By Vadzim Bylina (Вадзім Быліна) –
The Belarus Football Federation (BFF) recently made all Belarusian Premier League (or Vysheyshaya Liga) games available online, for the first time in its short history, in an attempt to make the domestic game more attractive for Belarusian supporters, with its popularity having diminished significantly in recent years. From an outsider’s perspective, the national league lacks competition and appears amateur, whilst most of the country’s stadia lie in a state of disrepair. In addition, football in Belarus has developed a political edge, which has manifested itself in football hooliganism and the rise of ultra groups. All these factors have contributed to the demise of football in Belarus as a competitive form of entertainment, and has heightened tensions within the government regarding football as a nascent threat to regime security.
FC BATE – an Exception to the Rule
During the 2012/13 season, football followers outside the country may have afforded Belarus a rare glance, courtesy of the exploits of FC BATE Borisov (BATE is an acronym for Borisovskiy zavod avtotraktornogo elektrooborudovaniya – the Barysau plant of automotive and tractor electrical equipment). BATE are the current Belarusian champions, and are located in the small town of Barysau in the Minsk region, which has a population of 180,000. They have competed three times in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League and last autumn in Minsk they aroused European attention by conquering German giants and eventual finalists Bayern Munich 3-1.
Football in Belarus is an unprofitable business and the country’s football clubs have very modest financial backing and face a permanent struggle to balance the books. This is why many of the country’s best players prefer to advance their careers in the likes of Kazakhstan or even with less salubrious clubs in Russia where remuneration is considerably greater. This winter, Belarus’s best player Renan Bressan moved to FC Alania Vladikavkaz – a relatively small club in the Russian Premier League who were recently relegated. Meanwhile, FC Minsk’s top player Leanid Kovel moved to the Kazakh club FC Irtysh.
Most of the owners of Belarusian football clubs are enterprise managers from the state, representatives of regional political elites, or oligarchs from the encirclement of Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenka (Belarus’s authoritarian leader who has now been in power for almost 20 years). The situation is similar to the management of football clubs in most countries of the former USSR.
Belarus’ Duce Doesn’t Like Football
It is common knowledge in Belarus that Lukashenka never played football – his favorite sport is ice hockey. Thus, at the end of the 1990s and during the 2000s around 30 “ice palaces” were built all around the country. Funds for building these arenas were taken from the state budget and even now there are plans for a further 20 ice hockey arenas to be constructed in Belarus.
The most expensive project concerning Belarusian ice hockey is the club Dinamo-Minsk, who play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Their annual budget in 2011 amounted to $24 million – three times that of FC BATE in 2012.
In stark contrast, the infrastructure of football in Belarus is poor. New domestic stadiums are not being built (with the exception of a new stadium for FC BATE, which is currently under construction). With the 34,000 capacity national stadium having been closed for renovation since the end of 2012 there is not one single domestic stadium in Belarus which meets the UEFA criteria. For the latest photos of stadiums in Belarus due to be fit for matches in the group stages and playoffs for European competitions in 2013/14, click here.
The (Soviet) Mechanics of Belarusian Football
In accordance with Soviet traditions, the Belarusian government is the main sponsor of professional sport in Belarus. Lukashenka is the Head of the National Olympic Committee while functionaries of the government, heads of security structures, and business elites from the president’s orbit also serve as heads of sports federations.
Chief executives of football clubs are also recruited from the regional political elite and managers of state businesses while sponsorship is provided through municipal and regional budgets, as well as state enterprises and businesses.
The chief executive of Belarus’ most prominent club FC BATE is Anatoliy Kapski who is the director of the Barysau plant of automotive and tractor electrical equipment whilst Yury Chyzh, the chairman of the supervisory board of FC Dinamo Minsk, is one of the wealthiest men in Belarus with journalists having nicknamed him “Lukashenka’s wallet” on account of his financial relationship with Belarus’ president. Currently Yury Chyzh is on the EU travel ban list after providing political and financial support to the Belarusian political regime. After the 2010 presidential election fraud (according to official election results Lukashenka received 80% of the vote) and brutal suppression of the street protests which followed, the European Commission issued an EU travel ban list consisting of 175 Belarusian officials they considered responsible for electoral fraud and repressions.
The most notable exception to the rule is the Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov – the owner of Heart of Midlothian F.C., FBK Kaunas and BC Žalgiris. In the 2000s, he invested in FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk (later FC Partisan). In 2011, however, after Minsk authorities refused to sign an investment agreement on the construction of a new football stadium, Romanov stopped his sponsorship of the football club.
Poor funding, old and dysfunctional stadia, and failure in European competition all contribute to low attendances at games in the national championship. Instead of broadcasting matches from the Belarusian championship Belarusian TV, like many broadcasters worldwide, prefers to show the English Premier League. Last season National TV could broadcast online three EPL matches per week while only highlights of one match from the Vysheyshaya Liga were shown. To further repel the would-be supporters, Belarusian stadia have poor infrastructure: no food is sold, while drinking beer and smoking are completely prohibited within the premises.
The BFF often schedule matches during normal working hours when many fans cannot attend the matches
As a result of the aforementioned issues, the average attendance of the Belarusian top flight is approximately 2,000. The bare stands now cut a forlorn figure in comparison to the crowds of 15, 000, which were regularly attained in the mid-1990s. Back then, there were fewer police in the stadiums and according to Freedom House reports and Worldwide Press Freedom indexes the political regime in Belarus was less authoritarian.
The Subculture of Ultras and Football Hooligans in Belarus
Much like some other countries of the former Soviet Union, ultras and a football hooligan subculture has become widespread having evolved during the 1990s and 2000s. Today there are two main hooligan/ultra groups in Belarus. The first is Dynamo Minsk Ultras who are infamous for their right-wing political views. The second is associated with FC Partisan Minsk (formerly FC MTZ-RIPO) whose fans revived their club after Romanov departed. From the 2012/2013 season FC Partisan were renamed FC Partizan-MTZ and competed in the Second League (the third division in the Belarusian league pyramid). Most FC Partisan supporters are leftists and describe themselves as anti-fascists.
The conflict between Belarusian police and ultras is permanent and most Belarusian cities apply absurd stadium regulations during games. For instance, ultras cannot hang banners in English for the simple reason that the police may not be able to understand the text. Police obstruct fans from travelling in order to see matches, frequently halting football followers at railway stations and detaining them until the match begins.
On several occasions riot police have attacked ultras during games for no apparent reason. In the summer of 2011 during a match between Belshina Babruisk and Dinamo Minsk in Babruisk, riot police attacked visiting ultras using tear gas while Dinamo fans celebrated a goal. As a result several fans, including a five year old child, as well as a Dinamo Minsk player were injured.
Provoked by the riot police’s actions Dinamo Minsk ultras began chanting slogans such as “we hate the regime.”
The conflicts between ultras and the BFF are often initiated by Federation officials. For example in the autumn of 2012 the Football Federation increased the price for tickets ten-fold for the World Cup qualifying match against Spain. Prices for the tickets for the match against Spain ranged from US$ 25 to US$42 while the corresponding prices for the previous official match against Bosnia and Herzegovina on September 2 2011 were only approximately US$5. This should be considered in the context of the average salary in Minsk, which is about US$ 500 and US$ 300-400 for the rest of the country.
In response to the high ticket prices the fan club of the national team B-12 boycotted the match. In order to fill the stadium, employees of state-owned enterprises and schools were forced by their supervisors to buy tickets. Moreover the match was not shown on TV in Spain because the fee for the right to broadcast the match asked by BFF was deemed too high for Spanish broadcasters. Belarus lost the match 4-0.
Belarusian Ultras and the Authoritarian Regime
The police control the stadiums and consequently Belarusian ultras rarely express their political views on the tribune. Instead, they must often voice their disapproval outside
At Belarus’s away international fixtures, many fans fly the White-Red-White flag which was the official flag of Belarus before 1995. This is forbidden in today’s Belarus and is used by the opposition. In 1995, in order to consolidate his power, Lukashenka initiated a referendum. One of the objectives of this referendum was to change the state Red-White-Red flag and its anthem Pahonia, which were associated with the national movement against the USSR during the late 1980s. Lukashenka promised to revive the Soviet Union and promptly changed their national symbols which revived those of Soviet Belarus.
According to American Sovietologist Robert Edelman, in Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State, the support of one team or another in the Soviet Union was an expression of the attitude of fans toward the political regime. Researching the history of Soviet football he illustrates that supporting Spartak Moscow was a small protest against ruling elites. It seems that in the Belarusian state some acts of football support can also be viewed as making a small, yet significant, protest against the authorities, who appear already wareful of the dangers this form of mobilisation can bring to authoritarian regime security.
Vadzim Bylina (Вадзім Быліна) holds a BA degree in Political Science from the European Humanity University (Vilnius, Lithuania) and a MA from Warsaw University in Cultural Studies. Vadzim lives in Minsk, where he currently works as a freelance journalist, while supporting Asipovichy, who are in the third division of the Belarusian championship.