Throughout June and into July the FIFA World Cup was able to keep the world’s attention on the magnificent play on the pitch. Many had forgotten the corruption queries and human rights abuses that had marred the lead up to tournament. For the final 90 minutes of the tournament, stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric were intended to be the sole holders of the spotlight pointed directly at Moscow. Spectacular goals and moments of drama had already established the final as a classic when seven minutes into the second half, the play was brought to a halt when members of the Russian punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ ran onto the pitch. Dressed as police officers they later posted to various social media platforms outlining that their protest was intended to highlight arbitrary arrests and punishment of political dissidents by the Russian authorities.
Masha Gessen of The New Yorker wrote that the members of Pussy Riot were “the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics” during the competition. Despite the distraction of the tournament, Tanya Lokshina wrote for Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the broader perspective of this is “grim,” fearing that the “unprecedented crackdown on government critics will worsen.”
There was much concern in the lead up to the tournament about human rights abuses, particularly relating to civil liberties such as freedom of speech and expression. Many civil society organizations such as HRW, Amnesty International and Investigate Russia have likened the human rights abuses in this period under Vladimir Putin as similar to the Soviet era. An Amnesty report from 2017 stated that around 90% of arrests made under an anti-terrorism law have been used against people sharing anti-government content on social media. In addition to this has been a number of suspicious deaths of journalists who have criticized the policies of the Russian government.
As the world’s view of Russia shifts from football to political affairs, especially in relation to Russia’s deteriorating bilateral relations with the United States and the United Kingdom, pressure from the international community regarding the government’s breaches of human rights must persist. Whilst states in the west are occupied with addressing Russia’s influence in their domestic affairs it is important that they uphold their tradition of being an ideal for other states to strive for in their own countries.
In her piece authored for HRW, Tanya Lokshina concluded by saying that there’s a hope that after the opening of their nation for the World Cup, Russian citizens may hunger for human rights more than they ever did before. A spread in this sentiment may bring conditions conducive to change within the nation. For this to happen, Vladimir Putin’s grasp on Russian politics needs to either be nonexistent or significantly compromised. With Putin winning reelection for the Russian presidency earlier this year the prospect of this occurring in the near future seems highly unlikely. Until the day comes that he is no longer in power those who oppose him from within Russia and externally must keep the pressure on him.
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