Russia’s Bizarre War on its own Football Fans

Ukraine will not participate in the World Cup. That is a setback for the fans. Russia has other problems with football fans. The goverment in Moscow is trying to implement a special ID-card for football fans. Supporters of different clubs are not amused and are threatening boycotts. With a slow-moving war in Ukraine, Adam Tarasewicz writes, Putin risks alienating his own fan base in the football stadiums?

Russian fans FIFA 2018Wikimedia
Football fans during World Cup 2018. Picture Wikimedia

by Adam Tarasewicz

As the Kremlin wages war in Ukraine, it might be expected that its focus would be on shoring up support domestically. Enter the debate over Fan ID passes which has already sparked mass detentions and has Russian football fans threatening boycotts.

On 17 December 2021, the State Duma adopted a resolution requiring Russian Premier League fans to apply for a Fan ID card through a government portal as of June 2022. In typical Kremlin vaguery, applications may be refused based on prior violations of public order at a sporting event, or simply on evidence of the 'intention' to commit an unlawful act.

When the Russian football season resumed after its December-February winter break, fans shocked authorities with the scale of their backlash, the issue clearly having festered over the winter months.

Safety or Silencing Troublemakers?

Officials claim that the IDs will make sports events safer for spectators. Yet with video surveillance at modern stadiums, if anything, top-flight football should be the safest of all. Opponents point out the lack of a single incident at a football stadium in the last ten years which has caused a significant threat to fan safety.

Communist Party Deputy Vladimir Isakov is a fan of Premier League club Arsenal Tula. He told that the laws would only drive away fans, citing a similar policy which hurt ticket sales and dissuaded sponsorship revenue in Turkey. He believes that the government is trying to “sterilise” large events given “growing socio-economic problems” domestically. When the difficulties in the stands get political, and socially charged banners start to appear, it will be dangerous for the Kremlin.

Isakov’s criticism represents the reality of the Fan ID implementation to date. The passes were used at the 2018 World Cup and Russian-hosted games during the delayed 2020 European Championship last year. In the latter, it became clearer who the background check was designed to catch.

Maxim Gongalsky, a municipal deputy for opposition party Yabloko, was denied entry after his Fan ID was revoked. He had a Court Order for attending a banned rally in January 2021 after the arrest of Alexei Navalny. In his words, the system sees “no difference between a fan with a flare and a Navalny supporter – they are all dangerous people”.

Alienating a Base

In November, CSKA Moscow fans voiced their anger at the proposed Fan ID laws in a home game against Zenit Saint Petersburg. Flairs set off in the home end led to the stand being sealed off for three hours, with cold fans denied food, water, or use of a toilet. 408 were arrested including 12 minors, leading to 51 Court Orders. Allegedly, the CCTV in the stadium was turned off by hackers. An official statement by CSKA criticised the fans, prompting the supporters’ club to call it a “stab in the back”.

Their anger is shared by almost all fans across Russia, who are planning mass boycotts. A Zenit fan statement called the plans “opaque” and “repressive”, while Dynamo Moscow’s fan group claimed it violated the basic civil rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Russian constitution.

If he was trying to calm the situation, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov did the authorities no favours by calling for dialogue with fans while musing that “maybe it’s just that the members of these associations don’t understand some of the nuances”.

In March there was renewed protest. Once again, CSKA fans found themselves at the centre. In a rare moment of brotherhood with their Moscow rivals Lokomotiv, the stadium united to chant “We don’t need Fan-ID”.

The situation is far from over. On 19 May, the Russian Football Union confirmed that they were progressing with plans to implement Fan-IDs at six stadiums in the 2022-2023 season – those which were also used in the 2018 World Cup. Six days later, Zenit’s fan group announced their boycott of the second half of next season, in line with the start of the measures at Gazprom Arena.

Russian football fans have a reputation abroad for their nationalism. They formed a large part of the now-disbanded, pro-Putin youth group NashiJournalists have noted the uptick in Russian flags in stands since the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the movement against Fan ID is gaining momentum.

With a slow-moving war in Ukraine, can Putin risk alienating his base? Nationalist football ultras and pro-Navalny liberals might make for strange bedfellows, and they will not truly unite, but by giving them a common ground against Fan IDs, has Putin made a misstep on the home front?