Interview: ‘World Cup 2018 brought Putin, who fears isolation, undoubted PR points’
Bangaluru/Kiev, July 12: The Fifa football world cup which is underway in Russia is nearing its end. The event, which started on June 14, has made the headlines for both sporting and political reasons. For the Russian leadership and its supporters, the 2018 World Cup has broken the country's "stereotypes" and it is being seen as a nation which is friendly to the outsiders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also made use of the opportunity to take some diplomatic initiatives, like inviting the leaders of Israel and Palestine to the final to be held in Moscow on July 15.
But what is the other point of view about Russia's hosting the global event? Has it really done a favour to the Kremlin's image makeover?
Oneindia spoke to Euromaidan Press, an independent English newspaper based in Kiev, Ukraine, the country which was once part of the Soviet Union and currently shares quite a fraught relationship with Russia. Ukraine, which borders Russia to its east, is a key country for its geostrategic and security interests.
In fact Moscow has refused to concede Ukraine's independent identity (Vladimir Putin even told former US president George W Bush once that Ukraine is "not a real country") many a times and observers believe that the former finds Ukraine's identity to be far too much Russian to be distinct. The relationship between the two deteriorated further over Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
For Ukrainians, therefore, it is difficult to feel convinced about what the Russian leadership says or does. Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Alya Shandra, Euromaidan Press's Managing Editor and Olena Makarenko, its journalist, whereby they expressed their viewpoints on Russia's World Cup and how it is actually helping the Kremlin:
Oneindia: It is being said that Russia has scored a lot of positive points with its hosting the WC. Do you feel that the country's image can see a makeover by hosting a sporting event?
Alya Shandra (AS): I think the World Cup is bringing Putin undoubted PR points, He is basking in the glory of a major sports event and it is whitewashing his reputation of an authoritarian leader of an aggressor-country.
Olena Makarenko: The people of Russia have a weak point -- the imperialistic ambitions and sports events help to feed them. In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea just after the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Riding the wave of the success there (Russia finished first), the vibes of occupation of Crimea were presented to Russians as another victory and they bought the trick. They always buy. That is why many analysts don't exclude the possibility that after this World Cup, there might be another act of Russian aggression -- in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Oneindia: Should the West have boycotted the Russia football WC as they had done during the 1980 Olympics? Do you think that boycotting helps?
AS: That would have been an excellent option. Boycotting surely helps as it demonstrates that rogue countries cannot purchase an expensive "makeover" with popular sporting events. And a PR "makeover" is exactly what Putin wants, to demonstrate that Russia is not in international isolation.
Oneindia: Putin said Russia's 'stereotypes' were broken by this World Cup. As somebody living in Ukraine, what is your opinion about Russian stereotypes and is it possible to break them?
AS: I can't say about the stereotypes regarding Russians themselves, but I can definitely say that the Russian regime is using the Cup's festive spirit to its fullest to present itself in a positive light, despite its dismal trail of human rights abuses and aggressive wars abroad. Currently, at least 70 Ukrainian political prisoners are languishing in Russian jails, and four of them are starving themselves so that the world will pay attention.
Oleg Sentsov is on the 59th day of his hunger strike today, which he launched demanding Russia frees the imprisoned Ukrainians. Russia is occupying Crimea and Georgia, waging a war in Donbas and helping Syria's Assad massacre his own citizens, and repressing its own population, and that of the occupied Crimea, and these things need to be called out as long as the World Cup keeps Russia in world headlines.
Oneindia: Has the West stood by Ukraine over Crimea after Russia annexed it the way it should? Or is it more of a gesturing by the West with little solid resistance on the ground in favour of the Ukrainians?
AS: With Crimea, the West has adopted the same strategy as when USSR occupied the Baltics. In other words, the West condemned the move, but in practice, relations with the Soviet Union continued as usual.
However, now at least the West has imposed sanctions over Russia, the support for which is decreasing among EU countries, although they are still in place. I am sure that a more resolute response from the West over Russian lawlessness would impact Russia.
International isolation is what Putin fears, as his image of a "strong global leader" will take a blow domestically. Unfortunately, many in the West are unaware that Russia's war against Ukraine is only one part of its war against the West. Hence, we see projects such as Nordstream-2 going forward.
Oneindia: Finally, how do you see Russia post Putin? Will it be better or worse?
AS: That I do not know! It depends on the Russians, and the activeness of civil society. Building democracy is a hard job, as we see from Ukraine's Euromaidan experience!