What the Kremlin did while Russians were watching the World Cup

The Russian authorities have used the World Cup as a useful distraction.

World Cup - Group E - Serbia vs Switzerland
Serbia fan holds up a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin before the Serbia vs Switzerland match at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 22, 2018 [Reuters/Mariana Bazo]

The World Cup is in full blast and Russia hadn’t seen such level of festivities for generations. In 11 Russian cities, there is a carnival-like atmosphere; the streets are full of people day and night; the otherwise hostile Russian fans are now doing vodka shots with the fans of the opposing team; the residents of provincial Saransk are receiving guests from Japan, Colombia and Tunisia, who would never have a reason to go there again; smiling police officers in white uniforms are politely giving directions and peacefully watching citizens celebrating (sometimes excessively).

Just a few months earlier these same policemen brandishing batons were chasing around protesters and most likely will be doing the same in a month’s time. But right now, it’s a party time and everything is permitted.

To ensure that the mood is up in the country during the World Cup, Russian state media has also quietly stopped broadcasting news deemed too negative. Other state organs have also done the same; for example, the interior ministry had officially ordered its regional branches not to publish information about crime.

That the government is taking care to keep up the good mood of its people is not coincidental. It has been using this moment of festivity and distraction to implement another round of unpopular reforms and security measures.

The dreaded pension reform

While the Russian population is focused on the World Cup, the Kremlin decided to start on one of the most unpopular reforms it has had to do: increasing the pension age from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men.

After the reforms, in 51 out of Russia’s 83 regions, where life expectancy for men is below 65 years, the average male citizen would not live to retire. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, of course, knew that the pension reform would be unpopular and back in 2005 said that he’d never take such a decision while holding the presidency.

But Russia’s economy is not doing that well (in May, for example, the real income fell by 10 percent) and the government needs money. It hopes that the pension reform would help save some one trillion rubles ($15bn) annually starting 2024. So why not use this convenient moment to push it through?

While the government is referring to other European countries who’ve passed similar reforms to justify the move, some are not convinced the comparison is adequate. Russia has growing income inequality and pervasive corruption which combined with the crisis have worsened standards of living for many. While the number of Russians living under the poverty line is increasing (now 22 million or 15 percent of the population), so is the number of billionaires (from 96 to 106 and their wealth from $460bn to $485bn).

Yes, pension reform can save one trillion rubles a year, but right now two trillion ($30bn) is being wasted on corruption practices in government contracts and there is no major anti-corruption reform being planned.

The opposition and trade unions are already planning protests. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was only recently released after being detained for organising a rally that was not sanctioned by the authorities, will be among them. Navalny’s presence in the public space continues to annoy the Kremlin – so much that Russian state media has made it a point in the past few years never to mention Navalny’s name. Thus, it was quite a surprise when former national coach Leonid Slutsky mentioned Navalny’s name in a play of words during a live broadcast of the Germany-Mexico match on Russia’s state-owned Channel One.

And that just happened to be the last World Cup match he commented on for the channel. 

Security operations, terrorists and spies

Apart from serving as a cover for unpopular reforms, the World Cup is also an opportunity for the security apparatus to flex its muscles. The authorities carried out a number of sweep operations before June 15. Earlier this year, for example, the FSB arrested a number of Antifa youth and accused them of creating a “terrorist organisation” and preparing a “coup” against the government.

On June 16, during a court hearing, Antifa activist Dmitry Pchelintsev, who is one of the accused, said that he has only two chewing teeth left in his mouth; the rest were lost during torture at the detention centre where he was held.

Human rights defenders have said that the FSB is using torture with increasing frequency to extort self-incriminating confessions from suspects. Some of the techniques they are using include electrocution, sleep deprivation, beatings, handcuffing in stress positions, and other brutal methods.

Pchelintsev’s case which has been dubbed “the Network” case is strangely similar to others where those detained are people who do not seem to actually constitute any threat to society or the government. For some in Russia, these cases were sent up so that the FSB could display evidence of its effectiveness and boost the numbers in its “solved crimes” statistics.

The FSB also seems to have doubled down on its counterintelligence efforts. On June 19, news came out that Karin Tsurkan, a top manager at Russian energy company Inter RAO, was arrested for being a “Romanian spy” – an accusation that has not been used in Russia since the Stalinist era. Earlier this year, it was reported that the FSB intercepted 397 agents working for foreign intelligence in the country – a record number for the agency.

The FSB has also been carrying out mass operations along ethnic and religious lines, persecuting Crimean Tatars, for example, and detaining Jehovah’s witnesses. In many of these cases, human rights defenders speak of systemic use of torture, intimidation and falsified evidence.

In other words, this summer carnival in the streets of Russia’s 11 World Cup host cities stands in sharp contrast with the political “winter” in which most of the population is living. But a lot of Russian citizens suffer from cognitive dissonance and don’t want to see reality. There is nothing surprising about that. Bread and circuses have been an effective tool to pacify the public for millennia.

Interestingly enough, the last time Russia reached the Round of 16 at a World Cup was 1986 (then still the Soviet Union). On social media, some have taken to drawing parallels between then and now: hosting Olympic Games, waging a war abroad, getting sanctioned because of it, suffering from low oil prices. In the 1980s, the story ended with the announcement of the perestroika and eventually the collapse of the system.

Perhaps this is the only reason for optimism in Russia right now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.