Ultras and Uprising in Ukraine

Soccer again is at work in organizing protests, this time at EuroMaidan in Kyiv. The protests at Independence squre have been going on for months, yet the media coverage this has received in Canada has been minimal at best. Surprising, considering the amount of coverage the Orange Revolution received nearly a decade ago, and that even then the strong historic ties between Canada and the Ukraine were invoked by both the press and the Canadian government. As the crackdown in the last few days has at least been mentioned in passing in media reports I started to get curious about what was happening and turned to the ol’ web to find out what was going on.

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

Not surprisingly, one of the first photos I came across was from an Al Jazeera photo gallery of the protest, with a protester hurling something while standing in front of a burned out vehicle with the single word “ultras” sprayed across it. I don’t know the exact context of the “ultras” here, but again it reminded me of the importance that soccer’s ultra supporters have played in protests over the past few years in Egypt and Turkey. I have already written about the organizational capacity of these groups, and their experience in battling security as key reasons they have been at the front lines of these protests. No doubt the political leanings of these groups and tendencies for them to support anarchic causes has also played a factor in their involvement in protests. Of course, being supporters of specific clubs that have their own historic identities in some way influences the outlook of the ultras as well. I doubt Lazio ultras would rush to the barricades to support a socialist revolution in Italy, just as St. Pauli fans wouldn’t be joining in a right-wing protest in Germany (well, they might, but on the other side).

So a quick search through other sights quickly showed me that the “ultras” photo, while not definitively linked to soccer ultras, likely has some tie to them. A December counter-protest organized by the Party of Regions (President Yanukovich’s party) was described by one witness as farcical as they attempted to mock the Maidan protests not far away (from Maidanua.org):

The program of the Party of Regions demonstration was somewhat comical. I watched the very long (20 minutes) and boring speech by Parliamentarian Oleh Tsariov on Ukraine’s First National TV channel (the state-owned broadcaster). He attempted to ridicule the Euromaidan demonstrators’ chant “Khto ne skache, toy Moskal”, but many in the crowd misunderstood, and actually started jumping. The chant that Tsariov was ridiculing originates from the “Ultras” wing of the Ukrainian National Football fan club, and roughly translates as “who is not jumping is a Russky” (“Moskal” is a term that connotes Russians, but is about as demeaning as “Yankee” or “Newfee”). During the original Euromaidan demonstrations (prior to November 30), the chant was popular among students, and playfully used by them as a way of keeping warm. Clearly, some Party of Regions Parliamentarians missed the young peoples’ humour.

Here the counter protest mistakenly seized on a chant of the opposition that itself originated from soccer ultras. Considering the history between Russia and the Ukraine you think the officials would have been more careful in their selection, but seeing that it was a demonstration composed largely of Russians from Eastern Ukraine I wonder if language was a cause of the misunderstanding.

But I do not mean to imply that this is simply a division between the two main ethnicities of the Ukraine. While the east tends to support the government, it is not definitively so. The ultras of Metalist Kharkiv, Dynamo Kyiv, and Shakter Donetsk issued a statement that, “All anti-Maidan supporters are whores.” Bluntly put, but they have made it clear to their members not to participate in any actions against EuroMaidan. Again, as in Cairo, as in Istanbul, the groups of ultras that are normally bitter rivals have found common cause in supporting public protest. Note that both Donetsk and Kharkiv are cities in the supposedly pro-Yanukovich East.

As I write, the government has announced concessions. I don’t know what the short term or long term prospects are based on how rapidly things seem to have changed over the past few days, but as the protests begin to spread to other cities and if this draws into February, it will again touch on soccer. Both Odesa and Donetsk are taking part in the Europa League – where the eyes of football fans and the media will be on the game and the stands of two Ukrainian cities.