By Vadzim Bylina (Вадзім Быліна) –
In Belarus – often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, – a democratic club has sprung up right in the heart of the capital. Minsk football club Partizan-MTZ (Minsk Traktor Zavod) recently became the first fan organized club in the young history of independent Belarus. In many ways Partizan now demonstrates that even in a not-so-post-Soviet dictatorship, liberal and democratic principles can prevail.
The road that led to Partizan being run by its supporters, however, was understandably not smooth. Between 2004-2012 the club belonged to Lithuanian businessman, and one-time submariner, Vladimir Romanov. whose investment helped Partizan win the Belarusian Cup twice, bringing with it swathes of new followers of the “Red and White”.
Partizan in many ways shares a similar history to Ukraine’s Arsenal Kiev (See Futbolgrad’s Arsenal Kiev – Inventing the Alternative Football Club), who after being founded in 2001 attracted many fans trying to withstand the tide of right-wing tendencies that prevail too often in post-Soviet stadiums. The right-wing antics of the Dinamo Minsk ultras, in this case, deterred left-wing followers of the country’s establishment club to such an extent that they deserted their old team, and found a more hospitable home at Partizan’s Traktar Stadium.
The Lithuanian Millionaire who Loves Football
The story of Partizan is one of contradictions. Today, the club is supported and run by left-wing ultras. However, its foundation and very existence would be impossible without the money of a capitalistic opportunist.
In the mid-2000s, the founder of the first Lithuanian private bank Ūkio Bankas – Vladimir Romanov – began investing in Belarus. Despite the country’s notoriety for being a difficult place in which to book a hotel room let alone conduct business, Romanov was able to make the right connections and acquired the support of patrons among the Belarusian political elite. Underscoring his intentions and ostensible commitment to Belarus was Romanov’s subsequent sponsorship of FC MTZ-Ripo.
The club became one of the cornerstones of Romanov’s financial involvement in the Belarusian capital. In 2005, the long-term authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, approved Romanov’s investment project. Besides the plan to build apartments in residential areas on the outskirts of Minsk, Romanov’s company ŪBIG was to reconstruct the Traktar Stadium, the second largest football arena in Minsk. The development plan also included the construction of a shopping mall, a business centre, an indoor sports arena, a hotel and a parking lot next to the stadium.
In 2007, ŪBIG signed the investment agreement with the Minsk City Council. In line with the deal, the joint-stock company “Stadium” was established. Romanov’s close relationship with the Belarusian authorities saw the oligarch play an important role in the organizing of Alexander Lukashenka’s visit to Lithuania in 2009. Romanov’s sponsorship of the visit was not entirely pure however as he had struck a business deal with Lukashenka: in turn for organizing Lukashenka’s visit, Belarus’ Duce would advise Lithuanian businessmen to invest in Belarus exclusively through Romanov.
In early 2010, however, Romanov lost the confidence of the higher authorities, and the Minsk City Council broke its investment agreement with the Lithuanian millionaire. Speculation was rife that the main reason for this abrupt severance was the fact that instead of reconstructing the old Traktar Stadium, the JSC “Stadium” channeled funds to other projects including the construction of apartment blocks in Minsk’s suburbs. When the Belarusian authorities stopped supporting Romanov’s business operations in Belarus, Romanov in turn halted his sponsorship of MTZ-Ripo, who have since been rebranded as Partizan Minsk.
Rebranding: from MTZ-Ripo to Partizan
MTZ-Ripo was created in 2002 when the minor league clubs FC Traktar and FC Pracouniye Rezervy-RIPA (Republic Institute of Professional Education) merged. Romanov purchased the club in 2004 and according to the Lithuanian tycoon – between 2004 and 2012 – invested approximately US$ 15 million into the team.
In the second half of the 2000s, MTZ-Ripo twice won the Belarusian Cup and twice finished third in the Belarusian Premier League (Vysheishaya Liga). Rapidly, they became the second most popular football club in Minsk and seen as a fresh alternative to FC Dinamo Minsk, especially for those fans who did not agree with the prevalent right-wing ultra scene of Dinamo.
Partizan’s fans often compare their side to FC St. Pauli, who in the 1980s and early 1990s became a club in which communist, anarchist and anti-fascist (Antifa) views could be broadcast and displayed during football games. Unlike Dinamo Minsk’s ultras, infamous for their right-wing political leaning, MTZ-Ripo supporters became the first organized group of football fans in Belarus to openly declare their anti-racist and anti-fascist positions. A prominent member of the fan group is the anarchist Ihar Alinevich, who is currently imprisoned for political activities.
In the Belarus fan scene, MTZ-Ripo’s ultras stood out like a non-smoker in a Minsk dive bar and due to their left-wing views the Traktar ultras became isolated. However, support was emanating from abroad, namely Russia and Ukraine, as well as Antifa fan groups from Western Europe, including fans from St. Pauli, who supported the movement.
In 2011 the club’s name and logo was rebranded. Romanov changed FC MTZ-Ripo to FC Partizan in order to make the name of the club more “attractive” for “normal supporters.” The Lithuanian was clearly uncomfortable with the left leaning, anti-government supporters that his club had gathered. After all, his investments in the club were initially made in order to gather support with the political elite. The Lithuanian businessman ignored fans who protested the rebranding of the club which was aimed at highlighting the patriotic connection between the club and Belarusian history, for it were the partisan groups who did much to fight Nazi occupation during World War II.
Revival of the Anti-Fascist Football Club
But as Romanov’s business relations with the authorities soured he proposed Minsk City Council to sponsor the football club. Despite the fact that in 2011 Partizan finished second in Division 2 (Pershaya Liga) and won the right to return to the country’s top tier, investment was not forthcoming. Their close association with Romanov’s much-maligned investment plan, as well as its non-conformist fans, made Partizan an unattractive business proposition.
One of the richest people in Belarus and the owner of FC Dinamo Minsk oligarch Yury Czyzh, when asked about Partizan, declared during one of the sessions of the Belarus Football Federation that “nobody needs a Lithuanian football club”. Not only was Partizan a club supported by left-wing anti-government supporters, but it was also viewed as a foreign entity. The club became almost like an enemy agent, making it next to impossible to attract financial support.
With scarcely a Belarusian ruble in sight, the club seemed to have no future. But the fans were unwilling to let Partizan die perhaps inspired by supporter actions abroad. In recent years several supporter groups around Europe have revived football clubs (AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester and Austria Salzburg are some prominent cases). In the former Soviet Union, CSKA Kiev fans also began to restart their club in the lowest reaches of Ukrainian football, although this endeavor has been mostly unsuccessful. But Partizan are a different story.
Shortly after Romanov ended his financial support of Partizan, the football club was dissolved and the supporters established the public association “Partizan Minsk”, fundraising to revive the club. As Leanid Piatkevich, the leader of Partizan supporters and currently the director of the club stated, ultra groups from Germany, Ukraine, Poland and other countries also collected money, whilst Dzmitry Kustouski of Euroradio stated how fans of Scottish giants Celtic, Hammarby of Sweden, Bohemians-1905 of Czech Republic, and Germans Babelsberg and St. Pauli fund raised in order to save the Minsk club.
The Partizan team spent the 2012 season playing in the ushankas-for-goalposts abyss of the Minsk championship (Division 4) and succeeded to raise enough money to rise to the Second League (Division 3) the following year.
The Uncertain Future of Partizan-MTZ
Unlike any other club in Belarus, Partizan are funded by a supporters trust. It had taken only a few years for Partizan ultras to become one of the strongest organized groups of supporters in Belarus. Demonstrating anti-racist views in stadiums they became a unique group on the Belarusian ultras scene, which has a bleak reputation for racist behavior, at least in the West. Presently Partizan supporters are the second biggest ultras group in Minsk with matches between Partizan and Dinamo Minsk gathering a relatively sizable number of supporters, creating a derby atmosphere which is something seldom found in Belarusian football.
Even though Partizan have one of the largest supporter groups in Belarus, the club’s situation remains difficult and face a constant struggle to locate funding and sponsorship. Furthermore, the Belarusian authorities do not look kindly on a club, which in their opinion have mobilised troublesome entities.
This year, fan groups have clashed regularly with the authorities. In March, riot police beat a group of young Partizan supporters at an away friendly match with FC Asipovichy with concomitant speculation that the attack by the police was part of a policy to intimidate Partizan. The club survives despite interminable financial turmoil and clear opposition from a notoriously single-minded government. To some Partizan is more than a club, it is a democratic institution that demonstrates that even in Belarus democratic principles are reachable.
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.
Edited by David McArdle, Manuel Veth and Alastair Watt