Ukrainian Ultras and the Unorthodox Revolution

Ukrainian Ultras and the Unorthodox Revolution

By David McArdle and Manuel Veth –

The revolutionary fervour sweeping Ukraine in the form of anti-government protests has in recent weeks gained sharp momentum throughout the country’s football supporter community. Events in Egypt and in Turkey provided a reminder of how football supporters can offer a convenient base for organising mass political protests. What is curious about Ukraine’s case, however, is the defensive role these football supporters are playing. Rather than protesting per se they purport to be apolitical, merely protecting those who wish to express their dissent.

In Ukraine, much like the aforementioned examples, it appears that a diverse selection of fanatical and extreme football fans, hereon referred to as ‘Ultras’, has formed a temporary alliance, transcending geographical complexities and fierce club rivalries, to the significant detriment of the incumbent regime. However, the fractures between participant Ultra groups – very much akin to the difference between the multifarious ragtag of Euromaidan leaders – which are momentarily sealed, are symptomatic of the opaque world of Ukrainian politics, and will likely unravel with potentially even more dangerous consequences.

A Battle of Thugs – a Necessary Counterbalance?

Many of those Ultras participating in the protest movement are the same supporters – previously regarded by many as hooligans – heavily criticised before the start of the European Championships in 2012, which prompted calls for boycotts amidst fear of violence and racism.  Less than two years later, in an ironic shimmy, Ukrainian Ultras are now being hailed as the protectors of Euromaidan by Western media who factory out their primetime review of global politics – often in HD, yet too often presented in black and white.

Certainly, the role of the Ultras cannot be underestimated, but their motivations are far from egalitarian and cannot be presented in the context of a flawed ‘pro-EU versus pro-Russia’ paradigm. In fact, for these, achieving victory in the chaos sprawling across the country is less about trade agreements and foreign policy orientation and more about long-term survival, as they attempt to neutralise an existential threat deemed even greater by their motley leadership than the one carried in their own visceral subculture – the rise of the titushky.

‘Titushky’ – or simply ‘tits’ for short – the low-cost beastly thugs of the Yanukovich regime

While Ultras operate usually under a strict, albeit unsavoury, code of conduct, the agitators sent by the government to disturb the Euromaidan protests appear less inhibited when it comes to dispensing violence. These agitators, named after Vadym Titushko, a former mixed martial artist who has no interest in politics but has allegedly made his services available to the government to beat up journalists that have reported against the Yanukovich government, appear to now pose a danger to anyone in Ukraine who wishes to stand up against the incumbent government.

The rising profile of these vicious mercenaries, reportedly operating alongside law enforcement agencies, has galvanised a sudden sense of unity in Ukrainian society as a whole, and Ukraine’s divergent Ultra groups in particular. A blog posted on the 1 February, 2014, under the pseudonym Chornajuravka, noted that those on Kyiv’s Independence Square are repeatedly mocking the apparent dangers in joining the protests, pointing out that the square is relatively safe compared to the average street in modern-day Ukraine – a reference made to the growing sense of fear of such gangs-for-hire on Ukrainian streets today.

Writing on the truck for Ultras

Writing on the truck for Ultras

Ultras have thus been presented with an unlikely opportunity to rebrand themselves as forbearers of social justice, as well as a legitimised basis on which to wage a war of redemption against their historical adversaries, the law enforcement services in general, and the special units of the Ukrainian police, the Berkut, in particular.

Bona fide Euromaidan vigilantes, the Ultras are not. However, their role may present Euromaidan with an unorthodox victory, as Ultra groups from across the country, transcending fierce on- and off-the-pitch rivalries appear for the time being as unlikely bedfellows.

United We Stand

Dynamo Kyiv – Hopes and Dreams 

Dynamo Kyiv are Ukraine’s most storied club, and the record champions of the now defunct Soviet Top League. During the Soviet Union, Dynamo were considered an all-Ukrainian club that represented the hopes and dreams of an entire nation.

Today, whilst Dynamo’s success on-the-field has been largely trumped by that of Shakhtar Donetsk’s, their Ultras can be regarded as off-the-field frontrunners in terms of the country’s protest movements.


Ukraine’s football demographics

On January 21, 2014, a day before the implementation of what many regard as the Ukraine’s “dictatorship laws”, namely, the allowance of law enforcement agents to forcible halt and disperse unauthorised protests, Dynamo Ultras announced that they had organised specialised defence units, aimed to protect Maidan demonstrators from government-hired titushky.

The rallying call was announced on the Russian social media platform VKontakte:​​

“We appeal to all those who have yet to join the defense of Kyiv from these bastard sellouts” the group announced on vKontakte in a lengthy call to battle that reserved special ire for the titushky.

“We’re heading out, not so we get brought into Europe, not for Yulia, Vitalik, Arseniy, or Oleh, [Ukraine’s opposition quartet of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok] Not against Russia and Russians!!! We’re heading out — FOR KYIVANS, FOR OUR CITY, FOR OUR COUNTRY, FOR OUR HONOR!”

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Protesters walk past the Valeriy Lobanovskiy statue, covered in ice and ash, outside Dynamo Kiev stadium

According to one blog post identified the starting point for this unlikely coming together: “Everything began on January 21st when the Dynamo Kyiv Ultras were supported by the Dnipro Dnipropetrovs’k supporters”. It went on to list another eight clubs whose Ultra contingent had also taken to the streets, from January 23rd to the 25th: “Zorya Lugansk, Shakhtar Donetsk, Metallist Kharkiv, Metallurg Zaporizhya, Tavriya Simferopol, Vorskla Poltava, Chernomorets Odessa, and Sevastopol.”

While the Eastern nature of the list may be surprising, the heavy involvement of Karpaty Lviv is not.

Karpaty Lviv – home of the Ukrainian Resistance

The participation of Karpaty Ultras in the protests was almost a certainty, with eye-witness reports spotting many protesters wearing the “unmistakable green and white colours of Karpaty Lviv from western Ukraine”, a side who boast a dedicated fan base despite not having won a single competition since famously lifting the Soviet Cup in 1969.

Karpaty's Banderstadt - not the beacon of democratic values

Karpaty’s Banderstadt – not the beacon of democratic values

Karpaty Lviv, whose fans tend to support the far-right pro-Ukrainian party Svoboda (Freedom) and, indeed, form the backbone of the party’s grassroots politics have been the flag carrier of the revolution in the west of the country. The Ukrainian Carpathian region is the hotbed of Ukrainian language and nationalism and Karpaty has, for many, come to symbolise Ukrainian nationalism.

In addition, although Karpaty Lviv are owned by an oligarch who in the past held a seat for the Party of the Regions in the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), the club are these days much more dependent on the politics dictated by the city council, which is dominated by members of Svoboda.

Eastern Ukraine: A surprising Revolution

What has been widely viewed as a “tipping point” moment has been the active role of Ultras coming from clubs based in the Russified east of Ukraine, lately affiliated with the politics of Yanukovich.

The participation of Ultras from Ukraine’s strongest club, Shakhtar Donetsk, is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, the club belongs to Ukraine’s richest man – not to mention the main sponsor of the ruling party –Rinat Akhmetov, while the current president Yanukovich hails from Donestsk, the industrial heartland of Eastern Ukraine.

“Thank you, fans of Shakhtar, Metalist, Dnipro, who performed together with the Ukrainian people,” influential opposition figure Petro Poroshenko said hours after Yanukovich’s first concessions to the opposition.

“Fans of Shakhtar personally decided to protect the people who came to express their dissatisfaction with the authorities and lawlessness,” Ultras from the Donetsk club said in a statement. They continued, “We came to support our people in fighting for their rights. We are against the regime.”

Meanwhile, in the Crimea and Simferopol, Ultras have spoken out against European integration, but have nevertheless voiced their displeasure with the violence conducted against peaceful demonstrations and have turned out on the street to protect protesters. Tavria Ultras in the Crimean city of Simferopol underscored that their involvement was not related to EU integration but rather as a statement against attacks on Ukrainian citizens, which they attribute to “gang rule and lawlessness established by the police in order to protect powerful criminals.”

Ultras from the southeastern coastal city of Mariupol chanted “Urge everyone not to sell out their country for 300 hryvnya [$35]”, alluding to the reported earnings of the titushky.

The involvement of Ultras from eastern Ukraine as well as from the Crimea is especially significant; in the past both these areas have been firmly behind the Partiia Regionov, and the centre of the Russian minority living in the country.

Ukrainian_parliamentary_election_2006_(PoR)v (1)

2006 Parliamentary Election results for Партия регионов (Party of the Regions)

The majority of people living in those areas have especially close ties to Russia and are not pro-European integration. On the other hand the involvement of Ultras supporting the Euromaidan protests show a real rift with the current government and demonstrates a more widespread disillusionment with the current government over unfulfilled reforms and undelivered anti-corruption packages.

Divided we Fall?

Ultra groups, on the whole, do not uphold liberal and democratic values. Both Karpaty Lviv’s Banderstadt and Dynamo Kyiv’s White Boys are renowned for violence and racist chants, and have in the past been punished by UEFA for offences regarding the latter. Therefore, many of the Ultras involved in the demonstrations against the venal Yanukovich regime are an institutionalised element of an equally ugly side of Ukrainian society.

Furthermore, the involvement of these Ultra groups could deliver the Yanukovich regime with a PR open goal, teeing it up to brand the anti-government protests as part of the rise of proto-fascist groups. The Russian government has, with typical promptness, already tarred the Ukrainian protesters as a bunch of radical Ultras through their state-owned television company Russia Today.

The key problem, however, is that the current truce will likely not survive once the Euromaidan Revolution has drawn to an end. Successful or not, the end of the Euromaidan protests will provide the starting point for the reappearance of fractures both within the political opposition and amongst their new-found allies, the Ultras.

The Ultras may assist in an unorthodox Revolution for Ukraine, but taking into consideration the immediate legacy of the Orange Revolution in 2005, the aftermath may prove highly conventional.

Edited by Al Watt and Chris Rickleton

David McArdle is a PhD candidate studying Central Asian studies in the UK but is currently a resident of Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Originally from Greenock (Scotland), travels through Eastern Europe and the Balkans as an undergraduate precipitated his obsession for the region. Having also lived in Belarus and Georgia, David’s other (non-footballing) passions include kitsch 80s music and Russian literature. You can follow David on Twitter @FrunzeAlba

Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus