How Belarusian Football Rose up Against Europe’s ‘Last Dictator’

Art by Charbak Dipta

As the sun set over Soligorsk in early August, it looked as if Shaktar Soligorsk vs. Dinamo Brest was heading towards a drab 0 – 0. However, with ten minutes left on the clock, Shakhtar Striker Dmitry Postrelov received the ball with his back to goal, before successfully turning the defender and rifling home. Within minutes, chants of ‘Zhive Belarus’ (long live Belarus) rang out around the stadium, a pro-democracy motto adopted by the opposition to Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. The next day, the Belarusian Football Federation (BFF) announced the postponement of a number of matches across the top three Belarusian leagues, without offering any formal explanation. 

The turbulent year for Belarusian football started in April. As the only European league to continue playing despite the pandemic, the league made international headlines. Television rights to the Belarusian Premier League were sold to 11 countries across the world, and while the rest of Europe stayed at home, stadiums across Belarus remained open. Despite this, attendances dwindled, as fans feared attending games as COVID-19 gripped Europe. In a home fixture in early April, league leaders BATE Borisov, who averaged 5049 fans last year, had as little as 470 spectators attend. 

Nevertheless, football continued amongst a backdrop of mistrust and misinformation. Empty stadiums served as a demonstration of the lack of trust fans had in the authorities’ advice, and off the field a larger storm was brewing. On August 9, Belarusians were to take to the polls. Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled over the nation for the past 26 years. Having won Belarus’ first and last fair democratic election in 1994, Lukashenko has steered Belarus from the ashes of the Soviet Union to a modern-day dictatorship reliant on agriculture and cheap Russian energy. However, following the withdrawal of Russian subsidies in 2010, stagnation started to set in, and support for the strongman has wavered. 

Enter coronavirus. As Lukashenko exited the rink after playing in an amateur ice hockey tournament in late March, he quipped ‘there are no viruses here’ continuing ‘do you see any floating around?’ The president’s wreckless approach to the virus caused anger among a populace that were still recovering from the economic woes of the last decade. Despite pleas from the World Health Organization to stop the Belarusian football leagues until the pandemic was under control, the nation was kept open and cases continued to soar. On April 13, Lukashenko declared, ‘Nobody is going to die of coronavirus in our country. I’m announcing this publicly. It’s my firmly held conviction.” Less than a month later, 135 people had succumbed to the virus. 

Having barred the most prominent candidates from running in the election, opposition to Lukashenko arrived in the most unlikely form. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of blogger and disqualified candidate, Sergei Tikhanovsky, filled in for her husband, running on a presidential ticket of pro-democracy and a return to Belarusian institutions pre-Lukashenko. Despite overwhelming support for Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko won the election with 80% of the popular vote, in an election that the UN described as ‘neither free, nor fair’. Public outrage spilled out onto the streets, with protestors demanding a fair rerun of the election. Outrage was met with rubber bullets, and thousands of peaceful protestors were subject to state-administered brutality at the hands of Lukashenko’s thugs.  

As the president ran scared, occasionally appearing on social media clutching an AK-47, the nation erupted. Where protestations were quashed, new ones rose up, most notably in one of Lukashenko’s dearest treasures; sport. Since his rise to power, Lukashenko has used sport as an important political tool, using the state budget to build shiny new stadiums and host international tournaments. Grand stadiums have served as a demonstration of the successes of Belarus and his regime, and Lukashenko’s own sporting endeavours have long been an attempt to project his populist politics. In an address to Belarusian olympians last year, Lukashenko declared ‘[sport] today is not a competition, not even a battle. It is a war. Because sport has become politics.’ However, the war that sport was waging seemed to be an entirely different one. 

Since the election sports stars have come out denouncing Lukashenko. An open letter demanding the release of political prisoners and a fair rerun of the election has so far been signed by over 600 belarusian athletes.  With the authorities’ attention turned away from stadiums and onto the streets, football matches became fertile ground for political resistance. Players celebrated by raising two fingers and a cuffed fist, a symbol of the Belarusian opposition.  Fans reciprocated, displaying banners and anti-regime chants. Players took to social media to heap pressure onto Lukashenko. Ilya Shukrin, Belarus’ most promising striker, announced that he will not represent the nation as long as Lukashenko rules. On the 13th August, it emerged that BATE Borisov striker, Anton Soroka, had been arrested and detained for 7 days for taking part in an opposition meeting. Two weeks later, FC Krumkachy Minsk players, Sergei Kazika and Pavel Rassolsko emerged from a police station badly beaten having been arrested and detained by police for being amongst a crowd of protestors. Kozika had sustained a fractured vertebra and kidney damage, and both were sidelined for the foreseeable. The result was more resistance, as clubs and fans rallied around their players. 

A week later, Krumkachy faced Dinamo Minsk in a local derby. The result would determine who progressed to the next round of the Belarusian cup. For Dinamo, it looked to be a short journey across the capital and a quick dispatching of second-division Krumkachy. However, the match played out quite differently. Following the beatings of Kozika and Rassolsko, unrest was ripe among the Krumkachy fans. Fans marched to the ground bellowing pro-democracy chants, with placards capturing the collective agitation. Krumkachy players emerged in the warm-up donning t-shirts with the message ‘we are against the violence’. Just a week earlier the players had carried out the same gesture, that time their t-shirts reading ‘we are with the people’. As the referee blew his whistle for the start of the game, Krumkachy players kicked the ball into the opposing half and remained stationary, clapping in unison with the supporters. The same gesture would be repeated the following week, this time by the opposition. Spurred on by the chants of pro-democracy and anti-violence, Krumkachy went on to win the game 2-0. At the final whistle, fans and players hugged, in scenes of solidarity that has defined the last four months across the nation.

Warnings and fines were handed out in an attempt to restore order across the sport. Krumkachy received a 3375 rouble fine for their ‘t-shirt’ protest, and the police ordered that Krumkachy play their next match behind closed doors. Where the sweeping pandemic had failed, political dissidence had succeeded in forcing matches behind closed doors. The head of the BFF, Vladimir Bazonov, came out and declared that ‘sport and politics should be kept separate.’ The irony of a former commander turned politician making the statement was all but lost. However, it is Lukashenko that has been committed to blurring these boundaries throughout his presidency. Under Lukashenko sporting institutions have undergone grave restructuring, with business elites appointed head of sporting federations, and the political class being made chief executives of football clubs. The changes allowed Lukashenko to keep a firm grip on football, and quell any protestations in stadiums.  The result, however, has been mismanaged clubs, falling attendances and increased tensions running throughout sporting institutions. Grounds that would regularly attract 15,000 fans in the nineties, now average just 2000 fans. 

A year into his presidency, Lukashenko was elected president of the country’s National Olympic Committee. Despite concerns that a sportsperson would be more apt for the role, he became the first head of state to assume such a position. 26 years on, sport remains one of Lukashenko’s favourite mediums in hypnotising his people. Yet the spell has worn off. Cracks that emerged after the financial crisis continue to get wider, and from the tiers of oversized stadiums and shiny new sports complexes, an air of tiredness is growing. As sport rebels, and the strongman loses his grip, Lukashenko is faced with a potentially existential question; how to give the people sport without losing control of the dialogue that takes place within it?

James Beardsworth

James is a freelance football journalist based in Moscow. He is passionate about football on the fringes of Europe and how the modern game is shaped by differing political landscapes.