Belarusian Ultras and the Regime
Recent successes of football club BATE Barysau in the Champion League caught attention not only of supporters from all over the Europe but also of the Belarusian authorities. Achievements of FC BATE often appear in public speeches of Lukashenka.
Answering the question from FC BATE forward Vitaly Radzionau on his last press-conference on January 15, Lukashenka said that FC BATE should be grateful to him because he freed football club form taxes.
Despite the fact that during the last press conference Lukashenka said that he always played football last time he played football in public long was time ago. The favourite sport of Lukashenka is ice hockey. Perhaps for that reason football stadiums are not being built in Belarus and the sports gets little public support.
Victories of the small Belarusian football club in Champion League occurred not because but despite the state policy in the field of sport where football has a low priority. Football in Belarus is an unprofitable business. Belarusian football clubs have a modest financial backing and have permanent financial problems. This is why many good players prefer to pursue a career not in Belarus but in Kazakhstan or in minor leagues in Russia.
Owners of football clubs are enterprise managers from state sector, representatives of regional political elites and oligarchs from the encirclement of Lukashenka. That is very similar to the football management in USSR.
At the same time the subculture of ultras and football hooligans in Belarus is on the rise, which creates a nuisance for the Belarusian authorities. In a country where most areas of public life are under governmental control football fans represent a group which has a protest potential.
Ice Hokey versus Football
After Lukashenka came to power in Belarus ice hockey became the main sport in the country. In the end of 1990s and during 2000s around 30 “ice palaces” were built all around the country. Funds for building the arenas were taken from the state budget. Nowadays around 20 more ice arenas are planning to be built.
The most expensive project of Belarusian ice hockey is the ice hockey club Dynamo-Minsk, which is playing in the Continental Hockey League (KHL). Its annual budget in 2011 amounted $24 millions. The annual budget of FC BATE in 2012 was estimated at only $8 millions.
In the meanwhile, the infrastructure of football in Belarus is poor. New stadiums are not being built (with exception of a new stadium of FC BATE which is currently under construction). There is not even one stadium in Belarus which in accordance with the criteria of UEFA is fit for matches on group stages and playoffs of European cups. The main football arena of Belarus is Dynamo which has only 34 thousands seats closed for renovation in 2012.
The Structure of Belarusian Football
Following Soviet traditions of the USSR, Belarusian state is the main customer and supervisor of professional sport. Lukashenka is the Head of the National Olympic Committee. Functionaries of the government, heads of security structures, and business elites from the circle of Lukashenka also serve as heads of sports federations.
Chief executives of football clubs are also recruited from the regional political elites and managers of state businesses. Sponsorship of football clubs is carrying out by municipalities and regional budgets, by state enterprises and business.
For example the chief executive of FC BATE Anatoliy Kapski is the director of BATE industrial plant which produce starters for tractors. The chairman of the supervisory board of another well-known Belarusian football club FC Dynamo Minsk is one of the wealthiest men in Belarus Yury Chyzh nicknamed by journalists “Lukashenka's wallet”. Currently Yury Chyzh in on the EU travel ban list because of alleged support of the Belarusian regime.
The most notable exception to the rule when the typical owner of Belarusian football club is an administrator from Belarusian ruling elite is Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov – the owner of Heart of Midlothian F.C., FBK Kaunas and BC Žalgiris.
In 2000s he invested into FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk (later on FC Partisan). However, in 2011 after Minsk authorities refused to sign the investment agreement on the construction of the stadium with Romanov Romanov stopped the sponsorship of the football club.
Poor funding, old and dysfunctional stadiums, failure in the European cups of most of Belarusian football clubs contribute to low attendance of national championship. Moreover, Belarusian stadiums have a very poor infrastructure: no food is sold, beer drinking and smoking is completely prohibited.
Supporters often have to endure long humiliating procedure of security checks performed by ordinary and riot police. As a result average attendance of the highest league of Belarusian football championship is 2,000 people per match. A big part of these supporters belongs to ultras and football hooligans’ subculture.
Being Ultras in Belarus
After the Soviet Union collapsed in Belarus, similarly to others countries of ex-USSR, ultras and football hooligans subculture became widespread and has evolved over the 1990s and 2000s. Nowadays in Belarus there are two widest warring groups of fans. The first group is Dynamo Minsk Ultras famous by their right-wing political views.
The second group is FC Partisan Minsk (ex FC MTZ-RIPO) fans. After Vladimir Romanov stopped sponsorship of FC Partisan fans revived the club. Last season FC Partisan played in the Minsk championship. Most of FC Partisan supporters are leftists and describe themselves as anti-fascists.
ultras cannot hang banners in English for the reason that police cannot understand the text Read more
The conflict between Belarusian police and ultras is permanent. Most Belarusian cities apply absurd stadium regulations during the games. For instance, ultras cannot hang banners in English for the reason that police cannot understand the text. Police hinders fans from travelling in order to see matches. Usually police stops fans on railway stations and detains them until the match begins. In consequence ultras arrive for the match with a long delay.
In recent years on several occasions riot police attacked ultras on the stadium without any reason. For example, in the summer of 2011 in Babruisk during the match between Belshina Babruisk and Dynamo Minsk riot police attacked guest ultras using tear gas during celebration of the goal scored by Dynamo. As a result several fans, a five year old child and a Dynamo Minsk player who run up to the sector with a guest fans to celebrate the goal were injured.
Provoked by the riot police Dynamo Minsk ultras chanted the slogan “We hate the regime” for several minutes, referring to the political regime in the country.
The conflicts between ultras and Belarus Football Federation are often initiated by Federation officials. The latest conflict took place in the autumn of 2012 after the ticket prices for the World Cup qualifying match against Spain increased 10 times in comparison to another official matches. Prices for the tickets for the match against Spain amounted from $25 to $42 while the price for the tickets to the previous official match against Bosnia and Herzegovina on September 2, 2011 according to the official exchange rate were around $5.
To make the Federation reduce the prices members of the ultras group of Belarus representation B-12 announced the boycott of the match, resulting with extremely poor ticket sales for the game. In order to fill the stadium, employees of state-owned enterprises and schools were forced by their supervisors to buy the tickets.
Belarusian Ultras and the Regime
Because of total control on the stadiums, Belarusian Ultras rarely express their political views towards Belarusian political regime. But they are doing it outside stadiums or during the matches that take place outside the country.
In the summer of 2011 during the silent protest actions in Belarusian cities in independent mass-media appeared the information that just before one of the action was arrested one of the leaders of FC Dynamo Minsk fans Anatoly Khamenka one of active participant of such actions.
The same days to support the protesters FC BATE ultras on the away match in Panevėžys (Lithuania) chanted the slogan ШОС [shos] which can be decoded as “May he die!” which refers to Lukashenka.
On the away matches of Belarus representation most of the fans use the White-Red-White flag which was the official flag of Belarus before 1995. Forbidden in today’s Belarus it is using by opposition.
In Lukashenka's Belarus state is using security agencies seeks to control every political and social activity. The subculture of ultras and football hooligans can be seen by youngsters as an attractive alternative for self-realisation.
Numerous and well-organised groups of ultras is seeing by security services as a threat to the authoritarian regime. That is why using riot police during matches and making unbearable conditions for active support they try to reduce the protest potential of the ultras.
Clash of Civilizations: Latin v Cyrillic Scripts in Belarus
In November 2012, the newly published Minsk underground system map surprised Minsk residents.
On these maps, Belarusian names of the stations were transliterated into Belarusian using Latin script, or Lacinka. This transliteration seemed incomprehensible to many people and caused a big discussion in media.
For most Belarusians today, Latin script became an attribute of western world. Few of them know that only a century ago it was commonly used along with Cyrillic letters. Yet another group of their more informed country fellows are familiar with Belarusian Lacinka and try to defend its presence in public areas.
In the case of the underground map, one side advocated the comprehensibility of transliteration, while the other defended original national script regardless its practical aspect. While the opponents of Lacinka accuse its advocates of excessive nationalism and impracticability, the advocates argued that the opponents do not know national history and have a complex of superiority of foreigners.
The Minsk Underground Map
Belarus is hosting world hockey championship in 2014. Belarus authorities attempt to make the environment of Belarus cities more friendly to foreign visitors. This is why they introduced Latin letters on the underground map.
The way the station names were transliterated drew a lot of public attention. Instead of usual transliteration system similar to Russian, authorities decided to use Belarusian Lacinka. The reason for such move remains not clear, but nationally oriented part of the society met this phenomenon with rejoicing, while the rest were quite surprised, and some even angry.
Within a few days, a video appeared on the web, where a foreigner tries to read the names and fails to do so. This fact became the main argument of the opponents of Belarusian Lacinka: it is unintelligible for foreigners.
Their opponents see the problem from the other angle. More “English” type of transliteration can be used when a country has no tradition of Latin script of its own. Belarus had one for centuries, so it can be reasonably used in transliteration of Belarusian language.
They point to the languages of other East European nations, like Czechs, Slovenians, Lithuanians and Latvians, who have similar systems of script with diacritical signs, but do not bother whether a visitor from another country will be able to read their words properly. Therefore, the defenders of English-friendly transliteration seem to have a complex of superiority of the English civilization.
The History of Latin Script in Belarus
Belarus is located on the borderland of two major civilizations, the East and the West, Catholic and Orthodox, no wonder both Cyrillic and Latin scripts developed here abreast since Middle Ages.
In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the predecessor of modern Belarus, Latin script was used for recording Latin and Polish languages. From the 16th century on, Latin script started to be used for recording Old Belarusian language as well.
Lacinka became the script of the first literary works in Belarusian languages that appeared in 19th century, when a few intellectuals and writers started to promote Belarusain, which was then mostly the language of peasants. Russian Empire rulers considered Latin Script as a threat that could separate “ethnographic groups” such as Belarusians and Ukrainians from the single Russian nation. They formally banned Lacinka, yet Belarusian intellectuals continued to use it in their works.
After a number of transformations and reforms, Belarusian Lacinka separated from the Polish alphabet. Diacritical signs stemming from Czech alphabet replaced Polish characters to defend Belarus from Polish influence (for instance, č, š, ž replaced cz,sz, ż). Lithuanians made similar steps, as their writing had also been based on the Polish alphabet.
Belarusians equally used Lacinka and Cyrillic script until the partition of Eastern and Western Belarus between Poland and USSR in 1921. Soviet authorities discouraged the use of Lacinka and soon it disappeared in soviet part of Belarus. In Poland, it continued to exist until USSR annexed Western Belarus after World War II.
The Renaissance of Lacinka
The interest in Lacinka reemerged after the collapse of USSR and return to national culture and policy of Belarusianisation. Not surprisingly, Lacinka failed to win immediate mass support – people were simply used to the Cyrillic script. Even among nationally oriented intellectuals, there always were both advocates and opponents of return of Latin script in mass use.
However, Belarusian Lacinka became not only the passion of a bunch of enthusiasts. In 2000, Institute of Language of National Academy of Sciences established it as a base for transliteration of Belarusian proper names in foreign languages.
Hence, it was reasonable to expect that Lacinka would be widely used in state institutions for transliteration matters. However, it did not happen. Belarus authorities continued to transliterate most common case for transliteration, names in the passport and geographical names, following the system used in Russia, rather than the trditional Belarusian Lacinka.
In online English-language resources, there is no uniform pattern of transliteration. Google Maps, for instance, uses a bizarre mixture of various systems of transliteration in naming Belarusian geographical objects. Sometimes names appear in Belarusian cyrillic, sometimes in Lacinka, sometimes in Russian and not always correctly.
Because of poor use of Lacinka in public matters, it remains unknown to most Belarusians. This lack of knowledge creates the ground for discussions such as the one related to the underground map.
The Future of Latin Script in Belarus
State policy up to now did not favour Belarusian language in general, let alone its Latin script. Lacinka became a symbol of western civilization that Lukashenka and his entourage consider alien. Many Belarusians remain unaware of many facts of their history and culture prior to World War II, the core element of official ideology. But as discussions like the one on tube scheme go on, more and more Belarusians get to know that they have richer legacy than they could imagine.
Nevertheless, the future of Lacinka remain undefined. Some people advocate its introduction into wider use. They say that Latin script will bring Belarus closer to the West and push Russia away. Others argue that initially people should preserve Belarusian language itself which stands on the verge of extinction, and only thereafter engage in disputes over scripts and other minor details. For some, it remains a matter of pride in glorious past, for others – just a ridiculous thing and even nonsense.
So, the attitude to Lacinka remains the ground for cleavage in Belarus. But Belarusians badly need symbols of unity that can hold their fragile national identity together, rather than differences. This presents a task, which future nation-builders of Belarus will have to face and resolve.