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Russia is hosting this year’s World Cup. What could go wrong?

- June 14, 2018
A souvenir vendor shakes hands with a Mexican football fan near Red Square ahead of the World Cup in Moscow on June 12. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

This year, the World Cup is being held in Russia — giving Westerners a chance to learn more about the host country in ways that go beyond stories about a new Cold War or reviewing evidence that Moscow interfered in Western democracies. The World Cup marks Russia’s first appearance on the international sporting stage since the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, an event tainted by Russia’s massive state-sponsored doping program.

If you want to know a bit more about some of the specific issues at this summer’s World Cup, we’re here to help. The journal Problems of Post-Communism has published a special edition of relevant research. We will outline some of the key findings below.

What’s the goal of hosting such sporting mega-events?

First, the simple fact that Russia is hosting the World Cup shows that the country does care about how the rest of the world sees it. Hosting such a sporting mega-event can bring a significant amount of “soft power.” That’s as true for the 2018 World Cup as it was for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

But soft power isn’t Russia’s main reason to host such massive sporting events, as evident from Russia abandoning the soft-power gains of the 2014 Winter Olympics by beginning the annexation of Crimea even before the closing ceremony was over.

Instead, Russia hosting the World Cup — like the Olympics — is consistent with the goal of Russia reemerging as a great power. Of course, that’s made more difficult by the diplomatic fallout from the poisoning of a former Russian military intelligence officer in the United Kingdom, which has involved mutual diplomatic expulsions and consulate closures.

Second, the 2018 World Cup faces a startling number of security risks — strikingly more than in the past. Those include threats from Islamist radicals (including the Islamic State); Russian hooligans and petty criminals; spillover violence from Ukraine, given that one of the cup’s host cities, Rostov, is only 30 miles from the Ukrainian border; Russian racism toward foreigners not normally seen in the country, such as Africans and Middle Easterners; and the security forces themselves, who may use a variety of pretexts to harass and detain foreigners.

Of these, Russian racism and general intolerance of nonwhite foreigners are likely to be especially prominent. Last year, when the national teams of Cameroon and Germany played each other in Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, the city’s mayor, led a march through the city in which some participants waved bananas and at least one person wore blackface and a Cameroon jersey. While in the West the reaction was one of amazement, such events demonstrate how ideas about diversity and cultural sensitivity are new to Russia.

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The special edition contains four research articles, each of which examines some of the above issues.

Richard Arnold and Manuel Veth explore the risk posed by Russian neo-Nazi organizations. Russia has a large skinhead population — as recently as 2006, it was home to half the world’s skinheads — and they are closely connected to football hooligans. Using statistics compiled by the SOVA human rights center and Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), the authors show that racist acts are alarmingly common in Russian domestic football. You can see more in the figure below. Given the problems caused by Russian hooligans at the Union of European Football Associations championships in 2016, Arnold and Veth argue that hooligan violence is sure to be a prominent issue at this summer’s tournament.

An article from Daniel Wolfe and Martin Müller examines how Russia has financed the World Cup despite declining oil prices and international sanctions, imposed initially after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. As resources have dried up, the authors argue, Russia has adapted its previous neo-patrimonial model to “crisis patrimonialism.”

Russia has reduced the amount of private money used to fund infrastructure construction and instead has funded it publicly. It has increased the share of money for infrastructure coming from the public purse, reordered favored elites to withhold patronage to former recipients and raised the cost of political loyalty by distributing fewer but bigger rent-seeking opportunities to favored elites.

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The third article, written by Alexandra Yatsyk and Andrey Makarychev, argues that the Kremlin seeks to use the World Cup as a source of domestic political legitimacy while also adapting to the constraints on sovereignty such an event entails. Hosting the World Cup means loosening a grip on national sovereignty and accepting external advice. FIFA, for example, requires temporary suspension of national laws, such as the requirement for some foreigners to obtain visas. The Kremlin has responded to such requirements by solidifying state control over society, describing international outrage at doping and the hooligan violence at UEFA 2016 as examples of politics influencing sport.

In the last article, Richard Arnold explores the connections between sport and nationalism in contemporary Russia. He argues that repeating Soviet-era sporting successes is part of Russia’s modern nation-building strategy, giving Russians proof of their country’s greatness through sporting prowess. That is why Vladimir Putin has advocated sport as a primary way to combat a host of Russian maladies, from low male life expectancy to high rates of drinking in the population.

The 2018 World Cup presents Russia with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show the cup’s billion-odd TV viewers some of the country’s genuine treasures. Three of the host cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and all are vibrant places rich in culture. That’s precisely why the event is a target for those who wish to harm the tournament and its hosts.

As Russia-watchers and football supporters, we sincerely hope the World Cup passes without anything going wrong. Our special edition offers background and context in case something does.

Game on.

Richard Arnold is associate professor of political science at Muskingum University and the author of “Russian Nationalism and Ethnic Violence: Symbolic Violence, Lynching, Pogrom, and Massacre” (Routledge, 2016).

Andrew Foxall (@drewfoxall) is director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based international affairs think tank, and author of “Ethnic Relations in Post-Soviet Russia” (Routledge, 2015).