Three times Uefa has rejected a submission to investigate state interference in Belarusian football, neglecting evidence of human rights abuse, threats, torture and political appointment of officials.
By Lars Johnsen
Five days after the fraudulent presidential election of 9 August 2020, where Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have been re-elected with 80 per cent of the votes, Mikhail Zalevsky, the general director of 15 time Belarusian champions BATE Borisov, publicly condemned the violence committed by the country’s law enforcement institutions. Zalevsky had previously held senior positions within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and been head of economic crimes units of the police for several districts of the capital Minsk.
To protest the regime’s illegal actions, he threw away his police uniform and published his protest on Instagram.
“This did not go unnoticed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Belarusian KGB. I started receiving threats on social networks and anonymous calls,” Zalevsky writes in a letter to Josimar.
According to him, the Belarusian Football Federation (BFF), the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs began to pressure the football club to have him removed from the club, which the club obliged on 2 September 2020.
On the streets of the capital Minsk and other cities, before and after the presidential election, the security forces went into action. Pepper spray, rubber bullets, mass arrests of people condemning the dictatorship was the order of the day. Torture and beatings are well documented. The crackdown on dissidents has continued, and became a major international news story in May when Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land i Minsk in order to arrest opposition activist and journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board the plane.
“The Belarusian government violates human rights on a scale not seen in that region since the days of the Soviet Union,” Jan Peder Egenæs of Amnesty International Norway commented in May after Uefa had awarded the 2025 women’s U19 European Championship to Belarus although systemic human rights violations were well documented. Uefa awarded the tournament to Lukashenko’s regime despite, according to their own website, being “committed to supporting and safeguarding human rights, with special focus on the potential impact of its major competitions.”
Notable people from the world of Belarusian sport have not been spared. During the Tokyo Olympics in August sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya criticised her coaches. She was immediately ordered to get on a flight home by representatives of the country’s Olympic team. The National Olympic Committee is led by Viktor Lukashenko, the son of the country’s dictator. She refused, citing fear of her safety if she returned to her homeland and is currently living in Poland.
Well before the events in Tokyo, in December 2020, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) had gathered evidence of 73 athletes, coaches and administrators covering the full spectrum of Belarusian sport had been arrested, beaten, tortured or forced out of their positions for demanding democratic and free elections and for protesting the violence committed by the Lukashenko regime.
12 of those 73 were football people, including Mikhail Zalevsky.
Andrei Chepa, who spent ten years refereeing in the lower divisions, four years refereeing in the top flight, tells a similar story to Zalevsky. Having ended his active career in 2009, he held several positions within the Belarusian Football Federation – press officer, editor of the federation’s newspaper, integrity officer and from 2019 he served as head of the refereeing department. After voicing his opinion, he was in December 2020 forced to resign.
“I had a contract until 2024. They told me that if I didn’t resign from the federation, there would be big trouble for me and my family. Thousands of people have been imprisoned. If I had stayed, I too would have been jailed,” he tells Josimar over the phone from Kiev, Ukraine, where he now resides.
“Ethical standards and good governance”
Also in December 2020, the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation filed a submission to Uefa and Fifa on behalf of individual footballers, coaches, administrators and sportswriters asking the international football bodies to investigate senior BFF officials for violations of Uefa and Fifa statutes.
According to our sources, Fifa never replied officially, but has informally told the appellants that this case is a Uefa matter due to “separation of authority,” and that the world governing body would only look into the case if Uefa did nothing.
The submission to Uefa was sent to the president, the secretary general, members of Uefa’s Executive Committee and the chairperson of the Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body.
In its submission, the BSSF outlined how the BFF violates fundamental principles of a sports federation, violation of the principle of political neutrality and good governance. The leadership of the federation is appointed by Lukashenko and hold prestigious roles within the regime, or have strong ties to it.
The politicisation of Belarusian football violates article 2 of the Uefa statutes, the Belarusian athletes claim.
According to article 2, the the objectives of Uefa are:
(b) “promote football in Europe in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on account of politics, gender, religion, race or any other reason
( f) “promote and protect ethical standards and good governance in European football
(g) “ensure that the needs of the different stakeholders in European football (leagues, clubs, players, supporters) are properly taken into account”
The BFF’s conduct breaches clause 19 of the Fifa statutes that forbids political and state interference in the governance of a football association, and articles 14 and 25 of the Fifa Code of Ethics regarding conflicts of interest (article 14) and abuse of power (article 25), the submission argues.
As a Uefa member, the BFF also violates article 2.5 of the Memorandum of Understanding between Uefa and the Council of Europe, signed in 2018:
“Promoting good governance in sport, in particular compliance of the football organisations with its key principles, such as democracy, gender balance, stakeholder’s involvement, transparency, accountability, solidarity and checks and balances, as well as with the relevant anti-corruption standards.”
907 political prisoners – and rising
Reports by the BSSF documents that all key personnel in Belarusian sport are appointed by the regime, or have direct ties to it, and that all key decisions in Belarusian football are indeed made by the minister of sport, Sergey Kovalchuk. The Belarusian state violates the autonomy of the national football association, it controls the association’s activities and uses it for political purposes. And it’s not any regime, either – it is a dictatorship that brutally oppresses political oppresses, tortures and imprisons those who call for democracy. As of December 2021, a year after the submission to Uefa was filed, the number of political prisoners in Belarus has risen to 907. BSSF also claims that the BFF is involved in match-fixing, pressuring referees to ensure regime-friendly clubs get the required results.
Yet, on 14 May 2021, the Uefa Disciplinary Officers decided not to open an investigation into the BFF and its officials. Ten days later, the BSSF filed the case with Uefa’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body. On 18 June, they confirmed the original decision. On 15 July an appeal was filed to the Uefa Appeals Body, which was dismissed on 7 October.
Uefa is looking the other way.
“It’s disappointing and surprising,” says Anatol Kotau, former director of the Belarusian National Olympic Committee.
“We believe the report we’ve put together on breaches of Uefa statutes is very convincing. Moreover, an investigation [by Uefa], we believe, would find out even more than we have managed to do.”
Uefa’s stance is that the affairs of Belarusian football is a matter for Belarusian football’s own judicial system, our sources say.
Uefa is basically saying the submission to investigate president Vladimir Bazanov and other BFF officials should be lodged with BFF president Bazanov.
The man personally responsible for persecution of Belarusian footballers and football officials and violations of sports people’s rights on behalf of the state, is the man Uefa finds suitable to investigate state interference in Belarusian football.
“Bazanov pressured clubs to have players and coaches sign a letter in support of Lukashenko. He also forced the clubs to fire players who spoke up against the regime and the violence conducted by the regime,” says Kotau, who was deputy CEO of the organising committee of the 2017 European Games held in Minsk and was head of the National Olympic Committee’s Ethics Commission and president of the country’s governing body for sports dancing. After the 2020 presidential election, he signed the letter condemning the regime’s violence and joined the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Foundation. The NOC Ethics Commission was immediately dissolved, he says, and he was removed from his position as sports dance federation president. Kotau now lives in Poland under a humanitarian visa.
His message to Uefa, Fifa and other sporting bodies “is very simple and clear.”
“The international governing bodies should fulfil their obligations, and their primary obligation is to protect the rights of athletes, and to protect the integrity of sport.”
In Kotau’s view, Uefa should admit that they have found governance and abuse issues in Belarusian football, and that it would be better for Uefa to start an investigation. That way they would avoid damage to their reputation which could be caused when other bodies start an investigation process.
After total rejection by all Uefa bodies, emails were sent to Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin, the Executive Committee members and other top-echelon Uefa officials directly to inform them of the decision, and give them individually the opportunity to demand opening an investigation procedure – which they are entitled to do. These emails remain unanswered, according to our sources.
“There are no prospects for footballers, referees and managers to continue their football careers in Belarus,” Mikhail Zalevsky writes, as players, coaches and administrators are fired for standing up for fair elections and against violence.
“Today, the Ministry of Sport and Tourism has prepared a list of footballers, coaches and functionaries with whom the employment relationship must be cancelled (terminated/not renewed) due to their condemnation of violence by the authorities as well as their close relatives’ expression of civic positions on social media.
“All this even though the state has no right to interfere in the affairs of Uefa member associations.”
Zalevsky too has fled to Poland.
The Belarusian athletes have now filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and also lodged submissions with the relevant Fifa bodies regarding human rights violations, state interference and match-fixing. The Belarusians now await a reply from Fifa.
Josimar sent a number of questions to both Uefa and Fifa.
“Given that the matter is currently still pending/sub judice, we trust in your understanding that Uefa cannot make any comment at this stage,” Uefa replied.
We have not received a reply from Fifa.
Calls and texts to Uefa vice president Karl-Erik Nilsson have also not been answered.
Josimar also reached out to Nils Fisketjønn, the Norwegian member of Uefa’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body. He could not comment on issues regarding his Uefa role.