Viciebsk Region – the Land of Artists and Terrorists
Viciebsk city hosted one of the most famous avant-garde art schools of the 20 century counting amongst those who walked through its doors such famous names as Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich.
But recently it has become famous as the terrorist capital of Belarus, as supposed organisers of 2011 explosion in Minsk metro originated from there. In addition, explosions occurred in Viciebsk also in 2005 and 2012.
The west of the Viciebsk region appears more supportive to democratic opposition. It has a sizable Catholic population and uses Belarusian language more widely, while the eastern region maintains a more “Russian” area.
Although quite industrially developed, the region suffers from high labour emigration, as Russia offers salaries significantly larger when compared to domestic companies.
Cities to Any Taste
Apart from Viciebsk city, several major cities with their particular identities are located in the Viciebsk region. Polack is the most famous of them – the oldest city of Belarus, first mentioned in chronicles in 862 AD. Polack served as the centre of the first form of Belarusian statehood, the Polack princedom, which subsequently joined the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Navapolack (or New Polack), the city that lies right near Polack, is the young industrial city that emerged only in 1958 as an industrial complex. One of the two Belarusian refineries that play a significant role in the Belarusian economy and politics are found here.
Another old city, Orša, first mentioned in the chronicles in 1067, is famous the birthplace of prominent Belarusian writer Uladzimir Karatkievič. Today, however, it has became famous mostly for an unusual concentration of prisons. A famous phrase says “In Orša there are three prisons and not a single university”.
Land of Lakes and Artists
The region has a significant tourist potential thanks to its natural conditions – the abundance of lakes. Braslaŭ's lakes attract many tourists as a popular resort destination in Belarus. This is a complex of large lakes in the northwestern corner of the region on the border of Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia.
People around the world might know Viciebsk for another interesting page of its history. In the beginning of the 20th century, it became one of the centres of European art avant-garde. Such famous artists as Kazimir Malievich and Marc Chagall taught at the art school and created several of their masterpieces there.
Viciebsk city has the oldest tram lines in Belarus, and one of the oldest in Russian empire. They were launched in 1898, a year earlier than in Moscow and a full nine years earlier than in Saint-Petersburg.
The Capital of Terror
Viciebsk, along with the Minsk region, presents a divided region when it comes to political views. The results of presidential elections show strong support of democratic and nationally oriented opposition in the west of Viciebsk, and low support in the east of the region. The same concern linguistic preferences – west of the regions speaks more Belarusian than the east of it.
The west of the region has a significant Catholic population and belonged to Polish republic until 1939, while the eastern part is orthodox and joined Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic earlier.
It appears as the most “Russian” region of Belarus, as the share of Russians here appears the largest of all Belarusian regions – 10.2%. The region has close ties with Russia, because relatives of many families have lived in Russia since soviet times or work there now.
Viciebsk city has retained some elements of civil activity. Civil campaign Naš Dom (Our Home) deals with all kinds of local policy issues and includes such famous figures of Belarus civil society as Valer Ščukin and Volha Karač.
Viciebski Kurjer presents a currently rare example of regional independent newspaper that still exists. Though it is registered and printed in Russia, local activists bring it to Belarus and spread among the citizens. This process sometimes turns into a kind of adventure, as local authorities try any means to prevent the distribution of the newspaper.
Viciebsk region governor, Aliaksandr Kosiniec, has been quite unremarkable during his stay in office since 2008. He has PhD in Medicine and previously held a position of the rector of Viciebsk medical university and then deputy prime-minister.
In recent years, Viciebsk became famous also as a terrorist capital of Belarus. Dzmitry Kanavalaŭ and Uladzislaŭ Kavalioŭ, the supposed organisers of the 2011 terrorist act in Minsk metro both come from Viciebsk city. The explosion killed 15 people and injured 203, and both organisers were sentenced to death. Earlier, two explosions occurred in Viciebsk in 2005, when around 50 people were injured. And most recently, in November 2012 another explosive device went off near a Viciebsk KGB building. Shortly afterwards, a woman was detained and accused of this act of terror.
The Deserted Region
The region has quite poor soil and cold climate, so agriculture is not its strong point. But unlike Western Belarus, the east of the Viciebsk region has a more developed industrial sector, especially its oil and chemical industry.
The Naftan refinery based in Navapolack is one of two Belarusian refineries that live on cheap Russian oil and thus contribute considerably to the Belarusian state budget. The plant was involved in an illegal scheme of export of solvents, which Russia subsequently demanded to stop.
As perhaps each of eastern regions of Belarus, Viciebsk has a serious problem of emigration of workforce. Drivers, builders, and simply men with hands are needed in thriving large cities of Russia, where they can get as much as 10 times the salary that they would get back home. In the villages, where income sources are more limited, one can sometimes hardly find a few young men, as they have all moved to Russia in search of an income.
Such an economy negatively impacts families, which remain separated for long periods of time. Emigration remains a major regional social and economic problem, to which government has no solution for so far. The regions risks to turn to the periphery and source of labour of Russian megalopolises if the business climate does not improve.
Reviving Partisan: Solidarity of Minsk Football Fans
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.