The regime of the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has systematically interfered in the running of the country’s football federation and used the sport as a “pro-government propaganda” instrument, a report has claimed.
The report, which is based on testimony by senior referees and professional footballers, was produced by the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), an organisation that supports players, coaches, and other professionals in sport facing pressure for speaking out against Lukashenko, the longtime president.
“This report demonstrates how Lukashenko and his inner circle control football and use the sport for propaganda,” said Aliaksandr Apeikin, the executive director of BSSF. “Politics and sports are completely intertwined in Belarus.”
The report, published on Wednesday, said that senior officials at the Belarusian Football Federation (BFF) were closely connected with the Belarusian security services and forced its referees and players to show support for Lukashenko’s regime during and after the 2020 anti-government protests that engulfed the country following the president’s controversial re-election.
Apeikin said his organisation had sent the report to Uefa, European football’s governing body, on Tuesday and believed the report provided sufficient grounds for “Uefa to suspend Belarus from participating in European football.”
Fifa, football’s world governing body has occasionally banned countries and their club teams from participating in international football over claims of governments interference. However, it would be unprecedented for Uefa to do so.
Uefa refused to comment when approached by the Guardian. The Belarusian Football Federation have been approached for comment.
According to the report, the Belarusian sports ministry “threatened to stop state funding to football clubs whose players did not sign pro-government letters”, which the organisation said violated the rights of football players and went against Uefa and Fifa rules on political neutrality and government interference.
“They wanted to use us for their own political gains,” said Andrei Chepa, the former head referee of the BFF, who left the country two months ago out of safety concerns.
Chepa said referees and players had been ordered to wear red and green boutonnieres during games, colours widely associated with support for the Lukashenko regime. Referees who refused to wear these boutonnieres were suspended, Chepa said.
“For me, these colours represented the violence and death that the regime has caused. Many of my colleagues also felt the same. We refused to wear them,” Chepa said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
He said he was forced to resign from his post in December 2020, after the football federation threatened to show images of him attending anti-government rallies to the security services.
“It was my dream job. But the federation knew about my political views. I either had to resign quietly or I would be arrested,” he said.
Chepa has since settled in Ukraine but has struggled to find a job.
Athletes have been some of the most vocal critics of Lukashenko. The BSSF was founded in 2020 after more than 250 athletes signed an open letter criticising fraud in the elections that delivered Lukashenko his sixth term in office.
Numerous football players lost their jobs and some even ended up in prison over their opposition to the Lukashenko regime.
During the Tokyo Summer Olympics, the Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made headlines around the world after refusing to get on a flight from Tokyo. She has since become a vocal opponent of the Lukashenko regime.
“Football players and other athletes hold a lot of influence in the country. Lukashenko sees them as important to his legitimacy and hates when they speak out against him,” Apeikin said.
The report claimed that senior Belarusian government and football officials did not want the football club BATE Borisov to win the 2020 championship and placed pressure on referees to manipulate games.
“Referees were told BATE should not get the title that year. A referee ‘mistake’ that would hinder BATE Borisov was welcomed,” said Chepa. BATE Borisov ended up second in the league in 2020.
While Belarus has been stripped of some major sporting events over its recent political record, Uefa has not sanctioned the football federation since the 2020 crackdown on civil society.
Apeikin “hoped” that the latest report, which the organisation sent to Uefa on Tuesday, would force the organisation to take action.
“The Uefa can no longer look away and ignore what’s happening,” he said.