How the World Cup exposed Russian chauvinism
By Ariana Gic, for EUobserver
The months leading up to the World Cup in Russia saw a strong campaign to boycott the games.
It was argued that Moscow should not be rewarded for its many crimes, and for destabilising nations around the globe.
It was feared that the privilege of hosting would serve to whitewash the criminal Putin regime.
Despite Russia’s many crimes against humanity, the games have been well-attended. Concerns about ‘whitewashing’ have proven well-founded.
Many glowing reports have been written about the host country. Media images of fans merrily celebrating Russian goals have replaced images of citizens cheering the unlawful occupation of parts of Ukraine, and chants of “Rossiya!” at games have replaced chants of “Krym Nash!” (“Crimea is ours!”).
Russia’s multitude of crimes at home and abroad seem like ‘unreality’ in the rosy glow of the sporting event. The games camouflaged many ugly truths about Russia, including its chauvinism and imperialism until July 8 when the mask dropped in a most unexpected fashion.
After defeating Russia for a place in the semi-finals, Croatia’s coaching assistant Ognjen Vukojevic and defender Domagoj Vida dedicated Croatia’s victory to Ukraine, shouting “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine!).
The Ukrainian equivalent of “Vive la France!” created a massive uproar in Russia by government and citizens alike.
Russians were outraged by the greeting and dedication to Ukraine, and demanded “justice” for what they implausibly claimed was “racist” and an “insult”.
The venomous reaction from Russia did not come as a surprise for Ukrainians. It only served to expose what Ukrainians have known about Russia for a long time, and have known most clearly since the invasion of Crimea.
When Moscow first annexed Crimea, Putin’s popularity skyrocketed.
The celebratory slogan “Krym Nash!” enjoyed such popularity it became known even outside of Russia.
The majority of Russians were proud of this gross violation of international law. Many readily acknowledge that annexing Crimea signifies for them that the country has “reclaimed” its former Soviet status of “superpower”.
Remarkably, westerners largely regard chauvinism and imperialism in Russia as a problem only at state level. The dominant position is that Putin, not Russians, are the problem. Russia is a great country, and Russians are a great people. Deal with Putin, deal with the problem.
Citizens, not just Kremlin
The suggestion that Russians themselves play a role in the condition of their state today is often dismissed as “xenophobic” or “Russophobic”.
The prime minister of Lithuania recently boldly broke with that dominant opinion. At the 2018 Kiev Security Forum, Saulius Skvernelis said he believes the West’s approach of discriminating between the “opinion of Russians” and the “opinion of the Russian government” is mistaken.
“We often say that the Kremlin is one thing and the Russians – another. I personally thought this too. But look at the election outcomes in the regions we thought were most democratic. Look at how Moscow and St Petersburg voted,” he lamented. “We thought…the youth will come and change everything,” but “look at how 15-35 year-olds voted.”
The Lithuanian prime minister understands that if not addressed, the evils of nationalism, chauvinism, and imperialism will continue to plague the country even after Putin is gone.
The future does not look hopeful in this respect.
Even the Russian opposition critical of Putin does not promise the unconditional return of Crimea to Ukraine.
Their standard position is, “However illegal the annexation of Crimea might have been, its return to Ukraine is not possible in the foreseeable future.”
The proposed “solution” is that after Putin, if the majority of Russians demand it, a “free and fair” referendum should be held in Crimea to determine the peninsula’s fate.
This so-called “solution” is a far cry from undoing and rectifying Moscow’s imperial revival.
No Ukraine ‘solution’
Russia’s opposition politicians seem unperturbed that their “solution” does nothing to address the violation of international law, and is rigged in Moscow’s favour.
By the time Russia is “ready” to allow such a farcical referendum, years of running ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian citizens who oppose Russian occupation out of the peninsula; disappearing, torturing, killing and jailing Ukrainian patriots; eradicating Ukrainian language and culture; brainwashing; and transplanting upwards of one million Russian nationals to Crimea will leave the peninsula with a very different population than existed before occupation.
It is not difficult to imagine that after years of brutal Russian occupation and deep Russification, with an artificially-altered demographic of the region, the majority of Crimeans will choose to “remain” with Russia.
It is telling that among the political opposition in Russia, there is not one influential dissenting voice who advocates for the unconditional return of Crimea to Ukraine.
Since invading Ukraine, Russia has seen a significant number of sizeable economic and anti-corruption protests.
By contrast, there have been few anti-war protests, with the largest in Moscow, a city of 12.5 million people, numbering just around 25,000 protestors.
It is regularly argued that the lack of protest against Russia’s imperialism and war in Ukraine is that Russians do not want to risk their safety. But Russians have risked physical harm and even imprisonment in many economic and anti-corruption protests.
It is said that Russians are willing to take the risk for social protests because they will personally benefit from improvements, but that in anti-war protests, they will face only risk without any benefit. This too does not stand to reason.
There are clear benefits to anti-war protests. If there is no war, Russians need not fear being sent to Ukraine to fight and die in an undeclared war, and the country can expect to see sanctions related to the war lifted, improving the country’s economy.
Moreover, demanding respect for the rule of law will contribute to economic equality and government transparency.
Russians are clearly prepared to risk life and liberty for a better Russia.
But it seems that for the majority of Russians, a “better” Russia is an international super power where might makes right, not a country governed by the rule of law, and not one where there is compassion for demonised and dehumanised Ukrainians.
There are, of course, brave and principled Russians who swim against the tide. They regard Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and the vilification of its people, with great disdain.
They want to see the immediate end to Russia’s unlawful war on Ukraine, including the unconditional return of Crimea. They believe that justice must be done, and reparations paid to Ukraine.
To ensure principled thinking does not spread, the Kremlin uses intimidation and prosecution to silence them. Citizens who hold one-person protests, or “like” a post favourable to Ukraine on social media, often find themselves jailed.
Experts who believe that Ukraine’s sovereignty and pre-invasion borders will be restored after the Putin regime is replaced with a democratically elected government need to come to terms with the sad reality that Russia’s ills are greater than its current fascist-mafia leadership.
What is not acknowledged cannot be changed. If the truth of Russian chauvinism and imperialism is not acknowledged and confronted head on, we cannot expect to see a Russia which is truly democratic and governed by the rule of law anytime soon.
The world should demand more from the opposition in Russia. Their anti-corruption agenda is commendable and important, but it is not enough to make the world safe from Kremlin interference and aggressive expansionism.
On its current trajectory, it is hard to imagine that Russia even after Putin will be anything other than a slightly different version of its current imperialist self which will remain a threat to its neighbours and the world.
By Ariana Gic, for EUobserver