Tuesday 19 June 2018

World Cup crackdown on beggars, prostitutes, dogs - and students

As the world looks to Russia, the authorities are busy social cleansing, writes Oliver Carroll in Moscow

Dancers rehearse ahead of a show at the Golden Girls strip club in Moscow. Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/Getty
Dancers rehearse ahead of a show at the Golden Girls strip club in Moscow. Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/Getty

Oliver Carroll

In the often paranoid months ahead of the 1980s Olympics, nervous Soviet leaders removed every perceivable risk from Russia's streets.

Parents were told to send their children to pioneer camps, lest they become infected by foreign disease. Students were sent to work the fields, lest foreign depravity dirty their souls. Leading dissidents were advised to stay at home, or imprisoned in psychological wards, lest they brought too much attention to themselves. Stray dogs were killed; and prostitutes, beggars, and other undesirable elements swept away past the "101km mark" - a point beyond the city borders where few foreigners went.

But 38 years on, history seems to be repeating itself. Once again, Russia is getting ready to host a profoundly politicised sporting event in a context of general distrust.

In 1980, Afghanistan and the treatment of dissidents were causing anxiety; today, other wars, tensions and internal crackdowns are at play. At least two nations have declined to send official delegations in the wake of the poisoning of dissident Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

A Ukrainian film director, on hunger strike in a Siberian prison for the best part of a month, threatens to overshadow the grand opening of the FIFA World Cup in five days' time.

And there are fears that insalubrious methods of urban filtration are again being applied in at least some of the 12 World Cup host cities. As has been widely reported, the mass euthanasia of dogs has been stepped up ahead of the World Cup. This is a feature of local government policy in many regions even outside of sports tournaments, but it is estimated that local authorities will increase the spend to more than £100m this year. A two million-strong petition against such methods has been delivered to the Kremlin, but President Vladimir Putin - supposedly a dog lover - has been unmoved.

Authorities have been similarly unimpressed by the complaints of students, who say their access to education has been sacrificed for the greater needs of the big party. In Moscow, one group campaigned - unsuccessfully - against the erection of a massive "fan zone" tent next to the main Moscow State University building (also their dormitory).

The students argued, perhaps not unreasonably, that the tent, which can accommodate 15,000 drunk revellers, was not the most conducive thing to study. One student, who made his feelings known by painting over a FIFA fan zone sign, is facing criminal charges. Police have categorised the offence as causing damage to a memorial of clear cultural significance.

In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth city, whole dormitories were emptied ahead of the World Cup. They were needed for more important guests: the thousands of police and soldiers brought in to the city for match security.

In the same city, police apparently embarked on an operation to round up beggars and the homeless. Rough sleeping spots in stations were the main target, with raids beginning in May. Some reports claimed dozens of homeless people were bussed out to neighbouring cities. Homeless charities expect the raids to continue during the World Cup. Similar practices have been reported in Kazan, another host city.

There were fears that such heavy-handed tactics would be deployed in Russia's two capital cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, too. So far, however, the worst predictions have yet to come true. While homeless people have reported increased pressure to move on from the usual sleeping spots in Moscow, the widespread rumours of mass deportations have yet to be verified.

But 'Kursk Station', a group of activists who operate mobile soup kitchens for the homeless in and around Moscow's train stations, says that past police behaviour had taught them to be on guard. "We've seen how the authorities regularly clear people out of the stations," says the charity's coordinator. "Of course, it's a bigger deal in winter, when people don't last a long time on the streets. We haven't seen major moves yet, but it's wise to wait and see."

An activist in St Petersburg said that the relatively developed civil society of Russia's two capitals had prevented authorities from moving more forcefully against undesirable elements.

Another worker in a charity which provides beds and other assistance to St Petersburg's estimated 60,000 homeless said she had received assurances that there would be no extraordinary operations to clear the homeless from the city. But there were fewer organisations to protect the vulnerable in Russia's other host cities, she added.

"There are lots of organisations, here and in Moscow, enough to raise a real scandal if mass clearances begin. They're not exactly scared of us, but they don't want the headache."

Other parts of the underworld expect tougher treatment. By many accounts, the sex industry is one of Russia's largest employers - and with a larger client base. But for reasons moral and mostly financial, its employees have found themselves increasingly under the thumb of law enforcement.

Pressure is traditionally ratcheted up ahead of prestigious international events. But police have been especially active ahead of the World Cup, activists say. Irina Maslova of Silver Rose, an NGO representing sex workers, says women have been "intimidated" in the run-up to the championship.

Told there was no place for them in a tournament designed to showcase Russia, many just left the city for the duration, Maslova, herself a former sex worker, says. "The majority of brothels in St Petersburg have decided to stop working," she say. "We called around 18 of them the other day, and the response was the same - things have become so frightening there is no way we'll be opening our doors."

With federal government cracking down on online escort sites, prostitutes who kept working were forced to work with the "protection" of a police racket, she adds. "The girls pay them all the time - it's a strange type of tax. Police are completely unaccountable, and generally incapable of dealing with people humanely."

Authorities have also indicated there will be little tolerance of dissent during the tournament, with protest laws extended to include one-man pickets for the first time. Now anyone with a political placard needs, in theory, to apply for permission. One can presumably get around this requirement with suitably patriotic slogans.

Fears of a wide-scale and ugly crackdown, however, seem overblown - at least for as long as the world's eyes are on Russia.

"The authorities have indicated they will turn on the charm and avoid heavy operations during this World Cup," says one researcher at Memorial, a human rights NGO. "But perhaps the experience of the 1980s is a useful guide. In late 1980, as soon as the last athletes had left Sheremetyevo Airport, the arrests were stepped up, the trials began, and the dissident movement was largely decimated."

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