World Cup boycott would fuel Moscow’s sense of conflict with the West

Still a beautiful game? EPA/Alexey Nikolsky/Ria Novosti

While Western politicians strongly supported the arrests of FIFA officials, in other parts of the world the events in Zurich were immediately seen as just another geopolitical play. In Russia, Vladimir Putin argued that the arrests amounted to a case of over-reach by US law enforcement agencies. China also criticised the arrests, with a Xinhua editorial complaining that it was “a bad example of overrun of unilateral power”.

In this polarising geopolitical discourse, calls by Western politicians for Russia to lose the right to stage the 2018 World Cup are likely to do more harm than good. Labour Party leadership contender Andy Burnham is the latest politician to link the FIFA investigation to Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine, and to press for a boycott of the 2018 competition. But making the campaign to clean up FIFA a geopolitical contest between the West and Russia is unlikely to lead to successful reform of the organisation.

To develop an effective response, it is important to understand the Russian narrative. From Moscow’s point of view, the FIFA investigation looks less like a genuine anti-corruption campaign, and more like an attempt to undermine Russian attempts to play a greater role on the international stage. Russian leaders were already unhappy with the international media coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which focused on stories of widespread corruption in the construction budget, rather than the actual games themselves. An attempt to remove Russia as World Cup host for 2018 will only add to the narrative of victimhood that often informs Russian political discourse.

But Russian objections to the events in Zurich go much deeper. Moscow’s over-arching concern is about the dominant role of the US in the international system and what it sees as a geopolitical approach to international law enforcement.

For several years, Moscow has been increasingly concerned about the apparent ability of the US to extend its arrest and prosecution powers beyond its borders. After the FIFA arrests the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated:

We would like to point out that this is clearly yet another example of arbitrary exra-territorial enforcement of US law … Time and again, we call on Washington to cease its attempts to initiate court proceedings far beyond its borders with its own legal standards, and to follow universally accepted international legal procedures.

Russia claims that the US engineered the detention of ten Russian citizens in a variety of countries in 2012-2013, of which at least seven were extradited to the US. Not only are the extraditions unsound, argue Russian officials, but trials of these individuals in the US have been unfair.

Russia’s World Cup 2018 mascots – the one on the right remind you of anyone? EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

In rather undiplomatic language, a 2014 ministry statement argued that US courts were biased against Russian nationals, and complained that “judicial proceedings for those who were in fact kidnapped and moved to the United States, usually ends with guilty verdicts with long prison terms”. The ministry even issued a travel warning to Russian citizens, suggesting that they might be at risk of arrest by US law enforcement officials if they travelled abroad.

Building consensus

The US responded by saying that “law-abiding” individuals had nothing to fear. Russian complaints usually concerned individuals accused of involvement in drugs or cyber crime, such as Maxim Chukharev, who was extradited from Costa Rica and sentenced to 36 months in prison in January 2015 for his role at Liberty Reserve, a digital currency service that the US authorities labelled “the bank of choice for the criminal underworld”. The most notorious of these extraditees was Viktor Bout, the arms dealer extradited from Thailand to the US in November 2010, who was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Given the nature of these cases, Russia’s complaints about US overreach might seem overwrought. Indeed, Russia has itself been accused of misusing Interpol and extradition procedures to pursue political opponents and dissidents abroad. Yet concern about the expansion of US law enforcement internationally is shared by other non-Western states, worried about the blurring of sovereignty and legal jurisdiction in international affairs. Hence some quiet support diplomatically from non-Western states for Russian concerns about the US actions in Zurich.

Instead of fuelling a Russian narrative that explains everything in terms of a geopolitical conflict with the West, European politicians should focus on building an international coalition to clean up football. A first step might be for the UK and EU authorities to pursue their own corruption investigations into FIFA, rather than relying so heavily on the US Justice Department to make the running. Using the FIFA campaign as just another way to attack Russia, on the other hand, is only likely to produce further international polarisation.

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