Why Russia needs the World Cup
BUCHAREST—Few may know that the game known to some as football and to others as soccer was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. The nomination letter by Swedish politician Lars Gustafsson observed that sports—of which football was “the greatest sport of all”—play a valuable role in international relations by enhancing “the understanding between people of different races and religions in different countries.” Two weeks ago, at the Zurich headquarters of FIFA, international football’s governing body, it was decided that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup, entrusting the country with its second major international sporting event in a decade after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
It is now Russia’s turn to play a major role in building understanding between people, and thereby improve upon its poor record in this particular field. Over the past year, Russia has appeared to adopt more constructive and positive rhetoric internationally, and has followed this rhetoric with important and welcome diplomatic steps: renewed relations with Poland, the Partnership for Modernization with the European Union, the negotiated New START arms control agreement with the United States, and cooperation with other international powers in imposing economic sanctions on Iran. Its recent international behavior suggests a more cooperative Russia that is keen on closer relations with the transatlantic community. Yet the uneven results of the NATO summit in Lisbon on creating a joint NATO-Russian missile shield shows that the zero-sum thinking driving Russia’s international behavior has not changed significantly. This was further confirmed by Russian threats that it would reconsider its positions on Afghanistan and Iran, and by hints that it would renew an arms race, should the ratification of the New START treaty fail in the U.S. Senate. Domestically, Russia’s record of creating understanding between people is not much better. Racism and racism-related violence have reached worrying levels. Demonstrations of neo-Nazi groups are no longer uncommon, and more and more youth are attracted to the extreme right. Football itself is no stranger to hate speech, with racist banners displayed openly during league matches. Intolerance is also directed at natives of the North Caucasus, many of whom are discriminated against in major Russian cities. No one in Moscow is surprised when dark-complexioned men are stopped and interrogated for nothing more than appearing to be Chechen. The North Caucasus itself is sad proof of Russia’s inability to create deeper understanding between people within the country.
A saying in this part of the world goes: “Nothing brings people together better than corruption.” By that measure, Russia ought to be performing very well. The country ranked worst among global powers in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, falling from 146th to 154th place (in a tie with Cambodia) among a total of 178 countries rated. Russia’s endemic corruption paralyzes the state and suffocates its economy, making it one of the main obstacles to further modernization. President Dmitry Medvedev speaks tirelessly and blogs regularly about corruption in his country, but little real action to alleviate it has been seen so far. Another factor that often cements societies, the rule of law, is just as problematic in Russia. From the subservience of the judiciary to the political system—the emblematic case is that of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to the arbitrary enforcement of laws, Russia displays complete indifference to the rule of law. Russia’s inability or unwillingness to create greater understanding between people is probably most obvious in its near abroad, the regions it now considers, as in years past, its sphere of influence.
Here, Russia plays an unhelpful role in solving regional conflicts. The most recent testament to this is the Russian delegation’s refusal to discuss an action plan to solve conflicts in the Black Sea region at the recent OSCE summit in Astana. Russia has also played an active role in deepening conflicts, as the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia bear witness, or sustaining them, as in Transnistria. It is in this region that Medvedev’s choice of words to show his satisfaction with the World Cup decision sends shivers down peoples’ spines. “I congratulate all Russian football fans,” he said. “This is a large multimillion-person army.” Clearly, if sports are to create understanding between people, no place is in greater need of a major sporting event—or two—than Russia.
Alina Inayeh is Director of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation in the Bucharest office of the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.