Belarus and Ukraine compete on the soccer field, but their fans share an enemy. 

Even Russia's Soccer Hooligans Fear This Song

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It is rare when fans of opposing soccer teams agree about anything, but at a Euro 2016 qualifying match on Friday, the 10,000 supporters of the Ukraine and Belarus national squads united to sing. "La-la, la-la, la-la, la-la, Putin khuilo," they chanted, likening Russian President Vladimir Putin to a penis. Many Russian soccer fans probably would like to sing it, too, but they don't -- and that may explain why Russia isn't about to have a Ukraine-style revolution.

In the former Soviet Union, supporters of soccer teams had been influenced by two fan cultures -- the British "hools" and the Italian "ultras." The English sang lustily, the Italians unfurled colorful banners and shot off fireworks; both liked a fight. The fan "firms," as the supporters' groups are known, practice street fighting as a sport. Their members train hard, watch videos of previous melees and plan tactics.

As in Europe, many of the Russian firms lean toward the far right and racist and extreme nationalist beliefs. There was a time when firms from post-Soviet nations formed alliances with one another: for example, Spartak Moscow's far-right fans and the Sect 82 group in Kharkiv, Ukraine, used to fight side by side. The fans had no love for their respective governments: The Russians considered Putin too soft on immigration, and the Ukrainians despised Viktor Yanukovych as a corrupt fool.

Then Ukraine's Maidan revolution shook things up.

Last winter, soccer fans manned the barricades in central Kiev against Yanukovych's riot police. They were partly responsible for the escalation of violence in January that ultimately forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. In February, all Ukrainian firms made peace and applied their paramilitary training to the insurgency. With the rivalries on hold, fans of opposing teams would often demonstrate for Ukraine's unity, as they did in Odessa on May 2 before pro-Russian protesters attacked and 40 people died in an ensuing inferno.

It was Metallist Kharkiv fans who came up with the "Putin khuilo" chant last March. The song used to be dedicated to Hryhoriy Surkis, the former president of the Ukrainian soccer federation. By the end of the revolution, Surkis was forgotten but Putin, who grabbed Crimea from Ukraine, became a unifying target of hate. The chant was often heard outside stadiums. On one occasion, Ukraine Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia joined in as a crowd in Kiev threatened to seize the Russian embassy.

It quickly became an international anti-Russian taunt. Korean and Algerian fans learned it -- probably from Ukrainians -- during this year's World Cup. Belarussians didn't need much prompting last Friday. They also shouted "Glory to Ukraine", to which Ukrainians responded with cries of "Long live Belarus."

There was nothing unusual about that: Belarussian and Ukrainian fans are extreme nationalists, and that means a shared hatred of Russian imperialism. Even the Belarussian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, usually a staunch Putin ally, has denounced the Crimea annexation.

After the game in the Belarussian city of Borisov, which Ukraine won 2 to 0, Lukashenko's secret police arrested about 100 Ukrainians and 30 locals. The foreigners were changed with using indecent language. Lukashenko decided to pretend Belarussians had not been singing, and the charges were limited to other kinds of misbehavior. He acted just decisively enough to appease Putin, but he may have mouthed the words to the chant as he watched the game.

Just a few months ago, it would have been easy to imagine Russian fans singing "Putin khuilo" during a game. During the Kiev protests, Ukrainian flags and pro-Ukrainian placards could be seen in the fan sectors of stadiums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian ultras sympathized with their allies from Kiev and Kharkiv, who were fighting with real Molotov cocktails, not firecrackers. The hardcore fans I met in Moscow all believed Putin was selling out Russia for personal gain and inundating it with docile immigrants to suppress its spirit. Although they may resent the Ukrainians' anti-Russian sentiment, Putin is no friend of theirs and his attack on Ukraine isn't their war.

Yet after Crimea, the Russian fan organizations distanced themselves from the Ukrainian resistance.

Putin invested in co-opting or controlling the leadership of fan groups after they took part in a nationalist riot in central Moscow in 2010. Hardcore firm members have always frowned on Kremlin attempts to subvert the movement, but the Putin government's resources were impossible to resist. The secret police has a dossier on every notable firm member. The leaders know they must either cooperate or be easily picked off by the authorities. They don't dare fight in the way their former Ukrainian friends did last winter. Putin's police would be merciless.

Russian fans know that only those who are safely beyond the Russian dictator's reach can dare sing "Putin is a penis."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net