Upon request of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Barbara von Ow-Freytag, journalist, political scientist and advisor at the Prague Civil Society Centre, reflects on Russia beyond the World Cup 2018, a Russia, in which civic rights are severely restricted, but where societal movements are more active and diverse than is generally understood:

The World Cup is in full swing, and the globe is getting used to a new Russia.  A country with shining stadiums, clean cities and smiling policemen. A country that is modern, friendly and fun, not to mention a great host. As 12 Russian cities have opened their doors for a month of football and partying, “people-to-people” contacts seem to prevail over politics. With Russian and English football fans dancing together in the streets of Volgograd, even the Skripal case appears to have vanished into oblivion. It is as if severe restrictions on public civic space in Russia did not exist. As if there were no laws targeting “foreign agents” among NGOs working with Western funding and “undesirable” international organisations.

The street parties, personal contacts and friendly embraces are real – and often as surprising for the Russians as for their international visitors. Nevertheless, these brief encounters only touch on one side of Russia, the one authorities are happy to show.  They leave out the “other“ Russia, which the Kremlin wants the world to forget. As Human Rights Watch points out, the reality behind ‘glam and glitter’ of the World Cup is a harsh and deteriorating environment for human rights.  In fact, Russia is today at its most repressive since the Soviet era. “12 stadiums, 87 prisons, 158 political prisoners” reads a petition by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament calling on FIFA not to stay silent on the ‘scandalous human rights violations’ in Russia. Among the most scandalous is the case of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is on an indefinite hunger strike in a Russian prison, demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and Crimea. Equally appalling is the continued detention of Oyub Titiev, Head of “Memorial” in Chechnya, where the leader of the republic Ramzan Kadyrov is playing host to the Egyptian World Cup team. ‘Do what is right … for fair play,’ the organisers of the petition appeal to FIFA, ‘fight for the forgotten.’
But such repression is only one side of the story. The reality is more complicated. Russia’s civic landscape is complex and multifaceted, but also diverse, exciting and full of untapped possibilities. In any case, civil society is stronger and more active than is often appreciated. Many traditional NGOs are proving resilient, while activism is taking new forms, as civic groups embrace innovative tools and try out new organisational models. Throughout the country, new grassroots movements are springing up, mostly around local issues. A total of ten million Russians are also engaged in volunteer work, while charity and philanthropy, long underdeveloped in Russia, are booming. At the same time, protests are on the rise in Russia, as shown by a 2017 study of the Moscow-based Centre for Economic and Political Reform. So far, most protests have been focused on socio-economic issues and call themselves “un-political”, but the lines are not always clear to draw. Notably, a rising wave of ecological protests is a living proof that popular anger and discontents simmer under the surface.
It is these groups and individuals that the EU should have its eyes on. While the current regime in Russia is focused on the past, many civic groups continue to have new ideas and the ability to address real issues affecting Russian citizens, such as the rule of law, pressing social problems, urban development and ecological protection. Many are keen to find Western partners, share their know-how and connect to wider civil society networks. It is time that the EU steps up its support for those pushing for a Russia that is modern, friendly and fun beyond the ‘glam and glitter’ of the World Cup.