Will it be different this time?
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
In the new millennium, one of the key vectors of Russian investment to develop Soft Power and promote its claims to recognition as a major world power has been in hosting sporting events of global importance.
Surely this activity has made the biggest claims on the Russian Treasury. The infrastructure and operating costs of hosting the 2014 Sochi Olympics were above $50 billion. The estimated budgetary outlays for hosting the current football World Cup are 11 billion dollars. These figures dwarf all Russian expenditures in the domains of public broadcasting (RT), charitable featured events abroad (Palmyra concert, 2017) or international conferences held within Russia (St Petersburg International Economic Forum, or the recent Duma Forum on Developing Parliamentarism).
Big sporting events unquestionably present a grand opportunity for presenting the country to the world, both in terms of television coverage abroad and in terms of vast inflows of fans to see the events and incidentally also to tour Russia. Major sports are enormously popular around the world and cut across national, religious, gender and other differences. However, their very attractiveness, plus their openness make them vulnerable to sabotage and their success or failure depends on the state of play in the global informational space.
In point of fact, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games may be said to have caused more problems and setbacks for Russia’s Soft Power aspirations than they scored successes, and the reason was the vicious, slanderous anti-Putin, anti-Russia media campaign led by the United States and relayed by European and global news outlets before, during and after the Games.
Flashback to Sochi 2014
In the run-up to the Sochi Games, the Western media played on the image of Russia as deeply corrupt to question every ruble spent on the infrastructure projects in Sochi, alleging price gouging by the construction and development companies headed by Kremlin-favored oligarchs and putting in doubt the quality of the facilities being prepared by private investors. We saw fake videos of wolves roaming the still unfinished Olympics Village buildings. We were shown cockeyed toilet installations in new hotels built for the incoming foreign visitors.
Admittedly, Sochi was vulnerable to such mockery, because so much infrastructure had to be developed from scratch. The city was a renowned summer resort going back to Soviet days, but it had almost no facilities for winter sports, notwithstanding the proximity of snow-covered mountains of the Caucasus chain. Indeed, all of Russia had no world-class winter sports resorts, so that the challenge was daunting and relevant experience was limited.
However, the trashing of Sochi by Western media before the Games also went on in other completely unrelated areas. We were reminded that Sochi is situated not so far away from the disaffected Muslim populations of Russia’s Caucasus region, where the bloody suppression of the Chechen liberation struggle in the 1990s was still fresh in everyone’s memory. It was broadly suggested that visitors to the Games would be exposing themselves to possible terrorist attacks and, in fact, purchase of tickets to the Games suffered significantly from this story, with perhaps 30% of available tickets unsold.
Moreover, Western media focused on Russia’s alleged human rights abuses. Let us recall in this regard the boycott movement against Russian branded goods which led to bottles of Stolichnaya (manufactured in fact in Latvian Riga) being poured down the drain before news photographers.
Much ado was made about Putin’s political prisoners. The release from prison of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and of the Pussy Riot activists in late 2013 represented a clear attempt by the Kremlin to defuse the issue. However, this did not prevent Russia’s accusers from moving on to a still more artificial human rights issue – namely Russia’s alleged homophobia. Gays were warned by our newspapers that they might be assaulted in bars or even on the streets of Russia.
And, of course, during the Games the United States was actively plotting to use the distraction of Russia’s leadership with maintaining security at the sporting venues and its clear desire to avoid international scandals while the Games were still running to plot and facilitate execution of a coup d’état in Kiev on 22 February 2014, the day before the Games closed. As Foreign Affairs magazine editor-in-chief Gideon Rose quipped on a television show a little more than a week later: Russia may have won the Gold Medal count in Sochi, but the US just added to its ‘country count.’
Scope of this essay
In this essay, I offer a brief overview of US and European press coverage of the World Cup in the weeks before and in these opening days to demonstrate that a nearly neutral position holds sway. That is in stark contrast to the Russia bashing which preceded the Sochi Games. And this is all the more remarkable given that today Russia is a country under sanctions, that it has been charged by the USA, by the EU with violation of the international order going back to the annexation/reunification with Crimea, its intervention in the Donbass rebellion against Kiev authorities, its support for the heinous Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, its supposed meddling in US and European elections and its alleged responsibility for the chemical attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, England.
In covering the press, I may intermix at times remarks about official government actions with respect to Russia’s holding the football tournament. I consider it axiomatic that the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic take their cues for dealing with Russia on issues of this importance directly from the press officers of the respective prime ministers and heads of state or from their ministries of foreign affairs. One has to be blind not to understand that coverage changes from positive to negative and back again at the flick of a switch from government.
I will try to explain why the US and other Western media are behaving differently this time compared to 2014. And I will consider in what way the possible win for Russian Soft Power in holding the football World Cup is so much greater than anything it could have achieved in Sochi but did not.
The extent of current negativity in US and European treatment of the World Cup 2018
I do not mean to suggest that there have been no Western attempts to strip Russia of its Word Cup award these past several weeks, nor that Western media coverage has been uniformly neutral. In particular, a boycott appeal was launched by Theresa May and her madly Russophobe Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in mid-March, in the days just after the Skripal poisoning when the British Prime Minister successfully rallied Europe and the USA for unprecedented expulsions of Russian diplomats. However, her efforts with respect to the World Cup fell on deaf ears. In fact, the only political move against the Games of any significance has come from a very few members of the European Parliament these past days led by the forever Russia-hating Rebecca Harms, of the German Greens bloc. Picked up by Euronews, this empty exercise has gotten no traction.
For a while, there were also media warnings of dangers to anyone from the LGBT community who might go to the World Cup. This has run in tandem with articles warning about possible violence towards overseas visitors from Russian football hooligans and skinheads. Coming in particular from British journalists and given the infamy of the UK’s own hooligans, the degree of hypocrisy in such charges vitiates their effect.
But the US government has not lined up this time with the accusatory journalists. There has been nothing similar to Barack Obama’s appointing well-known homosexual or lesbian athletes as the nation’s representatives to the Russia’s sports fest as happened in 2014, seeking to play up the contrast between an inclusive American society and a Russia that is populated and run by bigots or thugs.
The issue of Russia’s supposed corruption and self-dealing oligarchs that was so overblown by the Western press before the Sochi Games has had only a pale reflection in the coverage of the World Cup and relates solely to what kind of back-room deals may have been struck in 2010 to allow Russia to win the designation as host to the 2018 event. We are given what is now stale speculation on deals between Vladimir Putin and the oligarch Roman Abramovich on the one side, and FIFA general secretary Sepp Blatter on the other, or between the Kremlin and the ruling family of Qatar to form a winning block of FIFA voters favoring Russia in 2018 and the Persian Gulf state in 2022, as actually happened. These charges lack teeth because, as we are told, any evidence of such collusion and corruption has long since been destroyed.
Meanwhile, it is edifying to read the long account in The Guardian going into these issues but painting a very unflattering picture of the politicking by the British who competed very actively with Russia for the Cup award and acting with disregard for that famous British sense of fair play. Here we learn, among other things, about the role played back in 2010 by the very same former MI6 agent Christopher Steele who in 2016 resurfaced as the author of the infamous dossier intended to sink the candidacy of Donald Trump. See www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/14/how-russia-won-the-world-cup
For want of any other proofs that the World Cup might not pay off for Russia, US journalists have derided the Kremlin for its supposed failure to attract world leaders to the opening of the World Cup. They suggested that only the "Stans” of Central Asia and the unrecognized republics of Ossetia and Abkhazia plus a few irrelevant African nations sent their heads of state for the opening and private meetings with Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, European leaders have not come to the opening ceremony, but it would be wrong to evaluate this as an intended snub to Putin or as the last word. The only European country which made such a démarche is the UK, where Prime Minister May declared back in mid-March that the royal family and senior officials of her Government would not be coming, though the British national team would be playing.
And as for the opening, Russia’s catch of dignitaries was not really so bad in fact. The presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the side of Vladimir Putin for the opening match between their respective teams was widely reported. So was the arrival of Bolivian President Evo Morales and Panama President Juan Carlos Verela: both countries have teams in the Cup, and football has very high popularity back home. Moreover, while Armenia may not have a team on the field, the arrival of its prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, for the opening ceremony and a private meeting with Putin was a political event affirming continuity in state-to-state relations following the regime change disturbances that recently brought him to power in Yerevan. For his part, the Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri came and that bears testimony to Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East across the board. The arrival of the PM of Moldova has similar significance given the unstable and shifting politics at the southwestern border of Ukraine.
Furthermore, we should mention the presence of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Luzhniki Stadium reception with Putin. For the rest, it is possible and even likely that many more European heads of state will come to Russia to cheer on their national teams once the Cup enters its final stretch.
One may wonder why this time no disparaging remarks about the Russian hosts’ infrastructure have been made by US and European media outlets. There are objective reasons this is so, though I freely admit that objective truth all too often has little to do with what the newspapers print. There are eleven venues for the Cup games, not one. They are spread across European Russia mostly in well-established cities that otherwise are on tourist itineraries. As we noted, the infrastructure spend this time has been five times less than in Sochi to bring them up to world-class levels. Money was focused on extensively renovating or building new stadiums, a task that is well known and did not present wholly novel challenges. Money was also spent on urban beautification, on new airports or train stations. The funding came strictly from the central government and the results were more easily foreseeable than in Sochi.
Neutral content in current US and European reporting
Now let us sample the leading mainstream newspapers of the United States and Europe over the past several days to get a feel for what they actually are writing, as opposed to the negative things they are not saying this time.
A fine place to begin is with The New York Times. A feature article dated 14 June is very fair-minded and it is really quite extraordinary to find this in the daily issue of the paper that everyone reads as opposed to one of the weekend supplements. There is also a perfect match between the contents and the title, "Russia Has Set the World Cup Table, Will Russians Embrace the Party?” The match indicates that the Editorial Board was supportive, something which cannot be assumed when the text is not aligned with their general policy of Russia bashing.
Let me quote the opening paragraphs, since they set the tone:
At last, for Russia, it is over. The stadiums, as promised, are ready – shimmering space-age bowls dotting the skylines of 11 cities across the country. The 32 teams are here, ensconced in state-of-the-art training facilities.
The fans have arrived, flags draped over their backs, from Kaliningrad to Ekaterinburg. This country has done what it promised to do eight long years ago. It has done what it said it could. It has delivered a World Cup. All that is left, now, is the trifling matter of some soccer matches.
The author, Rory Smith, notes that the World Cup is not just or even a sporting event so much as "a test of a nation’s strength and an international community’s resolve.” He describes Russia with unusual insight: "…Russia is too vast and too unwieldy to be expected to react as one, even to an event as vast, and unwieldy, as the modern World Cup.” He concludes that the success of the Cup rests now with the Russian people: "It will celebrate, perhaps, because the mood of a World Cup can be infectious. …It may even celebrate because its team does better than expected, though hope for that is thin on the ground…It is not easy to predict – all countries defy easy definition, and Russia more than most…”
Russia defies easy definition? Quite amazing that the author got that bit of normal human feeling past his editors!
The Washington Post has shown no such generosity of spirit. Two articles dated 14 June are worthy of comment. One, co-authored by Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall bears the teaser title " Russia is hosting this year’s World Cup. What could go wrong?” This sets out at a summary of a volume of the journal Problems of Post-Communism detailing security risks, Russian racism and general intolerance of nonwhite foreigners and other threats to the event. And yet the closing remarks are markedly less aggressive:
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.
Perhaps the authors even mean their kindly concluding words.
The second WP article is more grim, starting with its title "Putin hoped his World Cup bid would improve relations with the West. They’ve suffered instead.” We get here the usual reminders of Russia’s ills, including the issue of corruption having played a role in getting the Cup award back in 2010. And yet, in passing, the author lets drop a few comments that run against the negativism. We are told "global political observers note that the World Cup still represents a triumph for Putin on the world’s stage.” Furthermore, that "the magnetic pull of the World Cup has provided an opportunity for the country to demonstrate accurately or not that the sanctions have not had their intended effect.”
The United States team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup and so US news coverage does not go far beyond this kind of political analysis, which, as I have said, is far more restrained and even reasonable than anything we read or heard about the Sochi Olympics.
Europe does have teams in the World Cup, and European news coverage of the event tends to be quite normal. By that I mean, relatively little is said about Russia as host, and a great deal is said about the prospects for the given country’s team in its upcoming matches.
The odd man out is the UK, which does have a team in play in the World Cup but you would hardly know that from the newspapers. Not only the upmarket Times but also the downmarket Daily Mail have in the past few days had no articles at all on the Cup.
European newspapers show a genuine and substantial interest in the Games even as Putin’s Soft Power victory is acknowledged. The Frankfurter Allgemeine and Die Zeit online have feature articles with extensive coverage. Spiegel also focuses its attention on the teams in play.
Le Monde in Paris has published on the 14th an article mildly critical of Putin and the World Cup, and an editorial placing the event in the context of Putin’s striving to promote the country’s global image. These are tendentious but more descriptive of the realities of the East-West contest for influence than condemnatory.
Here in Brussels, the leading daily French language newspaper Le Soir has provided extensive coverage of the World Cup in anticipation of the matches to be played by the country’s Red Devils. On the 13 June there was a special insert on the team and its flight to Moscow in a special Brussels Airlines plane in Red Devils livery. We are told about their stay for training in the Moscow Country Club and about plans to travel down to Sochi for the first match. The mood is gossipy and upbeat. The issue of 14 June also has an insert mostly devoted to the World Cup, while the first page of the newspaper carries a photo of the Russian President and the caption "Under the Putin Cup. The World Cup in Russia opens today. It is a master work of the Kremlin, flatters the pride of the Russians and reinforces its international soft power.”
The article below on page one of Le Soir is dedicated to the magic of football. The game is said to be the great equalizer whatever one’s origin, social level or religion. It is a social ladder for part of the population. And its outcomes are often unpredictable. All of this contributes to its popularity everywhere on the planet. It is also said to be an enormous business and a political instrument: "The 21st World Cup is Putin’s. It is an affirmation of Russia as the organizing power and an occasion for the master of the Kremlin to flatter the national identity and to reinforce his image on the international level….In summation, football is the best and the worst of man at the same time. In brief, football is life. Long live the World Cup!”
Pages 2 and 3 of the 14 June issue of Le Soir are taken up by an article entitled "The new political-sports festival of Putin.” This closes with remarks on the VIP guests expected:
Many heads of state have even announced their arrival, in particular Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Vladimir Putin will also meet with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman Thursday in Moscow for the inaugural match in which Russia faces Saudi Arabia, the Kremlin announced. After the visit of Didier Reynders [Belgian Foreign Minister] for the Belgium-Tunisia match, a governmental visit and even a visit of the Belgian royals is likely in preparation. ….At the heart of the political-sports celebrations, Vladimir Putin has already won the match.
May I assure the reader that the coverage of the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Le Soir was identical in its sneering condescension to Russia with what you would have read back then in The New York Times.
How can we explain the neutral handling of the World Cup 2018 by tbe Western press?
If I have to name one issue that alone can explain the cautious, essentially neutral tone of US and European official statements about Russia as host to the World Cup and media coverage following suit, it is the fact that the United States has had pending an open bid to FIFA to join Mexico and Canada as co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, and the award would be adjudicated in Moscow during the plenary session of FIFA member states the day before the tournament opens. Any scandalous treatment of Russia before the Cup would put in jeopardy, indeed likely sink the chances of that US bid, because Russia could then mobilize its friends ahead of the vote and defeat the US bid, either by deleting the United States from the prospective triumvirate or throwing the award to the only alternative candidate, Morocco.
If this sounds implausible, one must remember that since the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump the US bid has been especially vulnerable because of Trump’s xenophobic and at times racist statements in support of closing US borders and deporting the millions of undocumented aliens working in the country. As it is, Trump had to send several letters of assurance to FIFA regarding US intentions of receiving foreigners for the Cup games in order to keep the candidacy alive. All of this constituted Putin’s "ace up the sleeve” as the football championships approached.
A second weighty reason for caution by Western governments and press was that Russia has shown its teeth in a way that was unthinkable back in 2010 when it still had illusions about maintaining a constructive relationship with its "partners” in the EU and USA. In answer to what was surely a pre-arranged question during the annual "Direct Line” national Q&A a week ago, President Putin issued a fairly explicit warning to Kiev, and beyond Kiev to Ukraine’s backers in Washington, not to even think about interrupting the World Cup by staging some provocation, not to mention a full-blown invasion of Donbass. Putin said Ukraine would "rue the day” and that its statehood would suffer.
Also last week the Russian General Staff declared it was aware of preparations under way for US-armed jihadists to perpetrate a chlorine or other chemical attack in Syria that they might yet again blame on the Assad forces, preparing the way for yet another attack on Syria by US naval detachments presently re-entering the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, too, the threat of immediate military response by Russian forces hangs in the air. Surely there is no coincidence in the fact that last week General Dunford, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with his Russian counterpart General Gerasimov in Finland for a 6-hour review of mutual red lines in Syria and elsewhere.
Then again there are other, less dramatic factors contributing to the difference between Western media treatment of the World Cup now and the treatment of the Sochi Olympics back in 2014.
One has to be the highly centralized organization of FIFA versus the more complex power sharing within the world Olympics movement in which many different actors were pulling in different directions. It is very much to the point that the current FIFA president Gianni Infantino is very definitely Russophile.
Surely another factor is precisely the relative weakness of the Russian football team versus the powerhouse Russian winter sports teams. Curiously, the low probability that the Russian team will go far has been brought up by some commentators to argue against the country ever having invested its 11 billion dollars for the honor of playing host. But winning the Cup is the least of the reasons for Russia to have taken on this challenge in pursuit of Soft Power credits.
I insist that part of Russia’s problem in 2014 was that its expected demonstration of athletic superiority would alienate many competitors who were envious and resentful, and who ultimately welcomed the comeuppance that the whole doping scandal represented. It may serve Russian national interests very well this time that its team is ranked 70 in FIFA standings, almost on a par with the Saudi team they defeated yesterday.
Possible Soft Power benefits accruing to Russia from the 2018 World Cup
The very nature of football as the most popular sport in the world serves the interests of Russia as host of the World Cup better than the Winter Olympics ever could.
Winter sports are essentially elite sports. Winter sports are very often feats of individual athletes that are nominally credited to the national teams. Furthermore, winter sports in the Olympics are often sports of a small handful of nations with little or no following elsewhere. In this past year’s Olympics in Korea we heard a lot about curling which till then was a rather exotic sport known to few.
Football, on the other hand, is one sport played according to rules that everyone understands and loves globally.
Estimates of the likely television audience for the current World Cup vary from one to four billion people. In the latter case, that is more than half of humanity.
Then there are the spectators on the ground, in the stadiums of the eleven cities hosting the tournament. The number of seats available for sale in the World Cup 2018 is more than double the seats available for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. At Sochi there were 1 million tickets on sale. For the World Cup, over 2.5 million tickets have been sold, two thirds of them apparently to foreigners. As of 11 June, published statistics showed that Russians had bought 871,792 tickets. The next largest contingent was US fans, who bought 88,825 tickets, followed by Brazil with 72,512 tickets, Colombia with 65,234 tickets, Germany with 62,541 tickets and Mexico with 60,302. The next five largest foreign buyers were Argentina, Peru, China, Australia and England. This translates into 600,000 foreign guests, though the Russian Federal Agency of Tourism reckons on up to 1 million foreigners coming to Russia for the Cup games.
These overseas visitors holding tickets are going to be traveling around the country to follow the matches at their changing venues. They will have entered the country using the new, high-tech ticket "passports” which substitute for Russian visas. They will be using privileged, often free train and air connections. They will be pampered and presumably they will be impressed after seeing a great deal of the country and coming to appreciate that it is the world’s largest.
Yet another fairly obvious advantage of those coming to the World Cup versus the visitors to Sochi back in 2014 is the season. Central Russia has been enjoying unusually sunny and clement weather, but in any case mid-June to mid-July is a better time for tourism than February. Days are not only warm but long, very long in the northern reaches of Russia.
All of these advantages of "good will,” another term for Soft Power, will now accrue to the Russian hosts, assuming nothing untoward happens in the coming weeks. We will be watching closely.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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