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Inside Russia's attempts to show the world it's serious about anti-discrimination

3:00 AM EDT 6/28/17
Alexey Smertin Russia
The hosts of next year's World Cup have received plenty of criticism due to perceived racism and xenophobia around football but things are changing


The staging of the 2018 World Cup brings scrutiny of Russia’s record on racism and xenophobia and at the same time prompts fears of hooligan attacks in the minds of some travelling supporters.

Russia’s authorities and anti-discrimination activists are aware that they need to convince the international community that steps are being taken to rid the country of its unfavourable reputation and demonstrate that genuine efforts are being made to ensure the long-term eradication of any racist or xenophobic sentiment – especially in the immediate vicinity of football.

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“We Are Russia Against Discrimination” was launched in March this year backed by the All Russian Football Players Union (ARFPU) and is intended to fight racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Russian football. It works parallel with the union's anti-racism and discrimination inspector Alexey Smertin.

Smertin, a former midfielder for Russia and Chelsea, was criticised after his appointment for previous comments which suggested racism didn't exist in Russia. He has however since acknowledged that Russia like any other country in the world has problems with pockets of racist and xenophobic minorities. 

The campaign combats inter-ethnic conflict across Russia’s vast territory and is attempting to develop educational programmes in centres of learning. It also monitors for signs of xenophobic behaviour and works with external support groups.

It is all intended to spread awareness - both inside Russia’s borders and outside - that strides are being made in this field. 

Fronted by former Russian international Roman Shirokov and player union CEO Alexander Zotov, the campaign has won support from within the Russian Football Union (RFU) as well as FIFA.

“We are gathering the organisations who are interested in trying to change this perception of Russia as a very closed, discriminatory, aggressive society and at the same time educate young people that racism and discrimination and xenophobia are bad,” says Zotov. “It happens because of a lack of education.”

That lack of education was apparent in Sochi before the Confederations Cup when a parade featuring fancy dress costumes for all competing teams showed locals representing Cameroon in blackface. That was in "bad taste" according to Zotov but was not deliberately racist. 

"There were guys with moustaches, sombreros, with the chillies for Chile," he said. "It was just bad taste. It was not a march of racists."

This anti-discrimination campaign is just one part of widespread Russian efforts to improve its reputation in the eyes of the international community while at the same time educating people on what is deemed acceptable behaviour and attitudes at home.

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Campaigns have been launched in Russia in the past but none have made a significant impact. Anti-discrimination campaigner Vashik Martirosyan is hoping that in the run up to the World Cup increased exposure will demonstrate that Russia is serious about tackling the problem.

“There has never been a big open campaign,” he says of Russia’s past in dealing with discrimination in sport. “It’s been things like working inside the clubs, talking to people and talking to fans. We didn’t say anything to the world and now we need to show it.

“We didn’t have good mass media work with it; with t-shirts and with videos like the No-To-Racism one with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

“We have a chance to show it at the World Cup and the Confederations Cup. I hope thousands of people will come to Russia and change their minds.”

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis is involved with research in the area of nationalism and racism in post-Soviet Russia. This month it published its “Incidents of Discrimination in Russian Football 2015-2017” report and it was entitled “A Changing Picture”.

“There were fewer violent incidents motivated by racism and neo-Nazism in 2016 than in 2015 and fewer cases of vandalism motivated by religious, ethnic or ideological intolerance than in the year before,” SOVA reported.

SOVA also recorded a decline during the 2016-17 season of “incidents of racism”, “incitement of ethnic hatred” and “other forms of discrimination” compared to the season before. Fewer racist chants than the season before were also registered.

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It also noted that prominent far-right figures from groups such as 14/88, Restrukt! and Russian National Unity have been jailed.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union - at the start of the 1990s - that these far-right ideas began to take root in the stands.

“They were crazy times,” Zotov says. “Everyone was trying to become a businessman but unfortunately a lot of people were left out.

“Not a lot of people would go to the stadiums. They were mostly occupied by people whose families were thrown out of normal livelihoods because of the shift from the Soviet Union when the country was dissolved. People didn’t have any money.

“These guys didn’t know what to do, they were hanging around and basically they were taken by these nationalistic ideas and there were older people who were using them and organising them into gangs. These were Nazis.

“They would have been total idiots to not understand they were acting offensively but they would chant anything to be aggressive and to look tough.

“Whatever the head of the group says they chant; that’s the whole idea. They are now banned from the stadiums.”

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It has been well documented that the head of the Russian Supporters Union (VOB) Alexander Shprygin was expelled twice from France during the European Championship last year for his part in the riots against groups of English in Marseille.

The VOB has since been expelled from the RFU with Shprygin effectively ostracised from the Russian football community since his arrest in September 2016 in connection to a different fight last January.

Shprygin was one of nearly 200 fans to have had his Confederations Cup Fan ID confiscated on the eve of the tournament.

Last July, president Vladimir Putin signed a law which dictated that all fans buying tickets to sports events would be subject to ID checks. A blacklist of fans banned from attending any sports competition was also published by the Ministry of the Interior.

And as of April 2017, stricter laws have been introduced for breaching public order at sports events. Russians can be banned for seven years and face fines and arrest while foreigners can be deported. 

“I was really impressed by the professionalism of the police officers who are specialising in this matter,” says Zotov – who also sits on the RFU board as a union representative.

“There is a task force specially dedicated. They are very well informed what is happening; who is behind different fan groups and so on.

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“I was listening and I was learning. They will make a list and they will ban anybody who has a slight chance of being a disruptor.”

At the end of the 2015-16 season, the Russian Football Union executive committee vowed to sanction clubs when their supporters display far-right and Neo-Nazi propaganda.

In reality, Nazi and Neo-Nazi symbols and slogans can still be seen on fan tattoos, clothing, stickers and other unauthorised merchandise. This is largely due to parts of the Russian population - including stewards - being unaware of what might and what might not be a racist slogan or symbol. That is why Vashik and Alexander view education as such an important part of their campaign.

Far-right propaganda, including runes used in Nazi Germany, take up most of the cases recorded by SOVA’s research, although not one Swastika was put up in the stands over the two-year period covered in its report.

Russian authorities are also clamping down on hooliganism. Criminal proceedings for hooliganism and vandalism were launched against fans of CSKA and Spartak for a brawl on October 29 last year. 

CSKA fans faced another vandalism charge in April this year for starting a fire in their own stadium. SOVA also acknowledged that “several criminal proceedings against far-right football fans on charges related to extremism have been opened”.

Fan violence is still closely entwined with xenophobia in Russia, with football fans and non-fans alike from the North Caucasus region targeted for abuse. However, although only two such attacks were recorded last season, despite a rise the season before, SOVA has declared the decrease as a “reason for optimism” ahead of the World Cup, with some caveats added.

“Only in the 90s it felt scary sometimes,” says Vashik, who is an ethnic Armenian whose family moved to Moscow 29 years ago.

“I’ve never been treated like a foreigner or anything like that. One or two times in school, maybe, but it was a lack of education.

“We had very offensive and very aggressive spectators about 10-15 years ago. That was a big problem after the Soviet Union and in the 90s.

“Even for someone who wasn’t 'black' - like me from the Caucasus -  it was awful. It was a cultural thing - this aggressive spectacle. Now it’s much better. I don’t think it could happen nowadays.”

In the mind of Zotov, the proliferation of xenophobia and the rise of the far-right went against much of what kept the Soviet Union together in the first place. With so many different ethnicities and nationalities sharing the land, an overall 'Soviet' identity was established above all else.

“Soviet Union propaganda was always multi-national,” he says. “It was a very complicated structure and it had to have a united culture and psychology that would unite all these cultures together.

“The idea was that we are all equal; we are all the same. Azerbaijan, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Moldavian, we are one people - Soviet People.

“In the Soviet Union, people were against apartheid,” he goes on. “They supported the freedom of Angela Davis in the States and everybody loved Muhammed Ali. The Soviet Union was supporting the [African independence] revolutions in the 1960s.”

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He accepts the scrutiny under which Russia operates in the eyes of international observers these days but hopes that now is the time to demonstrate that times have changed.

“It’s a small part of an overall perception of Russia being a bad country,” he says. “We are the Lex Luthers of this planet. We are the bad guys.

“There’s a lot of focus on any incident here. It’s an aim to show this is normal life in Russia.

“You might have a provocation at the World Cup; you might even have an incident but it mustn’t be perceived as a normal thing. If people are trying to find something bad, they will.”

Vashik is optimistic that this campaign will take root but understands the scepticism that might be prevalent in western observers. He admits to being taken aback at the scale of the Russophobia he has encountered out in the world.

“If you come to any Russian school you will see in one class a lot of different nationalities,” he says. “All these nations, we have found a way to be together. Of course, sometimes we have incidents like any country but we stick together."

Problems with the extremist Landscrona fan group of Zenit St Petersburg and racist incidents involving the likes of Roberto Carlos, Peter Odemwingie and more all propelled Russia into the headlines around the world but Vashik is keen to stress his belief that perpetrators of this kind are very much in the minority.

“I can’t imagine football fans saying we don’t need gay footballers or any other kind of footballer,” he says. “No normal supporters or citizen of Russia would support that, ever.

“We have problems like any other country has. But we can just show what we are doing by welcoming you. Just come and see it.

“You can believe us or not,” he says of the campaign. “You do what you want, we will be working on it for us; for our people and for foreigners too.”