Extremist sports

Competitive sports events, especially football matches, are often said to have taken over the role of wars between states. But seeing English and Russian football hooligans clash in the streets of Marseille, one gets the impression that sometimes this happens the other way around. Russian sport as a whole seems to be in a deep crisis: the reasons for this are a mixture of Soviet nostalgia, whataboutism and political ruthlessness. And the consequences may potentially be more dangerous for Russia’s leaders than many think.

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The lonely hegemon

Last week, Nikolay Petrov, an astute Russia-watcher published an interesting article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In  this, he identified five dynamics that shaped Russian politics these days and declared that Putin’s regime had a year at most to live. The article generated a lively debate, including in RFE/RL’s Power Vertical podcast where participants discussed whether the “military mobilisation” that Putin has used to create legitimacy had really wore off. It has. And there is an important legitimacy crisis, too. But the two are not the same. Putin’s most important source of legitimacy lies elsewhere, and it is there where it is in serious trouble. 

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A performance to forget

Every series gets tired after a certain number of seasons. Viewers get tired of the running jokes, the catchphrases, the predictable storylines, the hammy actors, especially if no new characters are introduced. Authors gradually stop caring: plot turns become boring, dialogues get less witty and sometimes embarrassing glitches appear on the show. Some series reach this point after only a couple of seasons, others last longer. At fourteen seasons, Russia’s favourite television show, “Direct line with Vladimir Putin” has done respectably well so far. But the disease of all TV series has finally got to it. It has become predictable, self-repeating, somewhat obsolete, faulty and, most of all, intensely boring. This tells a lot about the weaknesses of the Russian political system too.

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Comrades in arms

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like. This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us”. The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies: “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orban, adding: “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said: “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis. And yes: in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together – that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orban’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU. This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both – was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

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That awkward moment

Many families have an awkward, inconvenient relative: an uncle, an aunt, a wayward son – the kind of person who is increasingly out of touch with the world around them, listens to no one, knows no manners and comes up with crass ideas that the family has to play along with. You cannot tell them to get lost, because you want to be in their will, you trust them to keep family members from fighting each other or sometimes, because they’ve been around for too long to just get rid of them. Vladimir Putin, somewhat surprisingly, somewhat expectedly, seems to be turning into this relative.

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Dependence and addiction

Everything seemed to be going Vladimir Putin’s way. The attacks on Paris tilted European politics in his favour and as he was basking in this newfound indispensability in Turkey, he also started mending fences with Turkey. The Turkish Stream was back on track and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preparing to visit Moscow. Yet, it took only 17 seconds to take this downhill again. The downing of the Russian Su-24 over Turkey showed the limits of Putin’s brave new foreign policy.

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Battles and breaks

While the world was looking at the Russian military campaign in Syria, Russia may have scored a victory in Europe: the government of Valeriu Strelet in Moldova was toppled by a vote of no confidence initiated by pro-Russian parties in the Chisinau parliament. Meanwhile, opposition protesters clashed with police in Montenegro’s capital and the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic visited Moscow. It seemed as if Russia had been on a winning streak. But in reality, Vladimir Putin has too many battles to fight and his own strategy – if there is one – put him under pressure. In fact, Russia is winning only where it does not have to have a strategy.  

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