The Putin Protests
World Cup Warm Up

The Confederations Cup kicks off in St Petersburg amid no shortage of controversy

The nationwide anti-corruption protests that coincided with Russia Day on Monday may, on the surface, have little to do with the upcoming Confederations Cup.

But instigator-in-chief Alexei Navalny’s detention, along with around 1,400 demonstrators in the aftermath, can be explained in part by the issuing of a presidential decree by Vladimir Putin on May 10 regarding the tournament.

From June 1 to July 12 – the duration of the Confederations Cup and a few days either side – any planned rallies, pickets or protests in Russia would have to be cleared with the authorities and take place in designated zones.

The same restrictions will be in place for the period covering the World Cup in 2018 – from May 25 to July 25 - and it was this new decree to which Navalny fell foul.

At the 11th hour the opposition leader called for the planned Moscow protest at Prospekt Sakharov on outskirts of the city to be moved to the downtown Tverskaya Street which leads onto the Kremlin – Putin’s seat of power.

Navalny’s original request for a central location was turned down as authorities claimed it would have interfered with the scheduled Russia Day celebrations.

For that he was detained before the day got going with police storming his apartment at dawn.

Navalny is an irritant to Putin ahead of the presidential election next March. His YouTube channel bypasses a largely compliant mainstream media and his team produce videos on the topic of alleged corruption around Putin and his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. One in March attracted 22 million views.

Supporters bring along rubber ducks to demonstrations owing to claims in Navalny’s videos that Medvedev has a room especially for his ducks at one of his homes.

Thousands turned out all over the country for rallies on March 26 having being organised by Navalny. There is little doubt that Putin had Navalny’s June 12 rallies on his mind when deciding to spread the restrictions on public gatherings across a period of 42 days and not only the two weeks of the Confederations Cup.

For his part in the March protests Navalny received a sentence of 15 days while as many as 1,000 were detained in Moscow alone.

Putin is expected to run for another six-year presidential term next spring and Navalny plans to run against him if he can somehow find his way onto the ballot.

With his three criminal convictions for financial crimes that he says are retribution for his activism, however, that is not a sure thing.

It is still overwhelmingly likely that Putin will be sitting alongside his FIFA counterpart Gianni Infantino for the opening ceremony of the World Cup this time next year.

This eight-team tournament is considered a trial run ahead of the main event in 2018. Preparations for the World Cup are still on track but have admittedly been beset by controversy along the way.

The opening game at the Confederations Cup – for example – will take place at the brand new Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg but on grass laid only a matter of weeks ago. Parts of the original surface withered and died because the retractable roof was closed for too long.

Hospitality suites have been torn down and the stadium’s retractable pitch caused reverberations which made game play impossible.

It did not host a match until April 22 this year and at one point FIFA was considering removing the scheduled Confederations Cup games – including the final – from St Petersburg.

That stadium project has come to embody Russia’s stuttering progress towards hosting the World Cup. Work on a new stadium for Zenit began there as early as 2006. It is now vastly over budget at somewhere between €680m and €800m instead of the original €111m, late in the extreme as it should have been in use by 2015 and a magnet for human rights issues given that Fifa confirmed the presence of a small number of North Korean labourers imported to finish the job.

A report released by Human Rights Watch this week alleged Fifa was failing to "conduct effective monitoring of labour conditions" across the World Cup venues while workers were facing exploitation and labour abuses. It was also claimed that 17 people have died in construction projects relating to the World Cup.

These tournaments were benighted from the start – awarded as they were in controversial circumstances and accusations of bribery. Western sanctions imposed against Putin following the incursion into Crimea in 2014 as well as the crash in the price of oil in 2014 altered plans drastically. The original brief calling for a 13-city World Cup involving 16 stadiums – three brand new – have been pared back to 11 cities and 12 stadiums.

Costs for Brazil 2014 were around $5bn more while the Winter Olympic Games prepared by Russia in Sochi cost somewhere in the region of $50bn.

The state added another $326m towards the budget a few months ago with the total cost of organising the games now clocking in at a total of around $10.8bn.

Whatever else happens, authorities don’t expect a repeat of the hooliganism which blighted Russian participation at last year’s European Championship in France. One-hundred-and-ninety-one fans have been blacklisted for the Confederations Cup including 54 who were misbehaving at the Russian Cup Final.

That game, which took place in Sochi in April, failed the security test as a brawl between the players of Lokomotiv Moscow and FC Ural Yekaterinburg instigated a free-for-all involving stewards and fans on the field at the final whistle.

Stricter punishments for those caught engaging in violence at sporting events have been enacted.

BA new ticketing system introduced by the government requires supporters to carry ID cards with photographs and contact details attached. This will be in place right across the 11 World Cup venues which will make identifying potential troublemakers all the easier.

Foreign travellers will be expected to register with Russian authorities within 24 hours of their arrival into the country.
FIFA this week announced its plans to implement anti-discrimination mechanisms at this tournament amid fears of racism in a country that must improve its reputation in this regard.

"With this three-step procedure, referees will have the authority to first stop the match and request a public announcement to insist that the discriminatory behaviour cease, to then suspend the match until the behaviour stops following another warning announcement, and finally, if the behaviour still persists, to decide to abandon the match," FIFA said in a statement.

Take-up for tickets for the Confederations Cup has been slow among locals but Russian fans are notorious for leaving it late to buy them. There remains hope that some of the games might yet sell out.

However the form of Stanislav Cherchesov’s national team leaves a lot to be desired. They are on their third manager in two years and are in disarray down in 63rd place in the FIFA ranking.

The side generate no great enthusiasm and are largely in the shadow this year of Spartak Moscow who claimed their first Russian league title since 2001.

Not much is expected from the Russians at this tournament, nor the World Cup for that matter.

Portugal and Chile will be favourites for the Confederations Cup with World Cup holders Germany competing with a shadow squad. Cristiano Ronaldo and Alexis Sanchez and not the host nation will be the star attractions in a competition also featuring fellow confederation champions Australia, Cameroon, Mexico and New Zealand.