Russia

Putin's big match special

Roman Osharov assesses the challenges Russia faces in hosting the World Cup

A man pushes a stroler past a FIFA World Cup 2018 emblem placed in front of the Nizhny Novgorod's Kremlin

This summer Russia will host the FIFA World Cup. The tournament is the first major opportunity for a display of Russian 'soft power' since the Ukraine crisis sent relations between Moscow and the West into deep freeze. Moscow is hoping to show a different face to the world and demonstrate its ability to deliver a safe tournament. At the same time, the World Cup is an opportunity to boost patriotic feelings at home after the now certain re-election of President Vladimir Putin in March.

Much has changed since Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. That event, which took place in a different era in Russian relations with the West, provided a hook for critics of Vladimir Putin and amplified some of Russia's weaknesses.

At home, critics focused on the huge cost overruns - the final bill was estimated at $51 billion - while criticism of Russia's record on LGBT rights was a major element of foreign reporting. At the end of the Games, with the Olympic flame still burning in Sochi, Russia reverted to hard power in Ukraine to incorporate Crimea.

In 2010, when Putin, serving as prime minister, headed the bid to host the World Cup, he proposed to build new stadiums and upgrade infrastructure throughout the country, effectively offering the most expensive World Cup ever.

The Russian bid was seen as a commitment to continue rapprochement with the West at a time when the US president Barack Obama hoped for a 'reset', and David Cameron, the British prime minister, had shown readiness to move beyond the assassination in London of the dissident ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.

That political rapprochement is now in tatters, and Russia is unlikely to approach this summer's tournament with the same naive expectation of good publicity that it had in 2014. However, it may provide an opportunity for limited rapprochement with the West.

The Russian organizers have introduced visa-free entry for football fans with tickets and they hope the event will attract nearly a million international visitors.

The matches will take place in 11 cities across Russia, from Moscow and St Petersburd to Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don as well as Sochi that neighbours the turbulent region of the North Caucasus. The distances are huge, but the organizers have promised free rail travel for fans, and the matches after the group stage will be concentrated in central Russia.

Although the Sochi Olympics passed without major incident, from the point of view of security, the World Cup is a much more ambitious endeavour. This is a bog security challenge for Russia, not only because of the perennial problem of hooliganisms, but also due to the threat of terrorist attacks, which is as real in Russia as it is across much of Europe today.

As Russia continues its operations in Syria, the threat posed by the return of foreign fighters represents a serious long-term security concern; while peace in the North Causcasus remains fragile. The most recent major terrorist attacks on Russian soil was the St Petersburg metro bombing in April 2017, which claimed the lives of 15 people. In addition, since September, Russia has had to deal with a series of bomb hoaxes in places ranging from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to student halls in Vladivostok. These incidents, which the Kremlin describes as 'telephone terrorism', have forced evacuations of buildings across the country affecting more than one million people.

The World Cup will test the country's ability to manage the security of a major international event, and at the same time, provides yet another opportunity for Russia and the West to seek at least some cooperation on common threats.

The tournament has also served to channel much-needed investment into the Russian regions. In the exclave of Kaliningrad, the World Cup's westernmost location sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, new roads and hotels have been built in the run-up to the competition, while the southern city of Samara was given a new airport.

Even the Luzhniki stadium, the World Cup's main venue and home of the 1980 Summer Olympics (when it was known as the Lenin Stadium), has undergone refurbishment.

Even though Sochi focused both international and domestic criticism of Russia, it nonetheless triggered a jump in Putin's approval ratings at home - further boosted by the subsequent incorporation of Crimea in Russia. As long as the World Cup concludes without major security incidents, Putin is likely to receive a similar fillip at the start of his next six-year term in office.

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