Back in 2010, President Vladimir Putin helped secure Russia’s bid for the World Cup with guarantees he would introduce the world to an open and welcoming Russia.
This week, Putin said Russia had made good on its promises.
“We’ve done everything to ensure our guests, sportsmen, experts, and, of course, fans feel at home in Russia,” said Putin in a video address released by the Kremlin.”We have opened our country and our hearts to the world.”
With the final countdown to Thursday’s opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia underway, the stadiums appear ready, the fan zones (nearly) built, the bartenders ready to pour the beer, and the hooligans instructed to stay away.
But as Russia prepares to host world football fans of “the beautiful game”, human rights defenders warn the Kremlin is failing to meet obligations for social and political freedoms at home.
“There is no doubt that the government is craving this international prestige and wants to put Russia in the best light possible,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Moscow division.
The problem, added Gorbunova, is, “The situation of human rights now is the worst it’s been since the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Near identical charges were levied against Russia before it hosted the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.Then as now, concerns ranged over everything from political repressions, migrant labor violations in building sports infrastructure and pressure against LGBT groups to environmental and animal rights violations.
In 2014, Putin sought to appease his critics to a degree. Before the Sochi Games, the Russian leader made several high profile gestures, including the amnesty of jailed Greenpeace activists, members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, and oligarch-turned-prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkvosky in a bid to ease Western pressure.
This time? Not so much
“Russia has grown more and more resistant to international criticism,” said Gorbunova. “And as the international criticism intensifies, Russia becomes more self-assertive and shows how the Kremlin basically doesn’t care what the international community thinks.”
Four years later
Key to this shift is Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent fallout in Russia-West relations over Western sanctions, the downing of Malaysian Air flight MH17, election meddling allegations, and charges the Russian government engineered a doping program aimed at securing a (now tarnished) 1st place finish in Sochi among other issues.
The constant criticism has so inured the Kremlin to Western harangues that most are now merely met with a shrug and denial.
“Putin saw that there’s no need to worry about these things,” said Leonid Volkov, a pro-democracy activist and key advisor to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, currently serving a 30-day jail term for organizing anti-government protests.
“Political prisoners, downed passenger planes over Ukraine, bombs in Syria … it doesn’t matter.Everyone’s coming to Russia anyway,” noted Volkov.
Government critics say they are not out to ruin World Cup fun, but argue the political realities of the Putin regime also shouldn’t be ignored.
Sport and politics
The Kremlin has long argued politics and sport simply don’t mix, a statement Kremlin opponents find absurd.
“Of course, Putin uses sport as a key part of his rule,” said Volkov, the pro-democracy activist.
The World Cup, he notes, is the latest in a series of high profile sporting investments by the Russian president aimed at showcasing Russia’s resurgence under Putin’s rule.
Only it’s not clear the party is for everyone.
In the run-up to the Cup, students at Moscow State University say they were subjected to harassment by security services for protesting the location of Moscow’s fan zone, located just off the university grounds.
“They accuse protesters of trying to ruin the World Cup,” said Igor Vaiman, 21, a physics student, in an interview . “But the security services and repressions hurt World Cup much more than we could ever do.”
Great tournament, bad team?
Meanwhile, Russian football fans have another concern: the national team.FIFA ranks it 70th, the lowest ever for a host country in pursuit of a World Cup championship.
Russian fans are preparing for the worst, despite a record $12 billion spent on hosting the event.
Russia’s most recognizable star, veteran striker, Artem Dyzuba, finally lashed out at the critics’ read of Russia’s chances before even a single match. “We also dream of winning a World Cup,” he reminded fans.
But Viktor Levin, a retired sportscaster who called games for the legendary teams of the Soviet Union, said the problems with modern Russia football ran deep. “In the Soviet Union, our team battled out of genuine patriotism,” said Levin. “Now it’s all about money.”
Even the fans have changed, he argued. “Before we went to watch football with our kids. It was a family event. Now all these young people do is drink, wave their scarves, and fight.”
His friend Marshan nodded in agreement. “What can I say? We’re bad at football,” he said, before adding a caveat worthy of the Kremlin.
“But nobody hosts better than Russia! I guarantee it!”