The FIFA World Cup is now well underway in Russia. Missed penalties, late-game screamers, and underdog feel-good stories have already caused excitement. For Russia, however, the World Cup is about much more than sport. It is a chance to show to the world the supposedly “new Russia”, one that defies the idea that onlookers may have of it. When the country won the right to host the competition, many embraced a truly post-Soviet, global Russia.
That, however, was eight years ago, and Putin has since regained power, leading to deep changes in the face of renewed issues, both at home and abroad. The word “issues” is an understatement: over the past four years, the world has witnessed the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, numerous military interventions in Syria, the Sochi Olympics doping scandal, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and the poisoning of a former spy in England. Activists continue to die abroad mysteriously while those at home are jailed. More recently, Russia made “gay propaganda” illegal and weaponised social media to sabotage western democracies.
Over Budget Once Again
Despite all this, the power of a World Cup is such that the few voices calling for a boycott have largely gone unheard. This is economically good for Russia, as the country has spared no expense to get scores of tourists into its stadiums: the competition cost taxpayers $11bn (683bn rubles), which is vastly over budget. Going over budget is normal for both an international event, and especially for Russia (the Sochi Olympics cost $50bn), yet many are convinced that a lot of “expenses” come from Putin’s need to feed his “court”.
In fact, the economic impact of the competition is expected to be very limited. Most of the 12 stadiums, built or expanded for the competition, are unlikely to get much use once the competition is over, and citywide renovations have been superficial. The impact on internal politics will also be negligible: Putin’s approval ratings are so high that the World Cup is unlikely to move the needle above the current 85% point. It is equally unlikely to influence his detractors overseas.
Why is this event so important to Putin?
What is at stake here is primarily international clout and goodwill, regardless of the score at the end of the month. The West often forgets that the US is seen as the enemy of numerous regions of the world (sometimes rightfully so — the sound of drones and “collateral damage” makes for lousy nursery rhymes), and to that extent, Putin’s Russia looks to provide a powerful counter-balance of power. The World Cup is the perfect time to cement this idea by providing a positive image of a modern Russia.
In fact, a World Cup where the US team is nowhere to be found and billions of people watch Russia beat the Saudis 5–0 is a powerful metaphor for current international politics. The US has turned America First into ‘America Alone’ by alienating most of its allies, and the international community has been unable positively impact the many ongoing crises worldwide. Trump’s demand for re-creating the G8 is the product of months of work coming from the Russian government.
Greek, Hungarian, Italian and Austrian populist leaders have all cosied up to Putin, as have Angela Merkel of Germany and Emmanuel Macron of France, when discussing the future of the Iran deal, among other issues. There are few popular geopolitical clubs that Russia is a part of, and despite showing off the image of the proud loner, it is no doubt enjoying being once more a feared, if not respected, member of the international community. To that extent, every thrilling game on the field is akin to winning a small war, with regards to said international community’s view of the embattled nation.
The Many Faces of Russia
Yet, Russia and the Russian government are not synonymous. It will be interesting to see if, beyond international goodwill, the competition can unite the famously tortuous and divided Russian soul, best defined by a natural kindness of heart, simplicity and resignation. Russia is a complicated nation, filled with contradictions and oxymora. Its people are proud of its history, yet fear it. It is at times comprehensively unwelcoming, yet incredibly beautiful. Its people love the homeland, but the homeland doesn’t necessarily love them back, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Moscow is using the World Cup to kick off its 5G efforts, implementing hot spots so that a lucky few may watch the game using virtual reality headsets, while the rest of the nation must make do with Potemkin villages.
Will the Russian people take kindly to the one million foreigners, who are expected to visit Russia over the next month, taking advantage of simplified visa procedures? Such an influx of people is likely to have an effect on the Russian population, and potentially lead them to further openness. To cater for all these visitors, Russia, among other efforts, has organised classes for bus and train drivers on how to smile. It will be interesting to see if panem et circenses will be enough to make them forget about the economic uncertainty the nation faces when faced with the tourists’ wealth.
From Russia with Love
Any such movement may be hard to achieve if some members of the Russian Federal Assembly get their way. One member advised Russian women against fraternising with foreign men, especially if they were from a different race, as it would increase the risk of children being raised in single-parent homes. Another cautioned against hugging visitors for fear of falling ill to exotic diseases. There is hope, though it is widely under-reported: one parliament member sought to downplay his colleagues’ statements, claiming that any children born out of a World Cup romance “will remember that their parents’ love story started here in Russia.” He went on to hope “that the World Cup will give [Russia] many love stories, interracial couples and children.”
All countries defy easy definition, and Russia more than most. In any case, Russia is not an unstoppable rogue state. It aches just like the rest of us, though often less publicly. Its political class is out of touch, and protests have become regular, as real incomes have fallen 12% over the past three years.
Once the fans depart later this summer, the realities of the Russian economy will remain, as will the many geopolitical conflicts Russia is tied to. The beautiful game can offer only a temporary respite from ugly realities. Yet, one may hope that, even as the world enjoys the thrills of this unique competition, it does not forget and forsake the many ordinary citizens fighting for social progress, often within scoring distance of the stadiums.
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