As World Cup kicks off, Russia aims to prove a world-class host again


The latest of the Vladimir Putin-era mammoth global events – and possibly the last such to be hosted by Russia in the foreseeable future – is about to kick off in Moscow.

On Thursday, the FIFA 2018 soccer World Cup gets underway with a long-awaited match between Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow’s newly renovated Luzhniki Stadium. At least half a million visitors from all over the world will visit Russia to attend the quadrennial event, the globe’s foremost professional sporting competition.

But it’s an international showcase that’s under shadow, primarily due to accusations levied at the host country.

The current edition of the cup is still dogged by accusations that Russia obtained its hosting rights through corruption. It has survived persistent calls for a political boycott due to Russia’s alleged malign global behavior. And it has weathered a storm of bad press, warning visitors about everything from price-gouging, to being roughed up by Cossacks, to getting targeted by Russia’s notorious soccer hooligans. Ironically, many of the most dire warnings emanate from Britain, whose own soccer hooligans are every bit as infamous as the Russian ones.

Despite all that, the cup is happening. Barring the unpredictable, Russia 2018 is likely to be successful. And for Mr. Putin, who has made a conscious policy over the past decade to invite the world to come and experience familiar events amid Russian venues, it should at least partially satisfy an even more important goal. The efforts around the cup – upon which, like the Sochi Winter Olympics and other events before it, the Kremlin spent enormous amounts of the public’s money – are meant to bolster Russian infrastructure, stir national pride, and spotlight the country’s modernity to the world.

“These events were conceived to demonstrate Russian engagement with the world and to generate a positive image of the country in the eyes of foreigners,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the semi-official Russian Council for International Affairs. “There are many different, interlocking goals for focusing on these big projects; it’s very much a Russian way of getting things done.”

‘No bears wandering around our streets’

Everything seems ready for the World Cup, which will unfold over June and July in 11 Russian cities from the Urals to the Baltic Sea.

Russia has spent at least $12 billion on new stadiums, transport links, hotels, and other infrastructure. Most construction targets have been met, and despite some controversy and charges of corruption, the costs appear to have been kept under control. The Kremlin insists that investment will pay off after the games end in terms of more tourism and improved quality of life for local inhabitants – a claim that has proven partially true in previous cases, such as the Sochi Olympics.

The threat of hooliganism, terrorist attack, or disruption by political activists has been largely neutralized by the introduction of special security regimes in most cities. People who live or work near a World Cup stadium will be required to have a special pass to navigate police cordons to reach their homes or offices. No-fly zones for drones and aircraft have been introduced around all venues for the duration of the games. Searches will be conducted on buses and trains headed for cities where games are taking place, and draconian controls on alcohol sales and consumption will be enforced. About 450 known hooligans have been identified by police, forbidden by court orders to attend any games, and placed under surveillance.

“Basically, all the efforts of our force structures will be directed at maintaining order and security during this period,” says Ilya Artemyev, an expert with the Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks extremist activities. “They have brought in extra police, as well as National Guard, to saturate the designated areas.” Russian paramilitary Cossacks have also been enlisted to patrol the streets of venue cities.

“I am sure the impact of these games will be positive,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “This is the kind of thing Russia does well. It’s a question of national honor. And considering all the bad press we have gotten, the expectations of visiting fans will not be that high. They will see that everything is peaceful and orderly, that the trains, planes, and hotels all work fine, and that there aren’t any bears wandering around the streets of our cities. They will go home saying, ‘hey, the press coverage of Russia is wrong,’ and that will be enough.”

A Russian tradition

Putin has an array of goals in his approach to high-profile mega events. He wants to spotlight the country’s achievements and make the visible case that it has become a “normal” place worthy of full inclusion in the global economic, political, and touristic landscape. Another aim is to mobilize Russia’s oligarchic capitalists to build public infrastructure – especially in far-flung cities outside the Moscow-St. Petersburg orbit – saddling them with hard deadlines and tough Kremlin oversight. Fostering national pride and fresh habits, such as friendly service and volunteerism, is a frequently mentioned goal.

The method of making capital political decisions to galvanize productive forces and make them speed up their activities is rooted in Russian history. In Soviet times, the announcement that a Communist Party leader was going to visit some remote city would send local officials into a frenzy of painting buildings, repaving roads, and meeting long-postponed economic goals. It’s not a coincidence that the term “Potemkin Village” was coined by Russians.

The results so far have been mixed.

Russia spent billions to prepare the provincial city of Kazan to hold the 2013 Summer Universiade athletic competition. They turned out to be the biggest-ever in the history of the games, attracting more than 10,000 university athletes from 160 countries and also helped to put Kazan, which had been mostly an unknown backwater, on the map.

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, to which Putin had attached his personal prestige, were estimated to cost as much as $50 billion and were meant to be Russia’s big coming out party on the world stage. It didn’t work out that way. The Western media mercilessly ripped Russian preparations for the games, though it later became clear that many of the criticisms were overblown. More seriously, as the games wound down a street revolt in Kiev unseated Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Western forces took power, and Russia reacted within weeks by annexing Crimea and throwing support behind pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Four years of escalating Western sanctions, geopolitical tensions, and international scandals have followed. Few people today think that the Sochi Games generated any goodwill for Russia.

“It isn’t that we did a bad job of hosting the Games, or that it was a bad idea to begin with,” says Mr. Kortunov. “It’s that other things intervened and turned our relations with the world in ugly directions.”

Some argue the global attitude to Moscow may be changing due to Western disunity, Russian resilience in the face of sanctions and isolation, and the hard-to-estimate impact of President Trump on international perceptions.

“Something is changing in the West. Their anti-Russian unity is faltering, while we have been steadfast. There are reasons to hope that the difficult period of the past four years is ending,” says Mr. Mukhin. “People are realizing that Russia has been strong and consistent, and that it’s here to stay. They should come to terms with it, and that means getting to know it better. I believe a successful World Cup is going to create new openings for Russia.”

More big state-led projects

There seem to be no more big global events on Russia’s horizon, though the Urals city of Yekaterinburg is bidding to host Expo 2025 with Kremlin backing.

However, the big state-led projects that have punctuated the Putin era seem set to continue. Russia recently finished building an 11-mile road bridge across the Kerch Strait, to join the Russian mainland with recently annexed Crimea, at a cost of around $4 billion. The Russian government is reportedly contemplating construction of an even longer bridge to connect the hydrocarbon rich island of Sakhalin in the Far East to the Russian mainland.

“Even if you put aside the international dimension, it’s clear that people in the Kremlin like big projects that express national goals and capacities,” says Kortunov. “The system favors large-scale, high profile construction projects that consume a lot of funding and can be monitored by the Kremlin. I’m sure we’ll see more of it, because it’s a habit already.”

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