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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

Russian politicians seek support from football fans

From Radio Free Europe:

Russian politicians' love affair with youth movements continues to deepen with the emergence of new youth groups seemingly every other month. Parallel with this trend has been a growing -- but less visible -- cooperation with soccer fan clubs.


At the formal level, a Moscow city government committee approved a decree last week providing an estimated $3.5 billion rubles ($123 million) in 2006 for the creation of an association of fans of various sports clubs, the Civil Transition patriotic youth movement, and a youth TV channel. At an informal level, the pro-Kremlin youth movements Walking Together and its successor Nashi have been linked with various soccer fan clubs, whose members they reportedly use for security and other purposes.

With their courtship of soccer fan clubs, Russian political authorities may be stepping where earlier counterparts feared to tread. In the early 1980s, Soviet law-enforcement officials were so alarmed by the growing zeal of Russian soccer fans and their adoration of British soccer hooligans that they started to crack down on any emotional displays by audiences during games. According to "Novye izvestiya" on 15 April, during matches, fans were banned not only from chanting or singing songs, but even applauding too fervently. Young people wearing the scarves of the clubs they favored were immediately under suspicion by the law-enforcement agencies. The disintegration of the Soviet Union helped dampen any remaining passion for soccer until the mid-1990s, when fan clubs experienced a rebirth.

One of the first Russian political leaders to see the political possibilities for an alliance with soccer fans was Vladimir Zhirinovskii, head of Liberal Democratic Party of the Russia (LDPR). Speaking on the basis of anonymity, a young Moscow-based soccer hooligan identified only as Vasilii told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 20 December 2004 that Zhirinovskii's team actively courted devotees of Dynamo Moscow. "They financed trips for out-of-town matches, published several fan books, paid for parties," Vasilii said. "LDPR figured that attracting Dynamo fans to their enterprise would raise their party's rating among youth." Vasilii said that LDPR never tried to use the fan club to provide security, although Walking Together did.

According to Vasilii, fans of CSKA (Central Sporting Club of the Army) participated for money in the riot that occurred in central Moscow in June 2002 following Russia's loss to Japan in the World Cup. The riot happened just before the first reading in the State Duma of the law on political extremism. "The media was full of talk about youth extremism. And suddenly before the second reading there was disorder on Manezh Square with attempt to break into the State Duma building," Vasilii said.

Of course, Vasilii, if he indeed exists, was speaking anonymously, but suspicions about the violence have been voiced from any variety of different people.

Meanwhile, officials from the Nashi youth movement and its predecessor, Walking Together, deny having any connection to soccer fans at all. Konstantin Lebedev, press secretary for Walking Together, told "Komsomolskaya pravda" in December 2004 that his organization "does not cooperate with any kind of fan grouping." However, Aleksei Mitrushin, leader of the CSKA fan group Gallant Steed, has been identified in a number of articles as the director of the northeast branch of Walking Together and as a Nashi coordinator ("Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 April, "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 14 March, and "Ekspert," on 5 September).

From its very beginning, stories about Nashi have been heavy with references to brawny soccer hooligans, and activists at competing organizations have been more than willing to name names. Sergei Shagrunov, head of the Motherland party's youth group ,and Vladimir Abel, a top official with the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), both identified Roman Verbitskii, the head of Spartak Moscow's Gladiator fan club, as the head of Nashi's regional-development department in articles in "Kommersant-Daily," "Moskovskii komsomolets," and "Vedomosti." "Ekspert" reported on 5 September that Verbitskii and another leader of the Gladiators, Vasilii Stepanov, aka Vasya the Killer, have attended meetings at the Kremlin with other Nashi members. However, Nashi press secretary Ivan Mostovich told "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 August that he does not know any Roman Verbitskii.

According to most detailed accounts of the Russian soccer fan clubs, the young men share certain prejudices, such as a hatred for persons from the Caucasus, but they lack any broader political agenda. Their role models are British soccer hooligans. Bill Buford, an American journalist who went undercover with fans of Manchester United's Red Devils, suggested that British hooligans seek an ecstatic, sex-like release from mass violence. Similarly, "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote that Russian soccer fanatics "are directed not by political convictions but by the search for strong sensations." In their search for an adrenaline rush, they aren't likely to be easily controlled by anyone -- regardless of their bureaucratic rank within the Kremlin or without.

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