From its fractious relations with the US and suspected involvement in poisoning of former KGB spies, to its key involvement in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, Russia is resurgent on the international stage. Front and centre is President Vladimir Putin, who was re-elected for a fourth term of office in March 2018 and will preside over Russia's hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Celebrating a Revolution?
Since Putin first came to power, the Kremlin has been searching for a national ideology that could replace that of communism under the Soviet Union. In 2016 the president named patriotism as that ideology, confirming many academics’ and commentators’ suspicions that the state had, in effect, hijacked the concept to serve its own agenda (ie keeping Putin in power). Russians are actively encouraged to have a sense of pride in their history through celebrations of the country's sacrifices and victories in WWII (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War) and glorification of historical figures such as Ivan the Terrible and Vladimir the Great, both of whom have had recent public statues unveiled in their honour.
In historical terms, 2017 was a key date for Russia, marking a century since the events that led to the creation of the Soviet Union. However, it was also a tricky celebration for the Kremlin to fully embrace since its root is one of revolution – an anathema to an administration keen to avoid any similar political upheavals. You don't have to look hard to see a confused response to the Soviet period across Russia and what it means for the modern country. One wonders what the embalmed Lenin in his bunker on Red Square would think about Russia's contemporary capitalist society that now surrounds him.
Putin Can Fix It
Putin has made it an annual habit to appear live on national TV to answer questions from the public. The June 2017 show – which could easily be called 'Putin Can Fix It' – saw the president promise to solve problems ranging from pot-holed streets and low wages to what to do with fired FBI director James Comey (offer him asylum in Russia, like Edward Snowden).
However, Putin is not without his critics. In a change to the program's regular format, comments from social media scrolled across the screen, a fair few of them critical of the highly orchestrated event and of Putin himself. Days prior to the TV Q&A, tens of thousands of demonstrators had gathered in over 100 cities across Russia to march against corruption and Putin's regime. Along with a thousand other people, the protest's architect and Russia's leading opposition figure Alexey Navalny was arrested and sentenced to 25 days in jail.
The Problem with the Opposition
Lawyer turned anticorruption crusader Navalny has been a thorn in Putin's side since 2008, when he started blogging about state graft. The 41-year-old emerged as an effective opposition leader during the parliamentary elections of 2011, when he urged his supporters not to vote for United Russia, which he dubbed the 'party of crooks and thieves'. However, Navalny also has strong nationalist views, which come with an unrepentant tinge of antimigrant rhetoric. This makes him a controversial figure that not all Russian liberals are in a hurry to support.
One figure that the country might have rallied around was Boris Nemtsov, who served as deputy prime minister in the late 1990s. A charismatic figure who led major protest rallies and railed against official corruption, Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge overlooked by the Kremlin in February 2015. Five ethnic Chechens were found guilty of his assassination at a trial in Moscow in 2017, but the verdict was denounced by his family and allies as a cover-up.
In the latest of several criminal prosecutions against him, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in 2014, a verdict that barred him from standing for the presidency. With no other credible opposition candidates contesting the March 2018 presidential elections, Putin romped home with 77% of the vote on a turnout of 67.5% of registered voters. As Russia faces another six years of Putin in power, the outstanding question is who will eventually replace him come 2024: Russia's constitution says a president cannot serve more than two consecutive terms.
Complex International Relations
Sure of wide support from the Russian people, President Putin has been emboldened to follow a more aggressive international political agenda. There's the possibility that the Russians had a hand in the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 as well as the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. There's its controversial military support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad under the guise of keeping Islamic militants in check. And there's its military backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine where, three years on from Russia's annexation of Crimea, heavy fighting continues.
In response to EU sanctions imposed on Russia because of that annexation, the Kremlin imposed its own embargo on certain EU agricultural products. In April 2018 a new Cold War seemed in the offing in the wake of the Skripal poisoning case as the West ejected scores of diplomats and imposed new sanctions on the country, causing Russia to engage in tit-for-tat countermeasures.
2018 World Cup
Russia is the first country in Eastern Europe to host the globe's most prestigious football championship, and national honour (not to mention Putin's reputation) is riding on the tournament's success. As with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the chances of anything not going according to script are slim – despite mutterings about doping that hang around the Russian team.
Russia's ongoing economic slowdown, mainly caused by the drop in crude oil prices, has caused the initial budget for improved infrastructure for the event to be slashed by almost threefold to US$10 billion. Even so, transport upgrades, including improved and new airports (Samara’s Kurumoch International Airport, for example), better roads and speedier rail links, are making it easier for travellers and football fans to get around Russia. Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) Nature Preserve, the official FIFA Fan Fest venue, will be connected to Luzhniki Satthe Olympic complex by a new cableway.
Twelve stadiums in 11 locations (Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Sochi, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg) have either been newly built or significantly upgraded. Human Rights Watch have documented abuses at six stadium construction sites, including unpaid wages and hazardous working conditions that have led to deaths. This includes the decade-overdue St Petersburg Stadium, where the budget has ballooned to as much as US$1.5 billion (the government claims US$700 million).