The Fifa World Cup in Russia: A poisoned chalice

In 2018, Russia will host one of the most-watched sports events in the world: the Fifa World Cup. A total of 32 national teams will compete in 64 games to decide the winner. However, among the excitement lie major political and security concerns that Russia will struggle to address.

The World Cup will take place between 14 June and 15 July, in 11 cities across Russia. With an original budget of around USD103 billion, costs are likely to rise further before the tournament begins. The country does, however, have recent experience of successfully hosting a major sporting event: the 2014 Winter Olympics in the southern city of Sochi.

In the hopes of replicating that success, there will be a heavy security presence for the World Cup, but terrorism remains a credible risk, alongside violence between fans and hate crimes.

Homophobia and transphobia

Homophobia is pervasive throughout Russia. Though homosexuality is legal, in 2013 the parliament passed a vaguely-worded bill criminalising ‘gay propaganda’, bringing harsh criticism from the E.U. and many international civil rights organisations. Domestically, however, surveys showed that around 90 per cent of the population supported the bill, which criminalises the portrayal of homosexual or lesbian relationships.

It is difficult to assess the number of LGBTQ-phobic attacks in Russia. Massive under-reporting and failure by police to recognise homophobia and transphobia as a motivating factor in crime are largely responsible. However, the LGBTQ advocacy organisation Ilga Europe scored Russia 48th out of 49 countries in Europe and Central Asia for protecting LGBTQ rights. The Centre for Independent Social Research, a Russia-based think-tank, found that of 250 incidents police recorded as homophobic attacks between 2010 and 2015, 200 were murder cases.

The risk of homophobic and transphobic violence comes not just from locals, but from other visiting fans. Fifa has fined the Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican football associations after their fans chanted homophobic abuse during matches.

Also read: LGBTQ Travel risk in the Caucasus and Central Asia

Fare, an organisation combatting prejudice in football, has warned LGBTQ couples attending the World Cup to exercise caution when holding hands, depending on the city they are visiting and the time of day. Allan & Associates warns that, despite – or perhaps because of – an active underground LGBTQ scene in the capital Moscow and the western city of Saint Petersburg, the incidence of homophobic violence is higher.

Xenophobia and extreme nationalism

Xenophobic attacks are another major risk as the World Cup approaches. There is a small, visible African minority of around 100,000 people in Russia. Many are first-generation economic migrants, while some are former students who received free tertiary education in the Soviet Union. The Sova Centre for Information and Analysis, a think-tank based in Moscow, found 177 official reports of violence against people of colour between 2008 and 2014, but, again, the number is likely to be far higher due to under-reporting.

Since 2008, state authorities have cracked down on neo-Nazi violence, reducing the number of racist attacks by ‘skinheads’. However, the Civic Assistance Committee, which provides legal and humanitarian aid to migrants in Russia, claims that law enforcement officials are often the protagonists of violence.

In Moscow alone, there are an estimated 3 million migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus, only half of whom are registered with the municipal authorities. In the wake of an IED attack on the Saint Petersburg metro in April 2017, security services raided the homes of Central Asian residents across the country, accusing them of having links to terrorism. Fare and the Sova Centre found 99 incidents of ethnic discrimination at Russian football matches for the 2015/2016 season, and 88 incidents for 2016/2017, as well as several acts of homophobic and sexist discrimination.

Other forms of harassment are prevalent. The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy conducted a survey, finding that 80 per cent of black people had experienced verbal abuse in the city. Before Cameroon played a match at the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup, also held in Russia, white fans painted their faces black in an official parade in Sochi.

Foreign visitors to Russia during the World Cup, who could be perceived as non-Slavic, risk being targeted in racist attacks, whether in the form of offensive banners, verbal abuse or physical assaults. Allan & Associates notes that travelling fans will be particularly easy to pick out, as they will be wearing clothing associated with their national teams. African migrants in Moscow identified the metro as notably dangerous, and visitors of non-Slavic descent should avoid travelling on public transport late at night – including after football matches.

‘Ultras’ and their rivalries

Fans of the England football team who travelled to France for the Uefa Euro football tournament in 2016 were widely criticised for their drunken, loutish antics. Police used tear gas to disperse some of the most disruptive fans who damaged property and threatened locals in the southern city of Marseille. The Russian ‘ultra’ fans, however, orchestrated an organised campaign of violence at the tournament. Two England football fans were left in comas after Russian visitors attacked them when their teams played in Marseille. More than 100 people were injured, five seriously.

The Russian football union received a EUR150,000 fine and a suspended disqualification for the violence attributed to Russian fans in Marseille and the northern French city of Lille. The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Igor Lebedev, praised the Russia fans for ‘defending [their] country’s honour’.

However, the Russian authorities took action after the fans returned from France. Alexander Shprygin, the head of the state-supported ARFA, a national federation of ultra fan clubs, was deported from France to an initially warm welcome from Russian media. However, he was arrested, and the organisation was shut down. An initiation tradition of ‘ultra’ factions, known as firms, is to send young fans to fight fans of rival clubs. These mass brawls, involving up to 200 people, were previously organised in urban areas, but police have begun to crack down on the violence ahead of the World Cup. However, rather than stop them altogether, the ‘firms’ simply find remote locations.

Russian fans are not the sole culprits, with hardcore supporters of other countries having a reputation for causing trouble.
Violence quickly spreads through designated fan zones, potentially affecting bystanders. Police responses are generally indiscriminate, using tear gas, batons and sometimes water cannon, to disperse the rival supporters.

The combination of police tactics and scuffles between fans puts businesses near football stadiums and fan zones at risk. Allan & Associates suggests that security managers survey ground-floor premises and consider taking security precautions ahead of the tournament, such as erecting barriers, covering windows, and removing objects that could be used as weapons, such as chairs and tables.

Terrorism

Russia’s heavy-handed intervention in Syria has made it a target for Islamist terrorism. This is exacerbated by the systematic discrimination against Central Asians, whose often precarious socio-economic status creates the conditions for extremism to flourish. Up to 2,000 Central Asian citizens were fighting alongside Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2016; as the group has lost territory, many of these foreign fighters have returned home, posing an immediate threat.Before the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014, two terrorist attacks took place in quick succession in the southern city of Volgograd. In the first, in October 2013, a person-borne IED (PBIED) detonated on a bus, killing seven people.

Two months later, two separate PBIEDs detonated a day apart, targeting a train station and a trolleybus. A subgroup of the Islamist extremist group known as the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility. Under heavy security, the Sochi games passed without incident, but in the years since, Russia has been repeatedly attacked. Most recently, in April 2017, a terrorist attack killed 15 people in the Saint Petersburg metro. Islamic State has directly warned of attacks at the tournament, releasing posters threatening international football stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Then there is the mysterious case of the telephone calls. Allan & Associates has noted hundreds of anonymous, untraceable telephone calls warning schools, local government buildings, transport hubs and shopping centres of IEDs on their premises. Police have so far failed to track the calls or find any IEDs. The phenomenon began in September 2017, and the motives and perpetrators remain unknown, though the most popular rumours include Ukrainian nationalists, Syria-based opponents of Russian intervention, or even state-orchestrated security rehearsals ahead of the World Cup. In the first month, more than a million people were evacuated from various venues.

The threat of a terrorist attack poses a major security issue at the World Cup. Any attacks are likely to happen outside stadiums and at transport hubs, particularly in metro systems. Such a threat is hard to mitigate, though Russian security services are continuing to conduct raids and arrest those whom they perceive as potential terrorists.

Outlook

While terrorism is the highest-impact threat to the World Cup in Russia, the security services are likely to carry out sweeping raids and arrests to minimise the threat as far as possible. The most realistic threat is violence between fans. While Russian authorities have attempted to launch a crackdown, they have little control. The presence of foreign rivals makes the risk even more unpredictable.

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