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Gordon Campbell on Russia and the Rugby World Cup

Gordon Campbell on Russia and the Rugby World Cup

Between early September and late October, New Zealand will be hosting teams from 19 countries for the Rugby World Cup. This column will try to outline the political situation in as many of them as I can before kick-off day on September 9, starting today with Russia.

Russia’s evolution, under Putin Rugby was banned in the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1949 as a game for capitalists, and re-instated by Nikita Krushchev in 1957 – yet even so, there are still only 20,000 registered players nationwide in a country of 140 million. At this year’s RWC, one of the highlights will be the mid September smackdown in New Plymouth between the Cold War heavyweights, Russia and the US. A few months ago, there was a rumour that one of Russia’s leaders – perhaps even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself – might attend, along with corporate chieftains from the Russian energy sector. However, it was always unlikely Putin would come all this way to attend a game that Russia is quite likely to lose. These days, Putin is interested only in winners.

How times have changed. During the 1990s Russia had lost its empire and the economy had collapsed. Only the now-reviled oligarchs were maintaining any semblance of normal economic activity. The 1990s was an an era fraught with contradictions. On the one hand, a virtually non-existent state was deemed good for business since few taxes were paid and regulation was hardly an issue – but conversely, too weak a state meant few protections existed for the capital that had been accumulated. Initially, the oligarchs took things into their own hands by creating a loosely collective politics-by-consensus, based on mutual self interest. From the mid 1990s onwards, it became clear that this wasn’t enough – and the oligarchs began seeking international capital, and put the ‘for sale’ signs up on key sectors of the Russian economy.

Enter Vladimir Putin as President, in 2000. Reportedly, Putin was the first world leader to ring George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. (History does not record whether Bush was still reading “My Pet Goat” when he took the call.) Back then, Putin could still be patronised by the US as the beleaguered front man of a weakened and chaotic country. Such that Bush could say of Putin in June 2011: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…I was able to get a sense of his soul.” At the time, the country that Putin inherited was just a shadow of its former might, and its only significant strategic resources – its vast oil and gas reserves – were firmly in the sights of Exxon and Chevron.

For reasons I’ll outline, Russia is no longer a weak and dependent prospective takeover target for US neo-cons and their friends in Houston. For better and for worse, Putin has come to embody the modern Russia state and is now widely seen in the West as an autocrat of almost Stalinist proportions. This recent Los Angeles Times article about the networking and propaganda camps being run by the Kremlin for elite groups of Russian youth is fairly typical of the malignant way Putin tends to be viewed by the Americans. Not entirely fairly, but not without cause, either.

Within Russia, Putin has deftly managed to marginalise his political opponents and silence his main media critics. Crucially, he has also taken the nation’s energy resources back under state control. Externally, he has set about rebuilding Russia’s power and influence, regionally and globally. In the last three years, Ukraine (whose recent mutation into a one party state has been a significant victory for Putin), Georgia and the central Asian republics have all felt the consequences of being close neighbours of a resurgent Russia. Largely for public relations purposes, Putin has taken to presenting the current Russian President Dimitri Medvedev as a liberal figleaf to Western audiences – a sprightly Robin in effect, to his impassive Batman.

Arguably, some of this re-concentration of state power was necessary. Once Putin came to power in 2000, he brought to an end the period of privatisation and gangster capitalism that had seen Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves privatised at giveaway prices. (To be fair to the oligarchs, if these firms had been privatised in the 1990s at their genuine worth, no Russian could have afforded to buy them, and they would have passed directly into foreign hands.)

Much has since been made for instance, of the sale of Yukos (the nation’s second biggest energy producer) to the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky for $350 million, plus a debt burden of $2 billion. In 2004, Putin’s attack on Yukos and his jailing of Khodorkovsky signalled the moment when Putin first began to stamp his political authority over the country's business elite – a campaign that has since enabled him to use the billons earned from Russia’s energy reserves to consolidate his own power base. Corruption too, has been re-nationalised.

Where does this leave Russian democracy? Clearly, Putin’s Russia does not put a great deal of store in the invisible hand of the free market. As several critics have noted, Putin believes in the very visible hand of the state – but this is not (yet) the same brand of state capitalism that used to characterise the Soviet Union. Last year, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, described Russia as being only half way through its transition from communist monolith to modern state. "Modernisation can be carried out but only if the people, the entire population, are included in the whole process …” Democracy, Gorbachev indicated, cannot be a top-down process dictated by the Kremlin.

Putin would, of course, maintain that democracy is precisely what he is delivering to Russia, via his ideology of “sovereign democracy” – a programme that identifies democracy with the people’s wishes, and which conveniently coincides with the agenda of Putin’s United Russia political party. In 2007, United Russia completed a virtual takeover of the political process within Russia. As Masha Lipman pointed out at the time in the Washington Post:

"Sovereign democracy" is a Kremlin coinage that conveys two messages: first, that Russia's regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs.

Putin, The Man. Putin’s control of the political, economic and media centres of power has been carried out in tandem with a carefully burnished public image. This message is aimed at the Russian masses who live out beyond the major cities, and it combines nationalist rhetoric with an action-man profile intended to lift Putin into an almost mythic realm, well beyond any other aspiring Russian political leader. Thus, Putin has flown a fighter plane into war-torn Chechnya, searched the bottom of Lake Baikal in a deep-sea submarine and has been photographed (a) wearing his judo black belt and (b) stripped naked to the waist, as he hunted for bears.

Armed with only a crossbow, Putin has chased whales off Russia's Pacific coast, put out fires in peat bogs, drilled boreholes in the frost-hardened Siberian tundra, ridden without a helmet with motorcyclists in the Crimea, and steered a Formula One car around a racetrack near St Petersburg etc etc. As the Guardian reported:

While tagging a whale (the sort of thing that prime ministers do before breakfast) he was asked on cue by an ever-attendant journalist whether it was dangerous. Action Man replied: "Life itself is dangerous."

The message behind this image of uber-manliness? Evidently, whilst the Russian nation takes time out to sleep, the strongman in the Kremlin is stoically and ceaselessly on the job. Last week, Putin took up scuba diving, and ‘luckily’ discovered a couple of ancient 6th century urns of archeological importance that just happened to be lying there at that very spot in the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, as the LA Times report cited above shows, United Russia has been promoting Putin’s he-man image to its youth wing at a series of summer camps that bear a close resemblance to the old Soviet Komsomol youth groups of the 1980s, at which – ironically enough – Mikhail Khodorovsky cultivated the connections that aided his later rise as an oligarch. Even more ironically, the man who now runs Russian rugby – the Sistema conglomerate deputy boss Vyacheslav Kopiev – also used Komsomol as a ladder to power, as indicated in his biography on Sistema’s company website.

Reportedly, today’s Kremlin youth camps give young people cautionary advice on how to handle journalists, and are widely believed to provide the goon squads that have beaten up and intimidated critical members of the media.

Russia remains largely dependent on its energy reserves, and – as yet – has not succeeded in using those riches to diversify its economy. Its poor transport infrastructure also inhibits its ability to develop internal markets. The future looks like more of the same. In 2012, the 57 year old Putin appears likely to run for a third term as President, and – to disarm Western critics – he has likened himself to FDR, the longest-serving US president.

Russia’s RWC prospects The coach of the Russian team is Steve Diamond, an Englishman who has former New Zealand rugby league international Henry Paul as his assistant. As mentioned, rugby’s corporate guardian angel in Russia is Slava Kopiev of the Sistema conglomerate, who has been the president of Russia’s rugby union governing body since 2003. (The news this morning about the imminent sale to Sistema of the venerable Lenfilm film studios in St Petersburg at a fire sale price is yet another sign that the old ways of the oligarchs have not gone, but merely been institutionalised.)

Within Sistema, Kopiev also has a special responsibility for tourism, and is chairman of the board of Intourist – the state travel agency founded by Stalin in 1929 and formerly staffed by NKVD and KGB agents, a history that will have done Kopiev no harm in his dealings with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. These days, Intourist is two thirds owned by Sistema – and if Kopiev comes to New Zealand for the RWC, MFAT and Tourism Minister John Key should be taking full advantage of his presence here.

For the Russian team, the game in New Plymouth against the Americans will be their equivalent of a RWC final. On June 18 this year (in a game played in England) the Russians lost to the US by the reasonably close margin of 32-25. Their other Pool C opponents – Australia, Italy and Ireland – are probably beyond them, but the game with Americans is definitely winnable and has a lot riding on it. Beating the Americans could earn rugby in Russia the blessing of Putin – but losing to them would be bad news, for all the same reasons. Putin does not like losers. Hey, no pressure, guys.


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