contributor perspectives

The World Cup: Putin's Political Panacea

Linas Jegelevicius
Board of Contributors
5 MINS READJul 14, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) watches the opening game of the 2018 World Cup next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L), who has praised him for the turnout at the tournament.
(Pool/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) watches the opening game of the 2018 World Cup next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L), who has praised him for the turnout at the tournament.

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  • By hosting the World Cup, Russia managed to defuse international tensions, however temporarily, over incidents such as the attempted assassination of former Russian intelligence official Sergei Skripal.
  • The tournament also helped the Kremlin avoid a public backlash over its decision, announced on the first day of the World Cup, to raise the retirement age — not least of all because public protests were banned in host cities during the monthlong event.
  • Despite the World Cup's success as a diversionary tactic, it will do little to assuage Russians' economic and political grievances in the long run. 

Sit back, relax and enjoy the show. That's the message Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be broadcasting to his country, and the rest of the world, with this year's World Cup. And so far, it's paying off. The soccer tournament, which has won Putin praise from Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, soccer's governing body, for its impressive turnout, has proved a diversion from the domestic and international issues facing the Kremlin. The tactic is a familiar one in Russia, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula just weeks after hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics — some have argued to distract the public from the controversy surrounding the spectacular and expensive games. In an apparent reversal, this time Putin is using the World Cup to upstage the political turmoil in and around the country.

Rethinking Russia

The Russian squad, which entered with the lowest FIFA ranking in the tournament, may have lost to Croatia in a nail-biter of a quarterfinal match July 7, but Russia will still emerge a winner. Despite decisively defeating Saudi Arabia in the first game of the World Cup and clinching an upset win over Spain in the round of 16, Russia has scored its biggest victories off the pitch. Putin summed it up this way: "Football fans visiting Russia for the World Cup have changed the country's image through social networks, effectively dispelling many myths." The experience of attending the tournament, even vicariously, the Russian president contends, might just be enough to cast doubt on the recent scandals coming out of the country — the state-sponsored doping program, the meddling in foreign elections, the attempted murder of former Russian intelligence official Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

And it's not just tourists reassessing Russia because of the World Cup. The tournament has even started to thaw — if only temporarily — the country's international relations. In the wake of the Skripal scandal, the threat of a large-scale boycott loomed large over the World Cup. British Prime Minister Theresa May and a group of fellow Western leaders swore they would not attend. But the wonders of the "beautiful game" won them over. French President Emmanuel Macron attended France's semifinal match against Belgium on July 10; King Felipe VI of Spain huddled with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and his wife during the fateful Russia-Spain game; and Sweden's government lifted its boycott of the tournament after the national team qualified for its knockout stage. Explaining the move, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told reporters, "We're in another situation now. Football should be something that unites." Even U.S. national security adviser John Bolton complimented Putin on his execution of the tournament during a visit to Moscow in June and solicited advice for the 2026 World Cup, which the United States will co-host with Mexico and Canada. (The current games will also doubtless be a conversation-starter during Putin's upcoming meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.)

Keeping the Protesters at Bay

On the domestic front, meanwhile, the World Cup has served another strategic purpose for the Kremlin. The Russian government waited until the first day of the tournament, and Russia's victory over the Saudi squad, to announce its contentious plan to increase the retirement age. The country has some of the lowest retirement ages in the developed world — 60 years old for men and 55 for women — and hasn't changed them since 1933. Under economic pressure, however, Moscow is planning to gradually raise the standard to 63 for women and to 65 for men. That's just a year and a half shy of the average Russian man's life expectancy in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. (The average life expectancy for Russian women in 2016 was 77.2, theoretically leaving them 14 years to enjoy retirement once the new policy takes effect.)

Were it not for the World Cup, the changes to the retirement age surely would have provoked more widespread public unrest. But most eyes across the country were glued to TV sets showing the Russia-Saudi Arabia match, and in the major Russian cities that were set to host World Cup matches, the government had banned political protests. Consequently, opposition leader Alexei Navalny's calls for demonstrations met with a tepid response from only a few thousand protesters scattered throughout Russia. Navalny even got in the World Cup spirit himself: After Russia's improbable win over Spain, he took to social media, where he rallied his followers to stage a demonstration demanding that the government name Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev a Hero of the Russian Federation.

As the buzz over the World Cup starts to fizzle out, though, Putin and the Kremlin will have to face the music. Support for the president has dropped 14 points to 64 percent since the start of the tournament, and once the soccer frenzy has died down, the Kremlin's retirement age reform may well come back to bite it. Spectacular sporting events may be a way to prevent public discontent from bubbling over in the short term, but they are hardly a sustainable solution. Sooner or later, Putin and his government will have to find another way to placate Russia's cash-strapped citizens, or else deal with the consequences.

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