The Belarus football ultras who stood up to Lukashenko

WARSAW, ŁÓDZ, BYDGOSZCZ – The regime lastly got here for Andrei through the morning shift. An officer from the state safety service confirmed up on the manufacturing facility flooring asking after him. Information of the go to travelled up the meeting line, reaching the younger man with the thrill minimize who was becoming collectively drivers’ cabins for navy vehicles. He grabbed his cellphone and frantically started wiping the info.

After the infinite pitched battles on stadium terraces, the accidents, insults and graffitied partitions, it will be a cellphone name that sealed Andrei’s destiny. Manufacturing unit employee by week and chief of the Torpedo Minsk ultras by weekend, Andrei had known as his greatest buddy the earlier evening to debate the anti-government protests sweeping Belarus. Little did he know that the safety companies had been listening in. He was picked up at his office the very subsequent day and bundled away to the police headquarters, forward of a shock go to to the manufacturing facility by none apart from President Alexander Lukashenko himself – the goal of the protesters’ fury.

In workplace constantly since 1994, Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving chief, counting on repression and Russian backing to keep up energy. In the summertime of 2020, his regime teetered on the point of collapse after his declare to have gained a disputed election ignited huge nationwide protests. Going through the largest problem to his rule in 26 years, Lukashenko felt it was time to display that he nonetheless commanded the help of the working lots. The Minsk wheel tractor plant, or MZKT, Andrei’s office and the delight of the Belarusian military-industrial complicated, was chosen because the stage. 

Belarusian servicemen block a road throughout an opposition supporters’ rally in Minsk protesting in opposition to the disputed 2020 presidential elections outcomes. Photograph by Tut.by/AFP by way of Getty Photographs

On 17 August 2020, TV cameras filmed the embattled president, wearing a enterprise go well with, aboard a large navy transporter parked within the manufacturing facility yard. Among the employees had gone on strike, becoming a member of the protests, however a whole bunch had stayed behind. They listened within the noon warmth as Lukashenko performed the wire-tapped recording of a cellphone name over the general public handle system – it was Andrei and his buddy. “We need to come out immediately, shout, tell [Lukashenko] to get out,” they had been saying. “They can’t fire us all!” 

The irritated crowd turned on the president, booing on stay TV. “Step down,” they chanted, “step down.” Lukashenko reacted to the PR catastrophe with trademark pugnacity. He was filmed on cellphones squaring as much as a few of the employees who had heckled him. “I won’t beat you,” he mentioned. “It’s not in my interests. But provoke me and I will be cruel.” He ordered a employee to place down his cellphone. “Be a man,” he mentioned, flanked by bodyguards. “There’s a whole crowd of you and I’m here on my own.”

The temper on the manufacturing facility echoed the tumult on the streets. On the police station the place Andrei had been taken that day, the officers struggled to maintain up with the tide of detained protesters. “They had no idea what I was there for,” Andrei mentioned. After being questioned for ten hours, he took benefit of the chaos and secured a short lived launch. Then he bought right into a automotive and drove for six hours straight to the Ukrainian border. His spouse joined him a number of days later and life, as they knew it in Belarus, was over. “It wasn’t like we planned it,” Andrei mentioned, once I caught up with him in a crowded pizzeria in Bydgoszcz, the Polish metropolis that he now calls dwelling. “It was fear.” He spoke provided that his full title was withheld.

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Andrei’s warning was justified. The regime’s crackdown on opponents actual and imagined has turned the fanatical supporters of Belarusian soccer golf equipment into marked males. Scores of outstanding ultras have acquired prolonged jail phrases for comparatively minor offences. The ultras’ unruly subculture, characterised by visceral rivalries between crews, has equipped a judicial pretext for the crackdown. After the August 2020 protests, a whole bunch of ultras had been roughed up and held in custody, and one was later discovered lifeless in suspicious circumstances. Dozens fled to close by Poland, a serious vacation spot for Belarusian refugees, the place they’ve been adapting to new jobs, shared flats and international stadiums – a destiny nonetheless preferable to that of the crew members left behind in Belarusian jails.

That is the story of how the arduous males of Belarusian soccer grew to become dissidents, political prisoners and exiles. The story’s roots are entwined with the battle in neighbouring Ukraine, the place one other pro-Russian authorities was overthrown in 2014. Nationalist Ukrainian ultras had supplied the muscle for the Maidan rebellion, and would find yourself on the entrance traces of the following armed wrestle in opposition to Russian-backed separatists within the east of the nation.

In Belarus, a smaller extremely motion could be impressed by tales of Ukrainian soccer hooligans making historical past. Just like the Ukrainians, the Belarusian ultras opposed Moscow’s affect over their nation on nationalist grounds. They would look to Ukraine as a mannequin for confronting Russia. In the meantime, Russia would find yourself utilizing the shopper state of Belarus as a launchpad for its ambitions in Ukraine. “The fight for Ukraine is also the fight for Belarus,” mentioned Zmicier Mickiewicz, a supporter of Slavia, a membership from the southern metropolis of Mazyr, who now lives in exile in Warsaw. “The West should look at a map. Had Putin been denied free entry into Belarus, Russian troops would not have reached the gates of Kyiv.”

Zmicier Mickiewicz. Photograph by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has promoted nationalism at dwelling and overseas as an alternative choice to liberal democracy. But alongside Russia’s western flank, in international locations similar to Belarus and Ukraine, nationalism has additionally galvanised the resistance to Putin. Nationalism is essential, Andrei mentioned, when it means “defending your country so that it is independent, and defending your culture so that it remains distinct from Russia.”

Wiry and athletic, Andrei attire in an identical tracksuit outfit and walks with the poise of the semi-professional boxer that he was once, again in his dwelling nation. His speech is courteous however terse. “It was a shock. We had no idea where we were going or what we would do without money or work,” he mentioned, recalling the early days of exile. “There was the hope that Lukashenko would be gone by the new year.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, he thought-about crossing over to combat, becoming a member of the a whole bunch of Belarusian volunteers reputed to have entered Ukrainian ranks. However, he mentioned, his spouse “is not letting me go”.

[See also: “Scared, hopeless and silent”: anti-war Russians are pessimistic about mass protests]

To be an extremely in Belarus is to be on the sidelines of a sidelined sport. Although soccer is claimed to have been Lukashenko’s first ardour, he’s greatest generally known as a eager novice ice hockey participant – even taking to the rink along with his patron, Putin – and constructing glitzy arenas for his favorite sport. Overshadowed by the brand new “ice palaces”, the soccer stadium infrastructure has crumbled. Belarus’s soccer golf equipment emerged from Soviet-era factories and cooperatives, and they’re managed like most state-owned enterprises within the nation – indifferently and inefficiently. They convey their house owners little in the best way of revenue and haemorrhage their greatest gamers to wealthier leagues in Kazakhstan and Russia.

The ultras of Belarus initially styled themselves after the violent English soccer hooligan “firms” of the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Over the previous few years, the affect of Italian ultras, related to a extra expressive type, has additionally develop into evident. The ultras’ presence within the stands is marketed with banners, chants and elaborate choreographed shows. They are additionally more and more energetic on social media, documenting away video games on Instagram and Telegram with stylised pictures of masked males posing in swirls of flare smoke.

As elsewhere, recruits to the ultras in Belarus are drawn by the promise of camaraderie, managed violence and collective delight. “You are representing your team and city,” mentioned Aleksander Morozov, the previous chief of the BATE Borisov ultras, hardcore supporters of traditionally the nation’s most profitable membership. “You cannot parade in your team’s colours if you are unwashed, drunk or covered in your own vomit!”

Morozov was jailed again dwelling in a crackdown following Ukraine’s Maidan rebellion. Now primarily based within the Polish industrial metropolis of Łódz, he wears a black tracksuit emblazoned with Belarusian revolutionary symbols. He’s effectively over 6 toes tall, has a quicksilver wit, and appears to know everybody’s enterprise within the exile neighborhood. He muses in regards to the impression of Ukrainian refugees on the Polish labour market – three million have arrived because the Russian invasion. They will work for decrease wages, he mentioned, which can have an effect on “not only Poles but also the Belarusians” in Poland. He doubts the inflow can be reversed. “Many of these people, the young especially, will not go back after the war. It will be like it was with the Belarusians who left in 2020 – they realised that you can have a good life in Poland. You do not have to bribe anyone for it.” He shares a small ground-floor house with two “guests” from Ukraine, and two Belarusians – each followers of various groups. They just lately welcomed a pet kitten, Bajun. When the animal pounces on friends, Morozov admonishes her, clasping her face in opposition to his personal.

Aleksander Morozov, the previous chief of the BATE Borisov ultras. Photograph by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Aesthetics and camaraderie apart, the ultras in Belarus additionally provide younger males a way of rejecting the police state and its Soviet-era symbols. Hostility to the Lukashenko regime is certainly one thing of a typical denominator, extending throughout the ideological spectrum. The ultras of Partizan Minsk, as an illustration, are firmly against the regime even when their leftist-anarchist beliefs make them outliers on a largely nationalist scene. “It’s no secret that football fans in Belarus are right-leaning because it’s a form of protest,” mentioned Zmicier Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan. “Everywhere you are surrounded by Lenins and Stalins, hammers and sickles, and all that crap, so young people choose something diametrically different.” When their groups play overseas, the ultras usually convey out Belarus’s former white-and-red flag, successfully banned within the nation and a logo of democratic opposition to the Lukashenko regime.

Mickiewicz sees the ultras in grand historic phrases, as romantic heroes rebelling in opposition to the spirit of the age. “Who expanded Western civilisation and allowed it to develop? It was the adventurers like Columbus and Magellan, who could not stay at home.” Mickiewicz himself fled to Warsaw after being threatened with prosecution for sharing footage of the 2020 protests on-line. Presently employed as a information anchor on Belsat, the Polish state broadcaster’s Belarusian channel, he’s fastidiously groomed and wears a chequered flat cap.

Lengthy cautious of the ultras, the regime started tightening the screws after December 2010 when, in a well-known sample, Lukashenko’s declare to have gained a discredited election provoked road protests. The ensuing crackdown focused all suspected reservoirs of dissent, from the NGO sector to the impartial media – and the ultras. Stadium guidelines had been tightened: flares and balaclavas had been banned and banners required prior approval from the police. Accustomed to taking part in by their very own guidelines, the ultras chafed on the new restrictions. Many deserted their conventional stands within the stadium, selecting as an alternative to disperse inside the principle crowd. “The supporters in our sector would be sandwiched by police,” Morozov mentioned. “How am I supposed to watch the match while I am being watched by OMON [riot police] officers?”

With their style for mass brawls, ultras can pose a risk to public order underneath any type of authorities. Underneath authoritarian regimes nonetheless, additionally they represent a political threat. Their clannish tendencies and occasional hyperlinks to the legal underworld make them one of many few components of society that lie outdoors the management of the state. For a regime similar to Lukashenko’s, there was a threat that small however unruly teams of ultras may instigate a wider riot.

Authoritarian governments elsewhere have been identified to comprise and co-opt the ultras. In Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, Purple Star Belgrade hooligans got weapons, uniforms and orders to hold out mass homicide in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, far-right hooligans have reportedly been recruited for fight in japanese Ukraine and as muscle to intimidate the regime’s home opponents. However there was little probability of Lukashenko harnessing ultras whose anti-Russian Belarusian nationalism flies within the face of the regime’s pro-Russian orientation. “As nationalists, the [Belarusian] ultras are also paradoxically anti-state,” mentioned Przemysław Nosal, a sociologist on the Adam Mickiewicz College in Poznań, western Poland, and an professional within the politics of soccer fandom.

Subsequent occasions in Ukraine confirmed the ultras had been a menace to the area’s Russia-backed regimes. In 2014, weeks of violent protests centred on Kyiv’s Maidan sq. would culminate within the overthrow of a authorities that had junked a cope with Brussels in favour of nearer ties with the Kremlin. Nicely-versed in road combating, Ukrainian ultras joined the fray. They put aside inter-club rivalries and created a ragtag entrance that battled riot police and defended the protesters. When Russia responded to the Maidan rebellion by backing armed separatists within the Donbas area, the ultras signed as much as combat in opposition to them. Many joined far-right paramilitary teams that had been scrambled collectively to help Ukraine’s outflanked navy.

The greatest identified of those formations, the Azov Battalion, drew its early recruits from a community of ultras linked to the Metalist Kharkiv soccer membership. The group additionally attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists from throughout the area – associations it will later search to solid off because it was built-in into the Ukrainian navy. Putin’s regime has persistently portrayed its enemies in Ukraine as Nazis – a declare that elides its personal use of neo-Nazis on the battlefield and at dwelling, whereas interesting to collective reminiscences of Russia’s Second World Battle expertise and vastly overstating the affect of the far proper in Ukraine. In 2014, the Azov fighters had been lauded in Kyiv for retaking the port metropolis of Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists. In 2022, their successors had been a part of a drive resisting a Russian siege that has levelled town, left 1000’s of civilians lifeless, and compelled a whole bunch of 1000’s from their houses.

Vladimir Putin meets with Alexander Lukashenko within the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photograph by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Photographs

The basic mobilisation of Ukrainian ultras through the Maidan would encourage awe throughout the border in Belarus. In 2014, hardcore BATE Borisov supporters, from a bunch generally known as the 23 BATE Ultras, posted an image on social media with a message of help. “Stick it out, Ukraine! We are with you,” learn their banner, alongside the white-and-red Belarusian flag. However Lukashenko’s regime was watching too, and the ultras quickly discovered themselves within the dock. “They had my phone tapped,” mentioned Aleksander Morozov, who was a part of the group prosecuted over the submit. “That photo collectively cost the three of us 40 days in jail!”

The draconian punishment seems to have been a part of an effort to discourage the ultras from staging a Maidan in Minsk. After the rebellion in Ukraine, Lukashenko “understood that football fans needed to be cordoned off”, mentioned Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk extremely. The Belarusian authorities launched a multi-pronged assault, focusing on the ultras with police operations, lawsuits, blackmail and propaganda.

In 2019, three Torpedo Minsk followers acquired sentences starting from 5 to 9 years for a post-match scuffle at a petroleum station by which nobody was significantly harm. Dinamo Minsk followers had acquired ten-year jail phrases for the same combat two years earlier. A pacesetter of the Dinamo Minsk ultras, generally known as Vitalik “Puma”, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for sharing a condom business on social media – the court docket labelled it pornography. The circumstances had been eagerly publicised by state media.

The state “adeptly turned popular discourse” in opposition to the ultras, in response to Radosław Kossakowski, an professional in soccer fandom and the top of the sociology division on the College of Gdańsk in Poland. “Fans were linked to reports of various crimes not associated with their football activity,” he mentioned.

The prospect of serving jail time for minor misdemeanours was supposed as a deterrent to potential recruits to the ultras. The impetus for the crackdown got here from competitors throughout the forms, in response to Zmicier Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan. “Government departments fight for resources,” he mentioned. “That is why they invent new enemies, put more people in jail, ratchet up the repression.” The inside ministry’s infamous GUBOPiK division, nominally tasked with combating organised crime and corruption, was additionally placed on the case. “Officers started going around the flats of prominent fans and taking down names at the start of the season,” Mickiewicz mentioned. Many had been blackmailed with Soviet-style “kompromat” – damaging info that might be used in the event that they refused to cooperate.

[See also: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU]

There was, furthermore, a prepared provide of incriminating materials. “The football fan scene is heavily infiltrated by the police,” mentioned Anna Dyner, a political scientist and professional on Belarus on the Polish Institute of Worldwide Affairs, a Warsaw-based assume tank. “Most match-goers would have had their own police file that could be drawn upon.” Those that ended up in jail had been usually subjected to solitary confinement and assault. “It became customary for ultras to be beaten twice as hard,” Dyner mentioned. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread beatings and torture in custody, together with the administration of electrical shocks, and in a single reported case using truncheons to rape detainees.

The crackdown was efficient. Harassed and surveilled, the Belarusian ultras backed away from overtly confronting the regime. In 2020, nonetheless, its dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidential election achieved the unthinkable: it prompted the feuding ultras to come back collectively in opposition to Lukashenko.

When Europe went into lockdown, Belarus resisted any measures to curb the virus’s unfold. As an alternative, Lukashenko dismissed an infection fears as a “psychosis” and extolled the well being advantages of ingesting vodka, driving tractors and visiting the sauna. Factories and workplaces stayed open and fixtures within the Belarusian soccer season went forward as scheduled. The broadcasting rights to the video games had been snapped up by international networks determined to fulfill audiences craving stay sport, and for a number of historic weeks, Belarus had the most-watched premier league in Europe.

The ultras, nonetheless, had been alarmed on the authorities’s blithe perspective to the pandemic. Supporters of rival groups wrote a joint letter to the Belarusian soccer federation, asking for the season to be suspended. When the request was ignored, the ultras launched a boycott: they stopped exhibiting up on the stadium. By abandoning the arenas that had outlined them, the ultras had been briefly declaring that the destiny of the nation mattered extra.

After the primary wave of the pandemic, amid the regime’s crackdown on the protests that summer time, the ultras would query the morality of returning to the stadium. Have been they conferring legitimacy on a police state by accepting the heavy police presence on the video games? “There were intense discussions among the ultras’ leaders,” remembers Aleksander Morozov, the BATE Borisov supporter. “By buying tickets and attending matches, we were dancing to the police’s guitar. We asked if it was still worth it, or whether we should just call it quits.”

Aleksander Morozov. Photograph by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Because the regime hunted down protesters and dissidents, the ultras declared a truce. Followers of rival groups, who would possibly as soon as have overwhelmed one another mindless, started carrying round every others’ cellphone numbers, aiming to be in contact and maintain monitor of the crackdown. Inevitably, rival ultras ended up assembly in Belarusian prisons. “In jail, it doesn’t matter what colours you wear,” Morozov mentioned.

Over espresso on a cold Warsaw morning, Morozov in contrast notes about jail interiors with Eshet, the equally exiled fan of one other Belarusian membership, who requested for his full title to be withheld. Having served time in separate amenities, the lads established that the authorities should have had a deliberate coverage of denying mattress linen to political prisoners, forcing them to sleep on chilly mattresses. “You didn’t have a wall around the toilet in your cell?” Eshet requested, incredulous. Morozov replied: “We didn’t have a wall, we had a camera watching us, and the lights were always on. After a few days, it was not so much that you have a toilet where you live, but rather that you live in a toilet. We were burning newspapers to mask the smell.”

From the security of Poland, the previous inmate now arranges meals parcels for the ultras nonetheless jailed in Belarus. Morozov mentioned he tries to indulge each request – together with a current one for 2 kilograms of blue cheese, inconceivable to obtain in Belarus due to worldwide sanctions. “Sure, we could publicise their cases,” he mentioned of the crew members at the moment behind bars. “But if you were locked up in a cell, what would make you happier – seeing your photo on television or receiving a box of sweets?”

[See also: “Everyone is scared in Belarus”: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on confronting a regime of terror]

In exile, the ultras function a help community for the households of crew members which have fled overseas. Amongst them are the spouse and daughter of Nikita Krivtsov, a 28-year-old extremely from Maladzyechna, a city close to Minsk. Throughout a protest on 9 August 2020, Krivtsov approached riot police holding up the banned white-and-red Belarusian flag in entrance of a cheering crowd. Three days later, he went lacking. Witnesses mentioned he had been interrogated by the police, and the ultimate sign from his cell phone could be traced to a hospital. His physique was discovered propped up in opposition to a tree, bruised, swollen and with a noose across the neck.

The authorities mentioned he had taken his personal life however Krivtsov’s household accused them of homicide. He could be one in every of no less than 15 protesters discovered lifeless in suspicious circumstances following the 2020 election in August. “It was a desperate moment,” mentioned Morozov, recalling how he heard of Krivtsov’s demise. “We asked ourselves: if it is Nikita today, will it be me tomorrow?” Krivtsov’s funeral was one thing of a watershed, attended by rival crew members mourning facet by facet.

The long-term implications of the ultras’ truce are unsure.

Radosław Kossakowski from the College of Gdańsk mentioned such agreements “operate like a switch”: the ceasefires are typically “idealised” within the face of a typical enemy however don’t endure. Nevertheless, Przemysław Nosal, from Adam Mickiewicz College, argued that this truce may have lasting penalties, as there may be now a small “movement” of politically engaged ultras that’s aware of its collective power.

Whereas the connection between teams of ultras tends to be hostile, particular person soccer followers have been identified to domesticate alliances at a private stage with supporters of different groups overseas. In the course of the newest crackdown, large banners had been unfurled at fixtures throughout the area in honour of the jailed Belarusian ultras. On a extra sensible stage, teams of Polish soccer supporters have supplied a security web for newly arrived Belarusian counterparts looking for lodging and employment – a casual collaboration that overrides linguistic and cultural divisions, in addition to loyalties to rival golf equipment.

Followers of Legia Warsaw, the Polish capital’s most outstanding staff, helped put up Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk extremely and former manufacturing facility employee, and his spouse Yelena once they needed to quarantine on arrival. Yelena mentioned Poles understood what was taking place in Belarus due to their historical past underneath authoritarianism – they had been ruled by Soviet-aligned communists till 1989. “They were going through the same thing in the 1980s,” she mentioned. Within the early months of exile, the couple relied on an extremely in his fifties to translate for them: like many Poles of his era, he additionally spoke Russian. “He remembered [the 1980s] in Poland,” she mentioned. “We were like children to him.”

Andrei mentioned he was allowed to put on his Torpedo Minsk colors at Legia Warsaw’s stadium and was even invited to the infamous Zyleta, or Razor, terrace – reserved for Legia’s most fanatical supporters. He has declined the provide in the interim, as he waits for his grasp of Polish to meet up with the chants.

The Polish ultras scene is notorious for its riotous pyrotechnic shows and clashes with riot police, making it a mannequin for others within the area. Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan, mentioned he needed to get “totally wasted” after a 2011 go to to Poland revealed the gulf within the two international locations’ growth. “I could not return to my Belarusian reality and stay sober after having seen how far Poland had managed to come from a similar starting point.”

Admiration for his or her hosts however, the Belarusians can not think about discarding outdated loyalties. “These days, you can change everything: your name, your address, even the colour of your skin,” Mickiewicz mentioned. “But two things cannot be changed: your mother and your club.” Aleksander Morozov wears his allegiance on his pores and skin. Tattooed on his torso is the coat of arms of his metropolis, Borisov, in addition to the standard “Pahonia” coat of arms of Belarus – a knight on horseback, holding a sword and protect. His collarbones are tattooed with a Latin phrase, vide cui fide, or “careful who you trust”, whereas his membership of the BATE ultras is denoted by a cartoonish bomb with a lit fuse, tattooed on the chest. “It’s only for those who fight,” he mentioned. When he attends matches in Poland, he wears a staff scarf with the phrase, emigracja, or “emigration”, overlaid on BATE’s navy-and-yellow stripes.

Solid as dissidents by the regime, the exiled ultras appear to have grown into the position. “If I could take back time, I would do it all again,” mentioned Andrei. “I cannot imagine working alongside people who see these things and do nothing.” In Poland, he attends protests with Yelena calling out multinational companies which have maintained business hyperlinks with the regime.

Different ultras go for a extra hands-on strategy. When the top of the Belarusian soccer federation and shut Lukashenko ally, Vladimir Bazanov, visited neighbouring Czech Republic final November, Morozov and his crew packed a automotive with picket bats and drove for 4 hours to the border, hoping they could run into him. “Next time, Masha [short for Maria], you should come with us,” Morozov inspired me. “We would only break his legs.”

This story was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced for the Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Basis, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Community.

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