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14 May 2022

Rage against the regime: the Belarus ultras who stood up to Lukashenko

How war in Ukraine and repression at home steered diehard football fans towards protest, prison and exile.

By Maria Wilczek

WARSAW, ŁÓDZ, BYDGOSZCZ – The regime finally came for Andrei during the morning shift. An officer from the state security service showed up on the factory floor asking after him. News of the visit travelled up the assembly line, reaching the young man with the buzz cut who was fitting together drivers’ cabins for military trucks. He grabbed his phone and frantically began wiping the data.

After the endless pitched battles on stadium terraces, the injuries, insults and graffitied walls, it would be a phone call that sealed Andrei’s fate. Factory worker by week and leader of the Torpedo Minsk ultras by weekend, Andrei had called his best friend the previous night to discuss the anti-government protests sweeping Belarus. Little did he know that the security services were listening in. He was picked up at his workplace the very next day and bundled away to the police headquarters, ahead of a surprise visit to the factory by none other than President Alexander Lukashenko himself – the target of the protesters’ fury.

In office continuously since 1994, Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving leader, relying on repression and Russian backing to maintain power. In the summer of 2020, his regime teetered on the brink of collapse after his claim to have won a disputed election ignited massive nationwide protests. Facing the biggest challenge to his rule in 26 years, Lukashenko felt it was time to demonstrate that he still commanded the support of the working masses. The Minsk wheel tractor plant, or MZKT, Andrei’s workplace and the pride of the Belarusian military-industrial complex, was chosen as the stage. 

Belarusian servicemen block a street during an opposition supporters’ rally in Minsk protesting against the disputed 2020 presidential elections results. Photo by via Getty Images

On 17 August 2020, TV cameras filmed the embattled president, dressed in a business suit, aboard a giant military transporter parked in the factory yard. Some of the workers had gone on strike, joining the protests, but hundreds had stayed behind. They listened in the midday heat as Lukashenko played the wire-tapped recording of a phone call over the public address system – it was Andrei and his friend. “We need to come out immediately, shout, tell [Lukashenko] to get out,” they were saying. “They can’t fire us all!” 

The annoyed crowd turned on the president, booing on live TV. “Step down,” they chanted, “step down.” Lukashenko reacted to the PR disaster with trademark pugnacity. He was filmed on mobile phones squaring up to some of the workers who had heckled him. “I won’t beat you,” he said. “It’s not in my interests. But provoke me and I will be cruel.” He ordered a worker to put down his phone. “Be a man,” he said, flanked by bodyguards. “There’s a whole crowd of you and I’m here on my own.”

The mood at the factory echoed the tumult on the streets. At the police station where Andrei had been taken that day, the officers struggled to keep up with the tide of detained protesters. “They had no idea what I was there for,” Andrei said. After being questioned for ten hours, he took advantage of the chaos and secured a temporary release. Then he got into a car and drove for six hours straight to the Ukrainian border. His wife joined him a few days later and life, as they knew it in Belarus, was over. “It wasn’t like we planned it,” Andrei said, when I caught up with him in a crowded pizzeria in Bydgoszcz, the Polish city that he now calls home. “It was fear.” He spoke on condition that his full name was withheld.

Andrei’s caution was justified. The regime’s crackdown on opponents real and imagined has turned the fanatical supporters of Belarusian football clubs into marked men. Scores of prominent ultras have received lengthy jail terms for relatively minor offences. The ultras’ unruly subculture, characterised by visceral rivalries between crews, has supplied a judicial pretext for the crackdown. After the August 2020 protests, hundreds of ultras were roughed up and held in custody, and one was later found dead in suspicious circumstances. Dozens fled to nearby Poland, a major destination for Belarusian refugees, where they have been adapting to new jobs, shared flats and foreign stadiums – a fate still preferable to that of the crew members left behind in Belarusian jails.

This is the story of how the hard men of Belarusian football became dissidents, political prisoners and exiles. The story’s roots are entwined with the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine, where another pro-Russian government was overthrown in 2014. Nationalist Ukrainian ultras had provided the muscle for the Maidan uprising, and would end up at the front lines of the subsequent armed struggle against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

In Belarus, a smaller ultra movement would be inspired by tales of Ukrainian football hooligans making history. Like the Ukrainians, the Belarusian ultras opposed Moscow’s influence over their country on nationalist grounds. They would look to Ukraine as a model for confronting Russia. Meanwhile, Russia would end up using the client state of Belarus as a launchpad for its ambitions in Ukraine. “The fight for Ukraine is also the fight for Belarus,” said Zmicier Mickiewicz, a supporter of Slavia, a club from the southern city 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. Photo by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has promoted nationalism at home and abroad as an alternative to liberal democracy. Yet along Russia’s western flank, in countries such as Belarus and Ukraine, nationalism has also galvanised the resistance to Putin. Nationalism is important, Andrei said, 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 dresses in a matching tracksuit outfit and walks with the poise of the semi-professional boxer that he used to be, back in his home country. His speech is courteous but terse. “It was a shock. We had no idea where we were going or what we would do without money or work,” he said, recalling the early days of exile. “There was the hope that Lukashenko would be gone by the new year.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, he considered crossing over to fight, joining the hundreds of Belarusian volunteers reputed to have entered Ukrainian ranks. But, he said, his wife “is not letting me go”.

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

To be an ultra in Belarus is to be on the sidelines of a sidelined sport. Though football is said to have been Lukashenko’s first passion, he is best known as a keen amateur ice hockey player – even taking to the rink with his patron, Putin – and building glitzy arenas for his favourite sport. Overshadowed by the new “ice palaces”, the football stadium infrastructure has crumbled. Belarus’s football clubs emerged from Soviet-era factories and cooperatives, and they are managed like most state-owned enterprises in the country – indifferently and inefficiently. They bring their owners little in the way of profit and haemorrhage their best players to wealthier leagues in Kazakhstan and Russia.

The ultras of Belarus originally styled themselves after the violent English football hooligan “firms” of the 1970s and 1980s. Over the past few years, the influence of Italian ultras, associated with a more expressive style, has also become evident. The ultras’ presence in the stands is advertised with banners, chants and elaborate choreographed displays. They are also increasingly active on social media, documenting away games on Instagram and Telegram with stylised shots of masked men posing in swirls of flare smoke.

As elsewhere, recruits to the ultras in Belarus are drawn by the promise of camaraderie, controlled violence and collective pride. “You are representing your team and city,” said Aleksander Morozov, the former leader of the BATE Borisov ultras, hardcore supporters of historically the country’s most successful club. “You cannot parade in your team’s colours if you are unwashed, drunk or covered in your own vomit!”

Morozov was jailed back home in a crackdown following Ukraine’s Maidan uprising. Now based in the Polish industrial city of Łódz, he wears a black tracksuit emblazoned with Belarusian revolutionary symbols. He is well over 6 feet tall, has a quicksilver wit, and seems to know everyone’s business in the exile community. He muses about the impact of Ukrainian refugees on the Polish labour market – three million have arrived since the Russian invasion. They will work for lower wages, he said, which will affect “not only Poles but also the Belarusians” in Poland. He doubts the influx will 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 apartment with two “guests” from Ukraine, and two Belarusians – both fans of different teams. They recently welcomed a pet kitten, Bajun. When the animal pounces on guests, Morozov admonishes her, clasping her face against his own.

Aleksander Morozov, the former leader of the BATE Borisov ultras. Photo by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

Aesthetics and camaraderie aside, the ultras in Belarus also offer young men a means of rejecting the police state and its Soviet-era symbols. Hostility to the Lukashenko regime is indeed something of a common denominator, extending across the ideological spectrum. The ultras of Partizan Minsk, for instance, are firmly opposed to the regime even if 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,” said 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 teams play abroad, the ultras often bring out Belarus’s former white-and-red flag, effectively banned in the country and a symbol of democratic opposition to the Lukashenko regime.

Mickiewicz sees the ultras in grand historical terms, as romantic heroes rebelling against 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 online. Currently employed as a news anchor on Belsat, the Polish state broadcaster’s Belarusian channel, he is fastidiously groomed and wears a chequered flat cap.

Long wary of the ultras, the regime began tightening the screws after December 2010 when, in a familiar pattern, Lukashenko’s claim to have won a discredited election provoked street protests. The ensuing crackdown targeted all suspected reservoirs of dissent, from the NGO sector to the independent media – and the ultras. Stadium rules were tightened: flares and balaclavas were banned and banners required prior approval from the police. Accustomed to playing by their own rules, the ultras chafed at the new restrictions. Many abandoned their traditional stands in the stadium, choosing instead to disperse within the main crowd. “The supporters in our sector would be sandwiched by police,” Morozov said. “How am I supposed to watch the match while I am being watched by OMON [riot police] officers?”

With their taste for mass brawls, ultras can pose a threat to public order under any form of government. Under authoritarian regimes however, they also constitute a political risk. Their clannish tendencies and occasional links to the criminal underworld make them one of the few elements of society that lie outside the control of the state. For a regime such as Lukashenko’s, there was a risk that small but unruly groups of ultras could instigate a wider insurrection.

Authoritarian governments elsewhere have been known to contain and co-opt the ultras. In Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, Red Star Belgrade hooligans were given guns, uniforms and orders to carry out mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, far-right hooligans have reportedly been recruited for combat in eastern Ukraine and as muscle to intimidate the regime’s domestic opponents. But there was little chance of Lukashenko harnessing ultras whose anti-Russian Belarusian nationalism flies in the face of the regime’s pro-Russian orientation. “As nationalists, the [Belarusian] ultras are also paradoxically anti-state,” said Przemysław Nosal, a sociologist at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, western Poland, and an expert in the politics of football fandom.

Subsequent events in Ukraine confirmed the ultras were a menace to the region’s Russia-backed regimes. In 2014, weeks of violent protests centred on Kyiv’s Maidan square would culminate in the overthrow of a government that had junked a deal with Brussels in favour of closer ties with the Kremlin. Well-versed in street fighting, Ukrainian ultras joined the fray. They set aside inter-club rivalries and created a ragtag front that battled riot police and defended the protesters. When Russia responded to the Maidan uprising by backing armed separatists in the Donbas region, the ultras signed up to fight against them. Many joined far-right paramilitary groups that were scrambled together to support Ukraine’s outflanked military.

The best known of these formations, the Azov Battalion, drew its early recruits from a network of ultras linked to the Metalist Kharkiv football club. The group also attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists from across the region – associations it would later seek to cast off as it was integrated into the Ukrainian military. Putin’s regime has consistently portrayed its enemies in Ukraine as Nazis – a claim that elides its own use of neo-Nazis on the battlefield and at home, while appealing to collective memories of Russia’s Second World War experience and vastly overstating the influence of the far right in Ukraine. In 2014, the Azov fighters were lauded in Kyiv for retaking the port city of Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists. In 2022, their successors were part of a force resisting a Russian siege that has levelled the city, left thousands of civilians dead, and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Vladimir Putin meets with Alexander Lukashenko in the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The general mobilisation of Ukrainian ultras during the Maidan would inspire awe across the border in Belarus. In 2014, hardcore BATE Borisov supporters, from a group known as the 23 BATE Ultras, posted a picture on social media with a message of support. “Stick it out, Ukraine! We are with you,” read their banner, alongside the white-and-red Belarusian flag. But Lukashenko’s regime was watching too, and the ultras soon found themselves in the dock. “They had my phone tapped,” said Aleksander Morozov, who was part of the group prosecuted over the post. “That photo collectively cost the three of us 40 days in jail!”

The draconian punishment appears to have been part of an effort to deter the ultras from staging a Maidan in Minsk. After the uprising in Ukraine, Lukashenko “understood that football fans needed to be cordoned off”, said Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk ultra. The Belarusian authorities launched a multi-pronged assault, targeting the ultras with police operations, lawsuits, blackmail and propaganda.

In 2019, three Torpedo Minsk fans received sentences ranging from five to nine years for a post-match scuffle at a petrol station in which no one was seriously hurt. Dinamo Minsk fans had received ten-year jail terms for a similar fight two years earlier. A leader of the Dinamo Minsk ultras, known as Vitalik “Puma”, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for sharing a condom commercial on social media – the court labelled it pornography. The cases were eagerly publicised by state media.

The state “adeptly turned popular discourse” against the ultras, according to Radosław Kossakowski, an expert in football fandom and the head of the sociology department at the University of Gdańsk in Poland. “Fans were linked to reports of various crimes not associated with their football activity,” he said.

The prospect of serving prison time for minor misdemeanours was intended as a deterrent to potential recruits to the ultras. The impetus for the crackdown came from competition within the bureaucracy, according to Zmicier Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan. “Government departments fight for resources,” he said. “That is why they invent new enemies, put more people in jail, ratchet up the repression.” The interior ministry’s notorious GUBOPiK department, nominally tasked with fighting organised crime and corruption, was also put on the case. “Officers started going around the flats of prominent fans and taking down names at the start of the season,” Mickiewicz said. Many were blackmailed with Soviet-style “kompromat” – damaging information that could be used if they refused to cooperate.

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

There was, moreover, a ready supply of incriminating material. “The football fan scene is heavily infiltrated by the police,” said Anna Dyner, a political scientist and expert on Belarus at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank. “Most match-goers would have had their own police file that could be drawn upon.” Those who ended up in prison were often subjected to solitary confinement and assault. “It became customary for ultras to be beaten twice as hard,” Dyner said. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread beatings and torture in custody, including the administration of electric shocks, and in one reported case the use of truncheons to rape detainees.

The crackdown was effective. Harassed and surveilled, the Belarusian ultras backed away from openly confronting the regime. In 2020, however, its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidential election achieved the unthinkable: it prompted the feuding ultras to come together against Lukashenko.

When Europe went into lockdown, Belarus resisted any measures to curb the virus’s spread. Instead, Lukashenko dismissed infection fears as a “psychosis” and extolled the health benefits of drinking vodka, driving tractors and visiting the sauna. Factories and offices stayed open and fixtures in the Belarusian football season went ahead as scheduled. The broadcasting rights to the games were snapped up by foreign networks desperate to satisfy audiences craving live sport, and for a few historic weeks, Belarus had the most-watched premier league in Europe.

The ultras, however, were alarmed at the government’s blithe attitude to the pandemic. Supporters of rival teams wrote a joint letter to the Belarusian football federation, asking for the season to be suspended. When the request was ignored, the ultras launched a boycott: they stopped showing up at the stadium. By abandoning the arenas that had defined them, the ultras were temporarily declaring that the fate of the nation mattered more.

After the first wave of the pandemic, amid the regime’s crackdown on the protests that summer, the ultras would question the morality of returning to the stadium. Were they conferring legitimacy on a police state by accepting the heavy police presence at the games? “There were intense discussions among the ultras’ leaders,” recalls 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. Photo by Jaap Arriens/BIRN

As the regime hunted down protesters and dissidents, the ultras declared a truce. Fans of rival teams, who might once have beaten each other senseless, began carrying around each others’ phone numbers, aiming to keep in touch and keep track of the crackdown. Inevitably, rival ultras ended up meeting in Belarusian prisons. “In jail, it doesn’t matter what colours you wear,” Morozov said.

Over coffee on a chilly Warsaw morning, Morozov compared notes about prison interiors with Eshet, the similarly exiled fan of another Belarusian club, who asked for his full name to be withheld. Having served time in separate facilities, the men established that the authorities must have had a deliberate policy of denying bed linen to political prisoners, forcing them to sleep on cold mattresses. “You didn’t have a wall around the toilet in your cell?” Eshet asked, 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 safety of Poland, the former inmate now arranges food parcels for the ultras still jailed in Belarus. Morozov said he tries to indulge every request – including a recent one for two kilograms of blue cheese, impossible to procure in Belarus because of international sanctions. “Sure, we could publicise their cases,” he said of the crew members currently 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 operate a support network for the families of crew members that have fled abroad. Among them are the wife and daughter of Nikita Krivtsov, a 28-year-old ultra from Maladzyechna, a town near Minsk. During a protest on 9 August 2020, Krivtsov approached riot police holding up the banned white-and-red Belarusian flag in front of a cheering crowd. Three days later, he went missing. Witnesses said he had been interrogated by the police, and the final signal from his mobile phone would be traced to a hospital. His body was found propped up against a tree, bruised, swollen and with a noose around the neck.

The authorities said he had taken his own life but Krivtsov’s family accused them of murder. He would be one of at least 15 protesters found dead in suspicious circumstances following the 2020 election in August. “It was a desperate moment,” said Morozov, recalling how he heard of Krivtsov’s death. “We asked ourselves: if it is Nikita today, will it be me tomorrow?” Krivtsov’s funeral was something of a watershed, attended by rival crew members mourning side by side.

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

Radosław Kossakowski from the University of Gdańsk said such agreements “operate like a switch”: the ceasefires tend to be “idealised” in the face of a common enemy but do not endure. However, Przemysław Nosal, from Adam Mickiewicz University, argued that this truce could have lasting consequences, as there is now a small “movement” of politically engaged ultras that is conscious of its collective strength.

While the relationship between groups of ultras tends to be hostile, individual football fans have been known to cultivate alliances at a personal level with supporters of other teams abroad. During the latest crackdown, huge banners were unfurled at fixtures across the region in honour of the jailed Belarusian ultras. On a more practical level, groups of Polish football supporters have provided a safety net for newly arrived Belarusian counterparts searching for accommodation and employment – an informal collaboration that overrides linguistic and cultural divisions, as well as loyalties to rival clubs.

Fans of Legia Warsaw, the Polish capital’s most prominent team, helped put up Andrei, the Torpedo Minsk ultra and former factory worker, and his wife Yelena when they had to quarantine on arrival. Yelena said Poles understood what was happening in Belarus because of their history under authoritarianism – they were governed by Soviet-aligned communists until 1989. “They were going through the same thing in the 1980s,” she said. In the early months of exile, the couple relied on an ultra in his fifties to translate for them: like many Poles of his generation, he also spoke Russian. “He remembered [the 1980s] in Poland,” she said. “We were like children to him.”

Andrei said he was allowed to wear his Torpedo Minsk colours at Legia Warsaw’s stadium and was even invited to the notorious Zyleta, or Razor, terrace – reserved for Legia’s most fanatical supporters. He has declined the offer for the time being, as he waits for his grasp of Polish to catch up with the chants.

The Polish ultras scene is infamous for its riotous pyrotechnic displays and clashes with riot police, making it a model for others in the region. Mickiewicz, the Slavia fan, said he had to get “totally wasted” after a 2011 visit to Poland revealed the gulf in the two countries’ development. “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 their hosts notwithstanding, the Belarusians cannot imagine discarding old loyalties. “These days, you can change everything: your name, your address, even the colour of your skin,” Mickiewicz said. “But two things cannot be changed: your mother and your club.” Aleksander Morozov wears his allegiance on his skin. Tattooed on his torso is the coat of arms of his city, Borisov, as well as the traditional “Pahonia” coat of arms of Belarus – a knight on horseback, holding a sword and shield. His collarbones are tattooed with a Latin phrase, vide cui fide, or “careful who you trust”, while 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 said. When he attends matches in Poland, he wears a team scarf with the word, emigracja, or “emigration”, overlaid on BATE’s navy-and-yellow stripes.

Cast as dissidents by the regime, the exiled ultras seem to have grown into the role. “If I could take back time, I would do it all again,” said Andrei. “I cannot imagine working alongside people who see these things and do nothing.” In Poland, he attends protests with Yelena calling out multinational corporations that have maintained commercial links with the regime.

Other ultras opt for a more hands-on approach. When the head of the Belarusian football federation and close Lukashenko ally, Vladimir Bazanov, visited neighbouring Czech Republic last November, Morozov and his crew packed a car with wooden bats and drove for four hours to the border, hoping they might run into him. “Next time, Masha [short for Maria], you should come with us,” Morozov encouraged 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 Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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