ZOiS Spotlight 22/2018

The Politics of Football in Russia: Repressive and Rational

by Timm Beichelt 13/06/2018
Russian president Vladimir Putin (middle) with FIFA president Gianni Infantino (left) and the mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin (right) during the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour in September 2017 in Moscow. Kremlin Pool / Alamy Stock Foto

As the 2018 World Cup approaches, a shadow has been cast on Russia’s involvement in international football. The country’s bid to host the event was accepted in 2010, at the same meeting of the FIFA executive committee where Qatar was – in scandalous fashion – made host of the 2022 World Cup. Although corruption has not been demonstrated in the case of the Russian bid itself, it nevertheless stands for a disturbing development: the fact that today, when it comes to the financing of international football, ensuring maximum earnings from global corporations and autocratic states appears to be the only thing which is of relevance. And there are other reasons why politically-minded individuals might look forward to the World Cup in Russia with mixed feelings: the violation of labour and social rights in the construction of stadiums; the clear misallocation of public funds for a few oversized arenas; the fact that it has been announced that the cities are to be cleared of political dissidents and the homeless in the course of the next few weeks; and last but not least the over-commercialisation of public space by FIFA and its partners.

Russia’s leadership is unlikely to be troubled by accusations from the West that political and social rights have been infringed. For that, it is too easy to point the fact that the World Cups of 2010 (South Africa) and 2014 (Brazil) were marked by similar developments. The subordination of individual clubs to the corrupt and hyper-commercial regime of international football occurs in Western Europe, too, as is well known. And it is also well-known that Russia has been involved in European football for years; Gazprom is not only a sponsor of the Bundesliga team Schalke 04, but also of the entire UEFA Champions League.

Democratisation? Unlikely

It would, therefore, be a mistake to expect a sporting mega-event to be a force for increased democratisation, as many did before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The opposite tends to be the case when autocracies have already had significant time to test their instruments of repression and consolidation of power. If a regime is to survive despite its authoritarian exercise of power, it requires measures which compensate the loss of individual rights with other aspects. One of these is the promise of security, which can be easily fulfilled by ensuring a strong security force presence before and during a mega-event. Another such aspect is the perception that the government is investing in infrastructure – something for which new sports arenas and transport connections are plausible symbols.

And so, it now seems to be a given that at least in the short term, autocratic regimes benefit from hosting large sporting events. Some positive effects are undeniable, and in a country like Russia, as long as the media, civil society, and the opposition are controlled, it is possible to minimise the attention given to long-term negative effects within the domestic political discourse.

Football as an instrument of power

There is, however, another dimension to Russia’s politics of football – a strategy of “soft power” which is not entirely negative. Russia’s politics of football can be described as an example of the soft technology of governance which authors like Lev Gudkov, the leader of the independent Russian opinion research institute Levada-Center, or the Swiss Slavicist Ulrich Schmidt have been diagnosing in the Russian case for over a decade. It consists in strengthening the instruments of the executive with disregard for possible opposing forces, while simultaneously being careful to surround it with narratives which are compatible with Russian political culture.

These narratives are well-known: acclaim for the strong and dependable “power vertical” in internal affairs; emphasis on the great history of Russia and the Soviet Union; complaints about a supposedly aggressive NATO and its member-states; the promotion of commodity-based economic strength; and the defence of Russian interests and those of Russian citizens in the so-called “near abroad”. All these can be found in Russian politics of football:

– The clubs Dynamo and CSKA Moskow are sponsored by companies and individuals drawn from the ranks of the “siloviki”, i.e. members of the army, the domestic security services, and the intelligence services. Other clubs in the Russian Premier League are financed directly by the state.

– The sponsors of Zenit St. Petersburg (Gazprom) and Spartak Moskow (Lukoil) use football to further the business interests of strategic commodities both in Russia and in Europe as a whole.

– The state-owned VTB-Bank, the successor of the former foreign trade bank Vneshtorgbank, finances clubs in the Armenian and Georgian top divisions as well as the Georgian national team.

Accusations of Hypocrisy

All this tends to be rationalised with the help of a narrative which the Russian state media have been building up for years: with constant allusions to the supposed unprincipledness of the West and of its values. And it cannot be denied that laments about Russia’s aggressive foreign policy are not particularly convincing when, for example, Gazprom’s money is readily accepted in international football. And while state-sponsored doping in Russia is the subject of TV specials, accusations of doping in the West hardly attract any attention from sporting associations or the media. It is thus easy for the propaganda machine associated with the Kremlin to accuse the West of also having double standards when it comes to football.

In Russia’s politics of football, we can thus identify two main patterns, both of equal significance. One the one hand, it represents a continuation of a politics of social repression which has characterised Russia in recent years. On the other, different state actors use football in the service of a national mission which has rightly garnered much criticism, but which is, upon closer inspection, quite consistent.

In terms of football itself, the nationalistic direction of current Russian politics is expressed in a team which is made up, with only two exceptions, entirely of players who earn their money in the Russian Premier League. Whether or not this is a successful strategy will become clear in the coming weeks. The performance of the Russian team at the World Cup is, however, unlikely to serve as an impetus for longer-term political changes in Russia.

Prof. Dr. Timm Beichelt is Professor of European Studies in the Faculty of Cultural Studies of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder. He just published the book „Ersatzspielfelder - Zum Verhältnis von Fußball und Macht“ , in which he presents case studies drawn from Germany, France and Russia.