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Russia’s Football Diplomacy

gazpromfootie051308.jpgHow’s this for a study in contradiction? Responding to a reporter’s question about the easing of visa requirements for citizens of the UK to visit Moscow for the Champion’s League final match between Manchester United and Chelsea on May 21, government official Alexei Sorokin told Bloomberg: “This is football, it’s got nothing to do with politics. … Maybe the Champions League final can help to unfreeze diplomatic relations between our two countries.” OK, that’s a breathtaking spin … so sorry about that nettlesome Litvinenko murder, harassment of the British Council and your ambassador, and for stealing from BP – the Kremlin appears to be telling the British public – but here, we’ll cut some red tape and host 50,000 of you for 72 hours for a football match. Are we even now? Taking a page right out of the book of Putin’s most similar homologue, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Russia appears to be directly lobbying British citizens to improve its tarnished image. Perhaps next we’ll see some discounted petrol or heating oil for the U.K.’s poor. Russia’s latest sports diplomacy (not the first) is just one of many other signals quietly coming from Moscow that the period of confrontation with London is over for now, and that Russia wants relations to improve.

It of course doesn’t hurt that Chelsea is owned by the Putin loyalist, billionaire, and recluse Roman Abramovich … who may have played an ambassadorial role in getting the visas waived for his ferociously loyal supporters (however that’s just speculation). It will no doubt be a very exciting match, as Chelsea looks to avenge its loss of the English Championship this past weekend to Manchester United, and may be energized by the £16.1million signing of Porto right-back Jose Bosingwa (who will join the team after the summer).For Russia to bring in 50,000 rowdy sports fans, infamous for their destructive debauchery, from the United Kingdom without visas is no small feat – especially from a government which as recently as last October directly accused the British of trying to destroy Russia: “They have claimed credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are now hatching plans aimed at dismembering Russia,” and declaring the innocuous British Council organization “a nest of spies.”Also, Russian supporters of Zenit St Petersburg traveling to Manchester for the UEFA Cup Final against the Glasgow Rangers have not gotten nearly as warm of a welcome. Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe has issued these fans a stern warning not to engage in racial abuse: “I know Zenit St Petersburg fans have been accused of racially abusing black players at the Marseille game and obviously there are fears in some quarters that the same could happen on Wednesday. (…) Come here and racially abuse black players and you will feel the full force of the law.” According to the ESPN article, Zenit, which is owned by Gazprom (and wear the corporate logo on the jersey), prides itself on having a high number of Russian players and unusually no black players (although there are two Koreans).Apparently the Kremlin is not all-powerful in controlling every element of sports diplomacy.The solution to these immense challenges of organization, instability, hooliganism, and cost? Just barely let the fans set foot on Russian soil, and keep them under a virtual quarantine. The Lede blog of the New York Times reports: “It is not clear whether the escort is meant to shield British fans from hooligan supporters of Moscow’s six soccer teams, who are rumored to be preparing attacks on British fans, or whether it is instead meant to protect Russians from the drinking and brawling so beloved by some of the British themselves when they travel abroad. (…) Last year, some drunken British fans in Moscow for a less important match ended up robbed and severely beaten. A Moscow police official, Yevgeny Gildeyev, blamed the fans for the incident, saying they “provoke conflicts themselves.“The visa move for visiting British fans is accompanied by other subtle and important gestures from Moscow, such as TNK-BP’s historically large court victory for £215 million in back taxes. The company appears to have survived the most recent attempt by elements of the siloviki to pressure and extort the company into selling a premium share to a state company, and the executives must be breathing a sigh of relief now that the vulnerable period of the presidential transition is over. Having spent time in around the tax courts with an energy company, let me tell you that such decisions are not made without an executive order to serve particular judicial outcomes.We can also see some mildly encouraging changes with Putin’s appointment of the cabinet today, which although keeps Igor Sechin on as a deputy prime minister, he has fired Nikolai Patrushev as head of the FSB – the very man who said all those nasty things about the British Council. The UK can also feel optimistic that Alexei Kudrin wasn’t forced out by the hardliners. The message from Russia appears to be “we’re still open for business, we’ll forget about all that spy-vs.-spy stuff, but you can forget about ever extraditing Andrei Lugovoi.”Depending on how the political leadership is able to handle these olive branch offerings from Russia will largely determine whether or not we see a further thaw beyond the sporting world…