Socio-political football in Russia

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The Word Cup in Russia has been successful, but the benefits of the so-called ‘people-to-people diplomacy’ do not translate into geopolitical dividends. Russian officials, medias and ordinary citizens had all the reasons to describe the World Cup as a great PR operation, demonstrating to prejudiced Westerners that their country has the organisational capacity to handle such a huge project while sending through the world sympathetic images of themselves.

But it had no impact in relations with the West, and what can be considered a geopolitical coup – the Helsinki meeting with President Trump soon after the Cup ended – has projected Russia into the quackmare of American internal policy, at Moscow’s risks and perils.

Still a series of elements are worth to mention.

First, one has to mention what did not happen during those 5 weeks during which all eyes were turned towards Russia : no security problems, no technical failure, no act of terrorism, no attacks targeting Westerners or minorities, no hooligans. Police and law enforcement forces were seen as protective, not as repressive or corrupt.

In short, all the fears projected by the media did not materialise. Their real impact was on the thousands of Westerners fans who feared to enter such a perilous and hostile country – just to regret it after the first matches and resent those who encourage them to stay home.

Second, one has to mention what did happened.

More than a million fans from all over the world discovered an unknown Russia, where public transports function, cafes are open all the night, wi-fi is everywhere to be found. They discovered too that Russians can be grumpy, but in the same time funny and always ready to enjoy themselves. Any person living in Moscow know how people are taking to the streets, the parks and the banks of rivers on every occasion, notably during public holidays and New Year Eve. And, in St Petersbourg, during the White Nights.

So President Putin was entitled to say that the Cup has broken stereotypes about Russia. The questions about the cost, and the “what after the Cup”, have been partially placated by the fact that the work done to construct or renovate sites and infrastructures will benefit to local inhabitants who have often been waiting for years to see changes. The much criticised decision to split the venues between different cities was finally a good idea because the transport system functioned well. But also because it shown that Russia is diverse, larger that Moscow and St Petersbourg, offering more to see than coupoles monasteries and birch trees. The argument was even mentioned by Russian fans who used the Cup to discover their own country.

This is why one can conclude that tourism, not politics, will be the biggest winner of the Cup. Many fans are planning to come back with their families and recommend the visit to friends. Already the Cup provided the Russian economy with the $1.5bn spent by fans during the event. All will now depend of the capacity to adjust the bureaucracy and the actual visa’s system, which travel agencies abroad mention as the main obstacle to develop tourism in Russia.

But geopolitical benefits are illusion. Russia is not isolated as the West pretends, but the weight of sanctions by the West, and their cause, is there to stay. The joy of the crowd did not melt engrained suspicion towards Russia and Russians who, as the say goes, are never more dangerous than when they behave nicely.

This does not prevent believers in public diplomacy to maintain that happy fans and tourists can provide, with time, another perception of Russia.


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