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Destination in Doubt: Ukrainian Football in Time of Conflict

Borimir STotev1 March 2015

Manuel Veth

The veto was immediate: European football’s governing body UEFA will not allow Dinamo Kiev to wear the slogan ‘Geroiam Slava’ (Glory to Our Heroes) in place of their usual sponsor’s logo for matches in the Europa League. UEFA, they explained, does not allow political slogans of any kind in its competitions. Dinamo’s gesture was intended to commemorate the victims of the Maidan protests, and the Ukrainian soldiers who have died fighting in the Donbass. They also wanted to return international attention to Russia’s involvement in the conflict. But despite UEFA’s attempts to keep the game apolitical, football and politics are deeply intertwined in the events that have taken place in Ukraine since Euromaidan in the winter of 2013/14.

This connection predates the revolution. Oligarchs, who own the majority of the clubs, have used football in connection with large media empires in order to create strong political profiles, a process that was copied from the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and has fittingly been termed the Berlusconization of Ukrainian football.

Ultras: from protesters to soldiers

While the clubs, and their ownership structures, represent the upper echelons of Ukrainian society, fans have also had a major impact on recent political events in Ukraine. Organized fan groups called ultras were influential in the events that took place on the Maidan in Kiev. Ultras from across all major clubs formed defence units to protect protestors from thugs hired by President Viktor Yanukovych, and were therefore instrumental in removing Yanukovych and his cronies from government. In addition, as the Twitter account by the Ukrainian blogger Oleksandr Sereda indicates, many of the ultra groups have now taken an active role in the conflict that is taking place in the Donbass by forming irregular units to fight the Russian-backed separatists.

The Ukrainian ultras are not alone in their fight. Across the Black Sea, in Georgia, Torpedo Kutaisi fans held up a banner last weekend to honour the deaths of Georgian irregulars who have fought and died in the Donbass. A war for Ukraine’s independence, in the eyes of Torpedo fans, is also as a war for Georgia’s independence.

This all serves to underline the complexity of the military situation in the Donbass. While Russian mercenaries, and regular military units, are supporting the rebels, the Ukrainian army has itself made use of foreign mercenaries and irregular units. While the separatists have rightly been accused of ceasefire violations, the composition of the government’s forces makes it difficult for Petro Poroshenko’s administration to guarantee the ceasefire on their own side. Any peace process could indeed be complicated, as it will not be easy to force the various groups involved on both sides, many of which have become extremely radicalized since the conflict began, to lay down their weapons.

Ukrainian Premier League: the show must go on?

Despite the continued fighting in the Donbass, football is supposed to return for the second half of the Ukrainian Premier League. While it is hard to imagine how sport can continue in a war-stricken country, officials have argued that only a small part of the country is truly affected by the fighting. At the same time, however, Donbass is home to five of the 14 clubs in the Ukrainian Premier League. These clubs—Shakhtar Donetsk, Olimpik Donetsk, Metalurh Donetsk, Zorya Luhansk, and Illichevets Mariupol—have now been forced to play their games in exile.

A sixth club, Stal Alchevsk, has also been badly affected by the fighting. Alchevsk is one of many bleak mining towns located in the Donbass, and the club’s name Stal (Steel) reveals the close connection between the club and its sponsor, the Alchevsk steel and iron works. Due to the fighting, Stal Alchevsk has been playing in exile in the Poltava region, yet the club has maintained its training base in Alchevsk under unstable conditions. As head coach Anatoliy Volobuyev explained: “Alchevsk is only 40 kilometers from Debaltsevo and we can hear the fighting from here. Recently, we’ve had a rocket hit the town too. To play football in these conditions simply isn’t right.”

Under these difficult financial and psychological circumstances, the club has now decided to withdraw from the Ukrainian Pervaia Liga (second division), as the Alchevsk steel works has been taken offline due to the war. Arsenal Kiev stand ready to purchase Stal Alchevsk’s licence, and with it their place in the league, which may effectively mean Stal Alchevsk ceases to exist as a club. The episode has brought renewed uncertainty to the future of Ukrainian football, as more clubs from the region may be forced to discontinue their participation in professional football.

The Ukrainian Premier League had struggled to field a full list of teams even prior to this troubled season, and as a result the league had been downsized from 16 to 14 teams. Last week legendary ex-striker Andriy Shevchenko appealed to the authorities not to suspend the league altogether. But the very fact that he had to speak out suggests that this option is now very much on the table.

Shakhtar Donetsk: the fall of a giant?

While the future of the Ukrainian Premier Liga remains in question, Ukraine’s most successful team in recent years, Shakhtar Donetsk, is preparing to play Germany’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, for a place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. The first leg on February 17 was held over a thousand kilometres from Shakhtar’s home, in Lviv (closer to Munich than to Donetsk). Against expectations, Shakhtar held Bayern to a 0-0 draw, giving themselves a fighting chance of progressing to the next round. But the second leg in Munich is still to come, and Bayern, having won thirteen and drawn one of their fourteen home fixtures so far this season, are overwhelming favourites.

Defeat would be another major blow for Shakhtar’s owner Rinat Akhmetov. Before the conflict in the Donbass, Akhmetov was the richest man in the former Soviet Union. Often considered the pivot of the so-called ‘Donetsk clan’, a loose political alliance of Donbass oligarchs, Akhmetov was also regarded as the financial backbone of the Partiia Regionov, the political party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

The events at Euromaidan and the war, however, would mean that a tie against the Germans could be the last match for a while on the international stage for both Shakhtar and Akhmetov. Being based in Lviv has taken a toll on the team’s performances. Shakhtar are currently second in the table, five points behind their arch-rival Dinamo Kiev and only three points ahead of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. With only the top two teams qualifying for Champions League football, Shakhtar’s participation in next year’s competition is very much in doubt.

It is not only in football that Akhmetov is feeling the pressure. The conflict in the Donbass has seen many of his assets destroyed in the fighting. He is also facing an investigation over his alleged financing of separatist forces. There is political pressure too: Ihor Kolomoyskyi, another oligarch long regarded as a counterweight to Akhmetov, has emerged as one of Ukraine’s most powerful men and now seems able to dictate the country’s political and economic direction. Kolomoyskyi is the owner of Dnipro and, since March 2014, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast. He has also announced his intention to run for the presidency of the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), replacing Anatoliy Konkov, widely seen as Akhmetov’s man. The reshuffling at the top of the FFU reflects the political reorganizations elsewhere in the country.

Conjoined twins: football and politics in Ukraine

With all these examples in mind, it is hard to believe that UEFA’s attempt to keep football apolitical will truly amount to much. While political slogans should indeed have no place in football, realistically fans and clubs have always found ways to introduce them into the game. Dinamo Kiev have already announced plans to wear their ‘Geroiam Slava’ shirts for matches in the Ukrainian Premier Liga. With fans fighting in the Donbass, clubs being forced into exile due to the conflict, and oligarchs using football as a vehicle to assert political control, football and politics in Ukraine, as elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, have long been conjoined twins.

Manuel Veth is a final-year PhD candidate at King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow his research and writing at Futbolgrad.com.

A Better Future for Europe

Slovo29 May 2014

High Noon or High Time? Exodus from the imperial gambling hall

 

How to make sure that the decade after Maidan will not be a lost one, like it has been after the Orange Revolution of 2004? This question currently preoccupies many activists engaged with Eastern Europe. The galloping events of the past months exposed them to extreme emotions fluctuating between euphoria and helplessness. Filled with both hope for Ukrainian national consolidation and fear of civil war, they are anticipating the rapidly approaching moment when the media attention will suddenly disappear, allowing the frustration of the ordinary Ukrainians – due to a lack of support or the enormous costs of change – to rise exponentially. In the year of European anniversaries – the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the civic, peaceful revolutions of 1989 – too many seem to have forgotten how dangerous political arm wrestling can be in a place like Europe, so rich in diversity and so tense due to its density.

In anticipation of a better future (photo courtesy of the Archives of the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation, Warsaw)

The images of millions of young Europeans “happily” greeting the war as a form of “liberation” from civic constraints should make us suspicious of populations too much in line with their governments, of people cheering “our” politicians against “theirs” as if this is all just another final of the Champions League. Peaceful coexistence is the prerequisite of survival and well-being in Europe: not in harmony, but based upon recognizing difference and deepening economic inter-dependence which finally turns cooperation into an end in itself. It is time to revive the idea of the Common European Home – evoked at the time by Mikhail Gorbachev and shared by many across political camps – an understanding that informed the well-conceived activities of the Central European dissidents like Jirzi Dienstbier and Václav Havel, Jacek Kuroń and György Konrad, who understood that in order to regain national self-determination the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians had to foster German reunification.

The same holds true today for Ukrainians – their right to self-determination cannot be achieved in opposition to Russia, but only by creating a compromised situation that simultaneously allows Russians to fulfil their interests, but in a way compatible with the interests of their neighbours. Kremlin’s entrenched position in the energy market and relative military strength effectively back up the revival of imperialist policies. The assumed Russian cultural superiority and authenticity with regards to some of the neighbouring countries also allegedly justifies authoritarian influence outside its realm.  As a result the task of finding a compromise proves to be very difficult indeed. Nevertheless we need to face it.

Stop the imperial race – now! 

As citizens of Europe on both sides of the ideological wall dividing our continent we are all part of an imperial game whose rules are not in our favour. While condemning – and rightly so – the forceful annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s manipulations and interference into Ukrainian politics we should not  forget that the EU’s Eastern Policy, too, is a struggle about the character of Europe as a mind map. This rivalry produces conflicting imaginations of community, both stimulating civic actions abroad and creating reference points for political decisions inside the EU whose economic, social, and cultural implications are far from inclusive. Let us understand Maidan and the Crimean secession as a single event. With different, but interconnected layers, it simultaneously embodies another step in the bloody drama of creating the Ukrainian nation, taking the form of politically exploited media constructs of a crisis created in imperial “situation rooms”.

As European citizens we are faced with a giant task ahead of us: that of building a civic and social Europe that overcomes the barbaric character of the bourgeois empire we are living in – a common space of prosperity that no longer has to create its Eastern barbarians in order to legitimate itself and its modes of reproduction. The events in Maidan and Crimea are just a peak in what is at least a decade, if not more, of imperial competition about the future of Ukraine and other countries in the region. Following Jan Zielonka it makes sense to understand the European Union as an empire de facto and de jure: a geopolitical formation that is seeking to continuously extend the realm in which it can set the terms of production, serving to increase the share in material redistribution, formal representation and symbolic recognition of those groups which operate in its very centre.

Very much like other empires before it the European Union relies on force, but in this case on the force of law. Its acquis communautaire has strong regulatory and material impact that some desire as protection for their activities and others fear as a direct threat to it. In the case of what appears as the Eastern European oligarchic rule it seems to be obvious that many wished to keep it at bay at almost any cost. However, it is not that simple: tricky is the question of how to define an oligarch – as a person dangerous, yet too distant from the imperial centre to be fought with instruments of legitimate institutional force; or a force hideous and unseen, but already close to all of us every day, nestling or even fusing with the very source of power; or as something that cannot be destroyed or jailed, but only overcome by moral activities of good citizens, in analogy to Havel’s concepts of “trying to live in truth”, revoking his concept of the “power of the powerless”.

Cordons are insane, not sanitary

No doubt about it: the Russian annexation (Anschluss) of Crimea indicates a very worrying return of ethnic (völkisch) arguments to European foreign policy: a retreat from the Helsinki Final Act limiting border changes to peaceful and joint agreement between the states and societies involved. However, it is not only the Kremlin that follows dangerous strategies. Western politicians alike at least contributed to the dangerous course of events and are continuously filling us with false consciousness. It is national self-determination, not liberal democracy that is the normative bottom line of a civic, peaceful Europe. Putin and Junckers are both interfering into Ukrainian politics when publicly stating they don’t want to see the so-called “fascists” governing the country. That’s a matter for the Ukrainian citizens alone to decide.

It is not the current ineffectiveness of the European Neighbourhood Policy that is appalling, but the assumption of forming a sanitary cordon, a provincial sphere organized by our rather than by their rules that demarcates the two empires from each other and seeks to bilaterally bind countries like Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova to the EU which never intended to offer them full membership in the first place. In order to create a truly common space of security and prosperity in Europe and to overcome the Machiavellian logic of power competition based on the assumption of zero-sum games, the kind of cooperation needs to be fostered that would help define commonly accepted interests and internalized goals. Such an enterprise needs to include all players symmetrically, therefore taking into account all Ukraine’s neighbours, Russia included.

The responsibility for the Kremlin’s current geopolitical course naturally and solely lies with Vladimir Putin. This especially concerns the various forms of military intervention in Ukrainian soil interpreted by some scholars like Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn in the recent Foreign Affairs as Eurasian adaptations of the 20th century German blueprints for building imperial domination of Europe. Although the West cannot be directly attributed for coining this fatal development, we should be honest enough to admit that the EU has to some extent contributed to it, or at least it could have done more to prevent it in the first place. After 1989 the Community has failed to create a system of interconnected tracks of integration with Russia that would have allowed us to define common interests and create accepted rules from which it would have been extremely costly for the Kremlin to resign. Such a system would have allowed us to jointly guarantee or (on the basis of the unanimous Ukrainian call) even partially co-moderate the inner-Ukrainian debate on modernisation and reconciliation. Instead, now we are desperately searching for short-term measures of conflict resolution, crisis management and, alas, even peace-building.

In the current situation both imperial sides are ruled by fear. The European Union is pressed by Maidan’s assumption of a looming promise of Ukrainian membership for which there is no majority whatsoever conceivable east of the River Oder. The triumphant Kremlin – for the moment successfully blending Russian pan-Slavic chauvinism with Soviet imperial nostalgia and capitalist grandeur, notwithstanding Putin’s predictable short-term electoral successes – rather desperately tries to prevent a decline in its factual power to determine the fate of the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples, which too many Russians seem to see as little brothers to be patronized. Although Maidan might in fact become an irreversible hallmark in the process of national awakening in Ukraine, these events are not at all comparable to the Central European peaceful revolutions of 1989, which were accomplished by consolidated nations with relatively strong civic traditions.

Foster projects of civil repair

It is unpredictable what is going to happen when Ukrainians will soon be bathing in double frustration when faced with EU cutting their aspirations and Russia patronising its Slavic brothers. The feeling of being second class can trigger a whole variety of reactions. This is not at all about Ukraine alone. Unsettling is not only the current uncertainty concerning the Eastern regions of Ukraine and the nature of the struggle about potential adaptations in its statehood and constitution, but also the news of the Belarusian activists visiting their neighbouring country to train “how to make a Maidan” (to put it simply: what does it take to stage a forceful regime change).

Given its complicated history Valancin Akudovic has masterfully and carefully described Belarus as suited even less than Ukraine to base civility on the foundation of an ethnic nation. It is with regards to national aspirations that the revolutionary violence can be both justified and later reconciled in a common consciousness and memory, which ascribes unifying sense and meaning to personal suffering and losses of particular groups. It is high time to see the region through different glasses, before Europe turns into bloodlands again. We have to understand that figures like Putin or Lukashenko are not just one-dimensional dictators taken from history textbooks or Hollywood movies. Their behaviour, intended to update the ideological foundations of conservative rule, needs to be interpreted as nationally characteristic symptoms of deeper social problems of imagined communities: a craving for a matrix of belonging that guarantees a good life of moral integrity, social stability and economic prosperity under globalist conditions.

One of the reasons why Viktor Yanukovych crashed his country was that it is impossible to enforce such a majority solution on a fragmented Ukrainian society, which stands en miniature for the European condition at large. With the national awakening fuelled by both Maidan and the Crimean adventure this situation might change in the coming years; the question is, whether it will be for better or for worse. We should be conscious of the historical evidence that such a peripheral region, contested between the two “empires” can turn both into a linchpin of cooperation or a new battlefield that quickly gets out of control.

 

By Gert Röhrborn
 Gert is a political scientist, project coordinator and a certified EU fundraiser. He studied politics, European Union studies and history in Leipzig, Newcastle upon Tyne and Berlin. He has previously worked as a research assistant at Dresden Technical University, an academic teacher at Protestant College Berlin and an executive officer of the network Citizens of Europe. He has been a member of the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation in Warsaw team since 2010. Gert is interested in civic engagement in social space and politics of memory and education. He regularly publishes articles in European and Eastern affairs.  

For more from Gert visit www.gert.roehrborn.info