Even in Donetsk – the traditional power base and home of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, the Ultras from the local football club Shakhter protected the city's own, much smaller, Euromaidan protest.  

Moreover, Ukrainian football fans invited ultras from all over Europe, including those who from Polish and English clubs, to Kiev to take part in their revolution. Most likely, some Belarusian football fans took advantage of this open invitation as well. The stickers of Belarusian football clubs were posted on street lights near Euromaidan can be easily found on the Internet.  

Fear of street protests

If similar street protests were to happen in Belarus, the ultras could become one of the most organised and radical group of protesters in the country, and events could perhaps begin to mirror those unfolding in Ukraine. The reaction from the police towards the ultras photo on the Internet seems to be an attempt to intimidate other ultras groups in Belarus.

Ultras could become one of the most organised and radical group of protesters in the country, and events could potentially begin to mirror those unfolding in Ukraine

According to political analyst Alexander Klaskouski, the street protests irritate Belarusian authorities more than anything else. While the procedure of election campaigns falsification has been well developed and works like a well-oiled machine, street protests are unpredictable and pose a threat to the regime. It is for this reason that the authorities seek to stifle all the attempts of any public political activity that is not in their favour.

Moreover, by suppressing these ultras groups, police feel they are sending a signal that will help to prevent any political protests that might occur during the World Ice Hockey Championship that Minsk will be hosting in May.

The tournament creates a  unique opportunity for the Belarusian political elite to organise and carry out a large scale PR campaign that can change the negative image of the Belarusian political regime in the West. But, uncontrolled groups of ultras and football hooligans may spoil the event's well-manucured TV broadcasts.

The subculture of ultras in Belarus is not as popular as in Poland, Russia or Ukraine. Still, given the current complete inability for any opposition political movements to mobilise people for anti-government protests, these ultras can be treated as one of a few groups capable of raising street protests.

The authorities’ aspiration to prevent any kind of visible outdoor political activity has created a unique situation in which the nation's intellectual elite have become supporters of a marginal, often violent subculture.

On the other hand, the repressive actions taken by the authorities for posting a picture online demonstrates the skittishness of the officials that the Ukrainian revolution has caused.

The Belarusian authorities understand that if thousands protesters taking to the streets could eventually lead to the collapse of the its long-standing authoritarian political regime.  

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

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