Russian Soccer Diplomacy


May 29, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on May 29, 2008.

The two dominant trends in Russia today have been both on full display in Moscow.

The first is the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Russian regime, symbolized by the revival of the Soviet-era tradition of parading tanks and nuclear armed missiles through Red Square. The second—and somewhat more positive—trend was seen a week ago when Russia hosted one of Europe's most prominent and passionate sporting events, the UEFA Champions League Final. For Russia, this was not just a soccer match but a measure of the country's increasing economic and social integration into the European mainstream.

When Manchester United and Chelsea took the field, the symbolism was all the more pronounced because of the presence of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's Russian owner. Since Mr. Abramovich bought the London club in 2003, his free-spending ways, like those of George Steinbrenner, have propelled it into the top ranks of European soccer.

Like the Super Bowl, the pinnacle of the European soccer season takes place on a neutral field. This year it was Moscow, to Mr. Abramovich's delight—all the more so though his team did not prevail.

Like the NBA, MLB and NHL, European soccer has gone global, with vast salaries drawing the best players from around the world. Chelsea fields players from 12 nations from three continents. And like the Lakers or Yankees (if not quite D.C. United), European soccer teams have fans worldwide that watch on television and buy the jerseys of their favorite players.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and particularly since 1998, Russia has become part of this global soccer empire. Russian teams like CSKA Moscow and St. Petersburg's FC Zenit play in European competitions, and some Russian players have transferred to European teams—though the high salaries of the Russian domestic league keep most players close to home.

Russia's soccer interaction exemplifies the wider integration of Russian and European societies. Growing trade and foreign investment serve to assimilate Russia's economy with the rest of the world's. The European Union now takes half of Russia's exports and supplies more than two-fifths of its imports. More than 100 Russian and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) companies are listed on the London stock exchange.

Russians also increasingly live and travel abroad. An estimated 300,000 live in London alone, leading Forbes magazine to nickname it "Londongrad." Russia's emerging middle class have become enthusiastic travelers. More than 7 million Russians traveled abroad last year, with Turkey, China and Egypt the most popular destinations.

Clearly, despite its authoritarian political system, Russia is in many ways increasingly open. Its people are part of a consumer society that models its consumption habits after Western Europe.

It is not surprising that IKEA, with its reasonably priced furniture, is wildly popular in Russia.

Opinion polls support these findings: Russians have a positive view of the European Union and major European countries such as Germany, France and Britain. They want closer ties to Europe and believe Europeans want the same. (This is not so with the United States; most Russians express a strong distaste for American customs and ideas.)

Russia's social and economic integration with Europe—symbolized through the UEFA Championship in Moscow—is good news. Russia is not crawling back into the shell it inhabited during much of the 20th century. Instead we see a complex mix of political repression with economic and social liberalization. If the latter is to win the day, it will be due in no small part to the influence of Western Europe—and Roman Abramovich's soccer team.

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