Belarusian Authorities Crack Down on Football Fans
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 Biaroza – FC 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 Read more
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.
Dealing with Slavery and Human Trafficking in Belarus
On 6 February a Belarusian businessman received 5 years in prison for enslaving a group of Vietnamese whom he had earlier agreed to deliver to the European Union. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has defined fighting human trafficking as one of its priorities both domestically and internationally, where it feels it has been successful.
The recent US report on trafficking, however, downgraded Belarus' performance in combating the problem due to its abusive legislation and a lack of open access to information on the issue.
The positive results from the anti-trafficking campaign are visible in Belarus, though some social groups remain vulnerable to trafficking: women from weak families and men from the regions who go to Russia to work. The government needs to develop both employment and professional education policies to boost jobs for these groups.
A Slaveholder from Belarus
Belarus has not seen slavery for almost two centuries, but recently a rare case of it occurred near Lida, a city in Western Belarus. On 6 February businessman Siarhej Stoliaraŭ was given five years in prison for organising the illegal migration of individuals. Stoliaraŭ and his Russian partners developed a plan to illegally move several Vietnam citizens from Moscow to the European Union. He took 16 of them to a truck and brought them to a village in the Lida district.
But instead of immediately delivering them to Lithuania, he ordered the Vietnamese to work off the services rendered to him. The migrants got accommodation in a shed and had to dig a ditch and do other physical jobs. Stoliaraŭ kept them locked up for eight days, though his neighbours had no idea what was happening in the yard next door. The case was revealed only during a border guard check in the village for other, unrelated reasons.
A World Anti-Trafficking Activist
Belarus has engaged in actively combating human trafficking both at home and internationally since 2005. It became one of its major foreign policy initiatives, enjoying strong international consensus and a firm backing from many Western countries. The authorities claim they brought about a significant drop in trafficking inside Belarus. The following diagram from the Ministry of the Interior review these dynamics over the past decade.
The number of human trafficking and related crimes (2002–2014)
Sexual exploitation's victims are always on the minds of the leadership in Belarus. According to official sources, the number of victims decreased from around 1000 in 2006 to 81 in 2014. In general, this is a very positive trend, especially when compared to other countries in the region, like Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova, where the trends are less encouraging, according to a 2014 UN report.
Belarusian women are the most likely to be exported to Western Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, France, but also as Middle East and Russia.Traffickers have become more cautious and do not usually come to Belarus personally, though nine of them were detained inside the country in 2014.
Modern traffickers have changed their ways: if in the 1990s they attempted to deceive the victims by promising them legal highly paid jobs, today these schemes no longer work thanks to the spread of communication technology and educational campaigns. They openly invite women to work as prostitutes, and the women go in for these dirty jobs fully aware – they simply can earn more doing the same job abroad than in Belarus. And many surely hope to find a rich fiancé and start a happier life.
Belarusian Migrants Enslaved in Russia
Labour slavery has also been on the decline over the past decade, but the major reason for it remains the same. Thousands of Belarusians migrate to Russian giant cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in search of work. Unemployed men listen to the stories of neighbours who have been in Russian and made good money in construction, convincing the to pursue a similar journey. But they often find a less optimistic reality awaiting them when they arrive in Russia.
In June 2014 two Belarusians managed to escape from servitude in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Strangers knocked them at a Moscow bus station with a spiked drink and brought them to a brick factory. They worked 15 hours a day and were forbidden from leaving the factory's territory under threat of a heavy beating.
The men managed to run away with the help of the Russian NGO Alternative, who received information about their presence in Dagestan. Russian media reported that Dagestan has 600 brick factories, and half of them use slave labour, 10-50 slaves at each factory. And no one knows why the Russian government does nothing to stop this outrageous crime.
US Feels Belarus's Efforts Have Been Weak
Despite the bright official statistics on trafficking from Belarus, the US Department of State has been placing Belarus in its Tier 2 watch list. This means that the government is making efforts to comply with the western standards of combating human trafficking, but the total number of victims remains significant and shows that the government is failing to resolve the problem.
The US report gives several instances where Belarusians are still vulnerable to being compelled to forced labour. It mentions the functioning of presidential decree No 9, which forbids leaving one's workplace in any mill from the wood industry without the employer's permission. Men who seek jobs abroad remain subject to falling victim to forced labour, as do women via sex trafficking.
The report criticises Belarusian officials, who allegedly understate the real number of victims in order to show the government's successful performance. The government also shows little interest in cooperating with NGOs who deal with trafficking issues.
New Policies Needed to Fight Trafficking
While the positive results in the broader anti-trafficking campaign can indeed be observed in Belarus, the government still has a ways to go in developing its strategy of dealing with the problem. Belarus succeeded in fighting human trafficking at home, but it still proves itself incapable of preventing its citizens from servitude abroad. The authorities should thus focus on problems which do not touch migration directly and stem from social and economic conditions in the country.
Authorities should specifically target the most vulnerable groups with particular social or regional origin: women from poor or alcoholic families and men from the small towns and villages who seek earnings in Russia. The government should develop policies that help these groups find a decently paid job at home, and encourage their professional and personal development.