By Paul Goble
Many have explained the decline in Russian support for Vladimir Putin in recent months by the ill-designed Russian government plan to raise the retirement age in that country, something that the Kremlin thought it could get away with because of the euphoria it believed the World Cup competition had produced.
But Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev says that while the pension crisis is real, a more important source of the rising discontent with Putin and his regime was the World Cup competition itself, an event that called into question the Kremlin’s image of Russia as “a besieged country surrounded by enemies” (rosbalt.ru/posts/2018/08/09/1723651.html).
The regime “mistakenly thought that the World Cup would mobilize society in support of itself, a view that was mistaken simply because the main emotions connected with this competition turned out to be in opposition to present-day Russian ideology,” the Russian analyst continues.
The championship took place, “hundreds of thousands of fans came, Russians showed themselves to be happy and hospitable,” but most important, “all this gave birth to more doubts about the correctness of the political course” Putin and his regime have adopted.
The largest group of fans consisted of Americans. “They like other foreigners turned out to be friendly and simple people. Between the Russians and the guests arose a simple human unity … and [that in turn] increased doubts that Russia is an island in a sea of enemies and that the entire world does not understand it and does not intend to understand it.”
Inozemtsev continues: “for a country the ideology of which is a harsh opposition to the rest of the world … such huge events with the participation of hundreds of thousands of foreigners represents serious tests.” The World Cup now much like the World Youth Festival in Moscow in 1957 has transformed public attitudes – and led to more questions about the regime.
“Today, the size of the event and the level of ‘penetration’ into the depths of the country is much more significant” than was the case in 1957, and that means that the Russian political elite should not underrate the break between that image of the hostile West which it has drawn in recent years and the face of the multi-lingual crowd that came.”
According to Inozemtsev, the mobilization the regime hoped for was always imaginary rather than real. But one indication that the World Cup mobilized Russians in a far different direction that the Kremlin had expected is the gap between the number of people who now say they don’t approve of Putin and the number who are protesting pensions.
The decline in support for Putin has been about 14 percent, he says. That represents some 15 to 20 million people, vastly more than the number of those who have taken to the streets to protest the pension “reform.” All this may very well prove “very dangerous for the Kremlin,” Inozemtsev concludes.