Reviving Partisan: Solidarity of Minsk Football Fans

photo: goals.by

Minsk football club Partisan-MTZ recently became a symbol of solidarity for football fans in the post-Soviet space. In 2004 -2012 the club belonged to Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, well-known for his investment in football.

While Romanov was doing business in Belarus, the football club twice won the Belarusian Cup, the main "knock out" cup competition in Belarusian football. The “Red-White” club acquired a large number of fans who, unlike the most other nationalist groups of Eastern Europe, openly declare anti-racism and anti-fascism views.

After Romanov stopped sponsoring Partisan fans revived the club. Collecting money for their favourite team supporters showed that they are active and solidarity group which do not need the permission from authorities and Belarus Football Federation to make their team playing football. Yet football officials tolerated the initiative of fans. But recent events suggesting that the future of Partisan put on doubt.   

Lithuanian Millionaire who Loves Sports

In the mid-2000s the founder of the first Lithuanian private bank Ūkio Bankas - Vladimir Romanov started doing business in Belarus. Shortly thereafter he found patrons among the Belarusian political elites. The sponsorship of MTZ-Ripo became one of the conditions of the investment project he planned to implement in Minsk.

In 2005, Alexander Lukashenka approved Romanov’s investment project. Besides planning to build apartment houses in residential areas on the outskirts of Minsk, Romanov’s company ŪBIG was to reconstruct the Traktar Stadium, the second largest football arena in Minsk. The development plan included the construction of the shopping mall, business centre, indoor sports arena, a hotel and a parking lot that sat next to the stadium.

Romanov, who became famous for his investment in the sport also purchased a new football club from Minsk -- MTZ-Ripo. At that time, besides Belarusian team, he invested into Heart of Midlothian FC from Edinburgh, the basketball club Žalgiris and FC Kaunas from Lithuania.

In 2007, ŪBIG signed the investment agreement with the Minsk City Council. According to the agreement to implement the project the joint-stock company “Stadium” was established. At that time, Romanov had a great relationship with the Belarusian authorities, and became one of the initiators of Alexander Lukashenka’s visit to Lithuania in 2009. For his part, Alexander Lukashenka advised the Lithuanian business elite to contact Romanov in case they wanted to do business in Belarus.  

Nevertheless in the beginning of 2010s, Romanov “lost the confidence” of the higher authorities and the Minsk City Council broke its investment agreement with the Lithuanian millionaire. Most likely, the main reason of the conflict was the fact that instead of the reconstruction of the Traktar Stadium, the JSC “Stadium” started to build apartment houses in Minsk's suburbs. When the Belarusian authorities stopped supporting Romanov’s business, he announced the cessation of the FC MTZ-Ripo’s sponsorship.

From MTZ-Ripo to Partisan

In 2002 after the merger of two minor league Minsk football teams FC Traktar and FC Pracouniye Rezervy, FC  MTZ-Ripo was born. Romanov purchased the club in 2004. According to the Lithuanian tycoon, between 2004 and 2012 he invested into the club around USD 15 million.

That amount was enough to create a successful team. In the second half of the 2000s, MTZ-Ripo twice won the Belarusian cup and twice finished third in the Belarusian premier-league season. Rapidly, the club became the second most popular football club in Minsk creating an alternative to the FC Dinamo Minsk. 

Unlike Dinamo Minsk’s ultras, infamous for their right-wing political views, MTZ-Ripo supporters became the first organised group of football fans in post-Soviet space who openly declared their anti-racist and anti-fascist views. Partisan’s fans often compare their club to the FC St. Pauli. Supporters of the football club from Hamburg are well-known all over Europe for their anti-racist views.

All ultra groups from Eastern Europe are either apolitical or have right wing political views. MTZ-Ripo’s ultras group stood out against this landscape. They became isolated on the ultras scene inside the country, while leftist activists from Russia and Ukraine as well as some anti-racism fans groups from Western Europe supported the movement.

One year before Romanov left the club he carried out a rebranding of the team. He renamed the FC MTZ-Ripo as FC Partisan to make the name of the club more “attractive” for “normal supporters.” The millionaire did not pay attention to the fans protesting against the renaming. But in 2012, when he announced the cessation of financial support of the club, the only group interested in the existence of Partisan were the ultras who would go on to follow the football club.

Revival of the Anti-Fascist Football Club

Several cases in football history when supporters revived a club exist. Most of them occurred in Britain (AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester) and though it has never happened in Eastern Europe before the FC Partisan case took place. 

Existence in isolation and constant rivalry with more numerous groups of ultras and football hooligan groups of the FC Dinamo Minsk made Partisan supporters a close-knit group with a sense of solidarity. 

Shortly after it became known that the sponsor who funded the football club was gone, the supporters established a public association with the same name “Partisan Minsk” and started fundraising to revive the club. According to Leanid Piatkevich, the leader of Partisan supporters and currently the director of the club, besides the supporters from Minsk, ultra groups from Germany, Ukraine, Sweden and other countries also collected money.   

The Partisan team spent the season 2012 playing in Minsk championship (division 4) and succeeded to raise money to play in the Second league (Division 3) in the season 2013.

Uncertain Future of Partisan

Belarusian authorities could not overlook such act of solidarity very rare in today’s Belarusian society.  Everything suggests that the future of Partisan is not serene.

In March, riot police beat a group of young supporters (17-19 years old) at an away friendly match with the FC Asipovichy to intimidate the Partisan ultras. Later on a riot police official could not explain the reasons for the beatings. The last two home matches of Partisan were disrupted. At the time of the first match, an ambulance car did not come to the stadium. According to the regulations of the Belarus Football Federation, the match cannot perform if there is no ambulance crew at the stadium. The second time, all the stadiums in Minsk refused to rent a playing field to the club.

Until now, sports remained one of the few spheres of public life in Belarus where people could organise with no risk of the authorities’ disruptions. The future of FC Partisan will show if it is still the case.

Vadzim Bylina is a freelance journalist based in Minsk.

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