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Ukrainian fan culture in exile

The conflict in eastern Ukraine hasn't been widely reported on in the media recently. But with the Champions League final in Kyiv, attention is focussed back on the conflict, and how football fans are coping.

It is in the stands, among friends, behind waving flags bearing his club's logo where Igor Kovtun feels most at home. But even the supporters' terrace had to give way to the war. His club, Zorya, hails from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk. His hometown is in territory taken over by pro-Russian separatists and is now part of their self-proclaimed "people's republic." Zorya now play their home games in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, or in Lviv, which is located around 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.

Many pro-European fans have left the industrial city of Luhansk because they were threatened and/or attacked by pro-Russian groups.

"My club became more important for me because it is a strong symbol for our city," Kovtun told DW. He's an IT developer who now lives in Poltava in central Ukraine. "We can identify ourselves with Luhansk through football. That strengthens the sense of community and staying power of our group."

Read more: Zorya Luhansk: A football club in exile

Stickers in the armory

Champions League Final in Kyiv (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/STR)

This year's Champions League final will take place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv

On Saturday, Real Madrid and Liverpool are to meet in the Champions League final in Kyiv.

According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the pro-Russian separatists took over in 2014. Two million people have fled, not just within their own country, but also to Poland and Belarus. Three weeks before the World Cup in Russia, the final of Europe's top club competition will draw attention to a crisis that has not been widely reported in the international media in recent years.

Kovtun left Luhansk at the age of 23, just after Russia's annexation of Crimea. He, like many other ultras, joined the Ukrainian army. He saw dozens of stickers from various football clubs in the armed forces' armory. Fan culture was a platform for patriotism, Kovtun said. Even right-wing fans found themsleves reconsidering their belief systems.

"Many ultras have realized that it is not people of different skin colors who are responsible for their problems, but rather corruption and the abuse of power."

Speaking at a recent event in Berlin on the invitation of German fan culture organization Gesellschaftsspiele, Kovtun also talked about a certain spirit of optimism.

"Many young people have moved out of their homes and have developed their own business ideas. That is a pragmatic path."

Rivals come together

The Euromaidan demonstrations in November 2013 were a turning point for Ukraine. Many football fans were among those who took part in the protests against Viktor Yanukovych, the then-president of Ukraine. Right-wing Dynamo Kyiv hooligans and left-wing Arsenal Kyiv ultras protected demonstrators from government forces, and young fans also took part in demonstrations in other cities. Since then, many have been living dangerously, as they were black-listed by the separatists.

Fan groups have since renounced their rivalries. They strongly support the national team and sing the national anthem with fervor.

"It is has become more peaceful in the stadiums," said journalist and eastern Europe expert Thomas Dudek. "Groups from different cities are in contact with each other. When Ultras from Zorya Luhansk were imprisoned, there were demonstrations in every stadium for their release."

Right-wing parties want to misappropriate ultras

Attendance has fallen since the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. The number of teams compteting in the country's top league has also dropped from 16 before the conflict to 12 now and a successful club like Metalist Kharkiv has been disbanded altogether. The club's owner has moved to Russia to avoid prosecution on corruption charges. Kharkiv is where Shakhtar Donetsk, the most successful club in eastern Ukraine, now play their home matches. The modern stadium and the airport in Donetsk were destroyed in the conflict.

Numerous ultras from Donetsk are gradually returning from the Ukrainian army. They are often traumatized and radicalized, said eastern Europe activist Ingo Petz.

"In the meantime, extreme-right parties are trying to win over the ultras. Unfortunately, the clubs and the government are not interested in young fans. That is disappointing because many fans want things to become more democratic."

Read more: Opinion: Kyiv risks divided Ukraine

Fankurve Ost initiates a trading of ideas

Since 2014, a conference in Berlin has provided a meeting of the minds for Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian fans and journalists. Fankurve Ost, a project started by Berlin-based organization Deutsch-Russicher Austausch (German-Russian Exchange, or DRA), organizes the event. Petz is one of the founders and discusses with the participants about ways they can become actively involved. The clubs, which are run by state-owned companies and oligarchs, rarely allow give them such an opportunity.

In Germany, many fan groups are politically active, staging protests, lectures, or organizing outings to memorial sites - things that would be unthinkable in eastern Europe.

"The entire concept of politics has been destroyed in many eastern European countries," Petz said. Whether its in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, in Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko or in Ukraine under Yanukovich: Civil society is considered a counter-movement, not as a partner of the state, and the regimes observe the mobilizing power of organized ultras with fear.

New projects of prevention

Fankurve Ost, on the other hand, thinks of the creative will as an opportunity. Gesellschaftsspiele is also establishing a network between German and Ukrainian supporters.

"We can help young people on the fringes of civil society with the help of football," Petz said. That is how the ideas exchange came about, beyond the organization hierarchy. Ukrainian members of Fankurve Ost write articles, produce films and develop projects for the reintegration into society of young convicts, for communication between fans - and for finding fans places to stay on the weekend of the Champions League final in Kyiv.

The final is not the most important thing to Kovtun. When he had to leave Luhansk in 2014, he hoped that he would be able to return a few weeks later. Four years have since past and the economic crisis has worsened and ultras can only afford to attend every second or third Zorya game. Nonetheless, Kovtun dreams of home games that are really at home.

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