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World Cup Dictatorships | Part 4: Russia

Next in our series on World Cup Dictatorship is host Russia.

Group: A

EIU Democracy Ranking: 135/167

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia created a new constitution that was designed to prevent strongmen from holding on to power indefinitely. Unfortunately this did not last long. In 2000 Vladimir Putin became president of Russia and has been slowly eroding what democratic institutions the country had ever since. Putin served the two consecutive presidential terms allowed by the Russian constitution from 2000-2004 and from 2004-2008. The 2008 election was won by one of Putin’s close allies Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev promptly named Putin Prime Minister. Medvedev extended the length of presidential terms from four years to six during his presidency. The 2012 election was then won, shockingly, by Vladimir Putin. While the Russian constitution limits Presidents to two consecutive terms it does not specify the total number of terms any one person may hold the position for. So Vladimir Putin served his third, six year long, term as President of Russia from 2012-2018. In March of this year Putin won his fourth term as president with 77% of the vote. His main rival, Alexi Navalny, was arrested shortly after the election.

Sport has been very important to Putin’s power. The critically acclaimed documentary Icarus outlines how Russia had a state sponsored doping program for the Sochi Olympics. In the Olympics proceeding Sochi, Russia had some underwhelming performances. To combat this the Russian Minister for Sport, Vitaly Mutko, setup a system in which Russian athlete could bypass the WADA anti-doping measures. The program was executed by doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping lab, who later became a whistle blower against the program.

At the time of the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s approval ratings had been steadily declining. Sanctions and a generally lackluster economic climate had led to Russians becoming increasingly frustrated with their lives. After winning 29 medals at Sochi, Putin’s popularity skyrocketed. He used this popularity to gain support for the annexation of Crimea. Dr. Rodchenko says in Icarus that he feels personally responsible for the invasion because if he had not helped Russia win so many medals it may not have happened.

The 2018 World Cup is being hosted by an authoritarian state that has shown some expansionist fervour in the recent past and cheats at sports in order to stir up nationalist fervour and gain support for their expansionist goals. Thanks FIFA. It should be clear at this point that any kind of success for Russia at this World Cup is a potential disaster for worldwide security and peace. On paper there shouldn’t be much danger of this. Aside from a few bright youngsters, like Aleksandr Golovin, the Russian team are mostly aging and unimpressive. The thing is though, as the Sochi Olympics have shown, we know that Russia cheats. We also know that FIFA are not immune to putting their thumb on the proverbial scale either. Michel Platini has recently said on the record that there was draw manipulation at the 1998 world cup to ensure that Brazil and France couldn’t meet until the final. There have also been allegations that there was match fixing at the 2002 World Cup in favour of the host nations of Japan and South Korea. Vitaly Mutko, the former Russian sport minister and now Putin’s deputy, received a lifetime ban from the IOC but has received nothing from FIFA. Until recently Mutko was the head of Russia’s F.A as well as the World Cup organizing committee. Dr Rodchenko has told the A.P that soccer players were also involved in the doping program but FIFA were painfully slow to respond. Finally on May 22nd FIFA released a statement saying that they could find no sufficient evidence that any of the Russian players were on P.E.D.s, a conclusion that frankly is totally baffling.

It seems what we’ll have in Russia a team of players on P.E.D.s who may also have the corrupt FIFA conspiring in their favour. It’s also very possible that a good run for the team will be used by Putin to continue his expansionist policies. Putin needs a big win too. He has been under pressure both domestically, for his crackdown on Navalny’s campaign, and abroad for his alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the Salsbury poisoning. The last time Russia had success on the international sporting stage Putin invaded a country and annexed territory. If Russia gets another big sporting win then there’s no telling what might happen. On the other hand though if they are suitably embarrassed at a tournament that they are hosting then that could go some way to destabilizing Putin’s regime. The Russian parliament has recently made a number of conservative moves to restrict the personal freedoms of Russians, suggesting a growing fear that unrest may be growing. If Russia crashes out of group A with no wins then the revolution won’t start the next day but it might help along a slow process of liberation and democratization in Russia.