In light of the ongoing wave of anti-regime protests in Belarus, Football Supporters Europe (FSE) recently spoke to Ingo Petz. Ingo is an FSE staff member, freelance journalist, founder of Fankurve Ost, and an expert on Belarusian politics and civil society.

We discussed the origins of the protests, their relationship to football, and the involvement of fans.

How did you become so involved in the politics, culture, and activism of Belarus?

IP: It’s a long and complex story, but I’ll try to shorten it.

I was born and raised in the old West Germany, close to the Dutch border. I decided to study Eastern European history and political science, as well as the Russian language, because we didn’t have a clue about the region—maybe some details about the October Revolution, but nothing about Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and so on. The other thing that influenced my interest was the optimistic atmosphere that predominated in both the East and West after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While on this path, I accidentally ended up in Belarus in 1995, around a year after the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, took power. From there, I became more and more interested in the country’s history and culture, which I felt was often misunderstood or simplified to fit a certain narrative. This made me want to convey a more nuanced vision of Belarus to German readers. And that newfound purpose led me into journalism and writing.

Another pillar of my Belarusian biography is my involvement with the protest movements of the late nineties. A lot of my friends from the music scene and civil society groups ended up in prison, and it was then that I knew had to make a decision. For those who have never experienced the privations and humiliations of an autocratic system, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you will always have the freedom to say what you want, meet with whomever you want, and go wherever you want. But I realised that you have to fight for those rights every single day. Hence my activism, which has involved organising in the German-based diaspora community—putting on concerts for blacklisted bands, finding publications for exiled writers, that kind of thing.

Football enters the equation in 2014, when I founded a project called Fankurve Ost, which combines civil society promotion, fan culture, and social exchange.

Can you explain why the current protests are occurring and why they’re occurring now?

IP: European media outlets don’t report a great deal on Belarus, so a lot of people may have been left with the impression that the Lukashenko regime is relatively stable and, in the grand scheme of things, harmless.

But the regime has always resorted to repression and brutality to maintain its grip on power and has even been involved in the murder of its own citizens.

Before the current protests, this repression was largely targeted at opposition activists and journalists. More recently, the general public have become increasingly fed up with the regime. The seemingly unending economic crisis has played an important role in this shift, but more than that, people are sick of being treated like idiots.

The pandemic, which the government initially played down, compounded these two factors, forcing people to organise their own support networks and public health measures.

And then, in the run up to the August election, the regime arrested opposition candidates and journalists, which, in turn, incensed a large number of people, many of whom ended up voting for the main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. When the election results were announced, people poured into the streets, and were promptly met with overwhelming violence from security forces. Again, this exposed the cruelty of the regime and further radicalised the public.

Fast forward to the present day: escalating state violence; 14,000 arrests; over 500 registered cases of torture and ill-treatment.

Are football fans involved in the protests?

IP: Football, like all sports, has always had a unique relationship to and with the state in authoritarian nations. First and foremost, it serves as an important propaganda tool—think Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, modern China. It’s a similar story in Belarus.

Successful athletes, especially in the classic Olympic disciplines, receive considerable financial backing from the state. They’re seen as a source and symbol of the regime’s power.

We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of so many athletes publicly renouncing the regime and backing the protests. It’s very brave: first, because it effectively means the end of their career, if not vocation; and second, because they’re putting themselves at risk. This risk was starkly underlined by the case of Yelena Levchenko, a basketball player who was recently detained and sentenced to 15 days in jail for her involvement in the protest movement.

Football itself isn’t as important as it once was in Belarus. During the Soviet years, Belarusian football was part of a bigger whole, with the likes of Dinamo Minsk successfully competing against Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian clubs, etcetera. Since then, there has been a marked decrease in the quality of football and the size of crowds. As a consequence, the domestic game is heavily reliant on funding from the state and state-run companies. But the regime prefers to focus its attention on athletics and traditional Olympic sports such as ice hockey, of which Lukashenko is a big fan.

Last season, the average attendance in the Premier League (Вышэйшая ліга) was around 2,000. This means the organised fan scene is quite small compared to Ukraine, and not nearly as coherent. There is a link between the two: Ukrainian fans and ultras played a sizeable role in the 2013/2014 revolution, and the Lukashenko government was acutely aware of the potential for something similar to happen across the border. To avoid such a scenario, they systematically dismantled the fan scene over a period of five or six years, arresting the main leaders, conducting show trials, handing down heavy custodial sentences.

So, fans are active in the protest movement, but largely as individuals, not as part of organised groups. You do see banners from different groups, often referring to those who have been murdered by the police—this includes Mikita Kryutsou, a fan of second division side FK Maladzechna whose death has been linked to the regime. A lot of fans gathered at his funeral, displaying solidarity banners emblazoned with the logos of ultras groups that had all but disappeared in the past decade.

How does Fankurve Ost fit into all this?

IP: We founded Fankurve Ost because we felt that football fans were being overlooked as members of civil society. But they are just that, particularly in democracies such as Germany, where there is a very active fan scene—active against racism, active against sexism, active in the fight for individual and collective rights.

We wanted to bring this model to the attention of Eastern European fans and other football stakeholders. It allows you to work with people who might not be part of wider civil society—young people, for instance, who have been told that politics is dangerous and not for them (Lukashenko once warned the youth not to get involved in politics or they’ll “end up in jail.”). Football is a good way to get people to engage with crucial subjects without actually using the word politics

At the time we established the project, Russia had just invaded and annexed the Crimea. Working with fans from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, we were naturally worried that tensions might escalate between the three groups. But we found that football is a good space or framework to bring people together even when geopolitics is pushing them apart.

Yes, people argue, but they also share their experiences and exchange ideas. There’s never been any bad blood. That’s a start.

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