Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Sheriff FC tells two tales, because that's football, life

Selfie, today (RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The Sheriff Football Club from Tiraspol in Transnistria, Moldova, defeated western European powerhouse Real Madrid, at home at the Bernabeu, in Champions League football last week.

Coincidentally, I've lately been sporting my "Sheriff" ball cap.  I wrote about Transnistria after my visit there, and to Sheriff's 12,000-seat stadium in Tiraspol, two years ago: "Breakaway state of Transnistria might model new Russian sphere of influence" (Dec. 16, 2019).

It's interesting to see how media outlets describe Sheriff's geographic home.  Most I've seen say "Moldova," which, I guess, is what you find if you look at a political map.  Wikipedia describes Tiraspol as "the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway state in Moldova."  Only in an Al Jazeera main headline did I see exclusive mention of Transnistria.  The subhede then started, "Football club from a pro-Russian separatist enclave in Moldova."

After I crossed into Transnistria and showed my papers to the heavily armed border guards to get my 24-hour visa in a flurry of stamps, I didn't feel like I was still in Moldova.

Most media outlets have not picked up the political thread on the upset story.  In one exception, Sheriff's road to Champions League glory is well contextualized by Gab Marcotti for ESPN FC.  He observed that none of the Sheriff players are Moldovan or Transnistrian—but before one "get[s] high and mighty about national identity, please consider that at the final whistle, there were exactly zero Spaniards on the pitch."

Is the Sheriff-over-Real-Madrid story "a 'fairy tale' or a sad reflection"? Marcotti wondered.  On the one hand, there is the peculiar joy of football as sometimes, or seeming, social leveler:

Let it be a reminder that ordinary players, on an ordinary Tuesday night, can walk into the temple of football and knock it down, like Samson back in the day. That's part of the appeal of this sport. It's low-scoring, it's mano-a-mano, and the gap between superstars and extras may be huge over time, but on any given day, it can be tiny and anything can happen.  

Marcotti drew on a Twitter thread from near-Tiraspol-born, ethnically Russian, now Baltimore, Md.-based sportswriter Slava Malamud to illustrate the other hand:

[Sheriff] have been Moldovan champions in 19 of the past 21 years, they have the country's only modern stadium and they're bankrolled by the Sheriff corporation, a conglomerate that includes Transnistria's only supermarket chain, gas station chain, telephone network, TV channels, publishing house and distillery. The owners have close ties to the local government, which, in turn, is funded and protected by Russia. This isn't just a company team; it's a company town in the company enclave of Transnistria, and you can't shake the feeling that this is what it takes for "fairy tales" like this to take place in the modern game.

Football is metaphor.  What happens on the pitch, especially when recounted by capable journalists, is contradiction, because contradiction is football, and football is life.  Sheriff is fairy tale and sad reflection.  In the same way that pride and frustration are fast friends.

Undefeated in the group stage, Sheriff now leads UEFA Champions League Group D with wins over Real Madrid and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk.  Sheriff will face Inter Milan, in Milan, on October 19, again putting the fairy tale to the test.

(Below, BT Sport tweet from Sheriff's August win over Dinamo Zagreb to reach the Champions League (retweeted by Malamud)).

Monday, December 16, 2019

'Breakaway state' of Transnistria might model new Russian sphere of influence

Transnistria (Perconte CC BY-SA 2.0)
Vladimir Putin is known for multi-tasking foreign policy; that is, he manages bilateral relationships with specifically fitted policy solutions and doesn't lose sleep over inconsistency across the board.  At the same time, his variable approaches add up to a coherent strategy, which is essentially the restoration of Russia to its superpower legacy, if not the reconstruction of a loose union akin to the old USSR.

Last week I got a close-up look at what might be a model of Russian territorial expansion in the 21st century, the semi-autonomous state of Transnistria.  To the United Nations, Transnistria is part of Moldova, the eastern European nation that declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  But going to Transnistria requires a passport, and the border crossing is no joke.

Transnistria occupies a 1,600-square mile strip of land east of the Dniester River from Moldova and along the border with Ukraine, not far from Odessa.  In 1992, only months after the end of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, Transnistria fought a war with Moldova for close to four months.  Prominent monuments to the fallen can be found on both sides of the border today, in Chișinău and Tiraspol. An uneasy truce resulted in which Transnistria regards itself as an independent nation, and it operates with near autonomy within Moldova's internationally recognized borders.

Sign at Border Crossing (CC BY-SA 4.0)
On the way in and out of Transnistria, one passes Russian military checkpoints that duplicate the Transnistrian military presence at the border crossings.  For years after the 1992 war, this was a hard border, not easy even for Moldovans to cross, and out of the question for foreigners.  Tensions eased over the years, and the border yielded some, but it's still restrictive.  My visa, issued at the border, allowed a visit for only a matter of hours.  I could have managed an overnight, but I would have needed to provide details about my stay and intentions.

Near autonomy does not fully describe Transnistria's situation, because the breakaway state depends on Russia for unofficial political recognition and essential economic support.  Economic aid keeps prices shockingly low in the markets.  A big part of border security is interdiction of smuggling, especially for precious taxable commodities such as liquor.

Sheriff FC Billboard
(CC BY-SA 4.0, no claim to underlying work)
Within Transnistria, Russian-style oligarchic control of key market sectors is evident, even amid modest economic liberalization.  The company "Sheriff" (Шериф) is ubiquitous, its name splashed across supermarkets, petrol stations, and the well funded Tiraspol soccer club and athletic facilities.  Sheriff has close ties to the Transnistrian and Russian governments.  Antitrust law is not a thing.  Transnistria has its own currency, and even Moldovan lei must be changed to make a purchase.  Market control and currency help to buttress Transnistrian independence, even while the cost of small-run currency is now seeing low-value coins replaced by plastic chits.

A Sheriff Supermarket (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Reinforced politically and economically, Transnistria's social allegiance to Russia remains strong, a near nostalgia for the USSR.  Soviet monuments, including the obligatory Lenins, abound, and Russian language is pervasive.  A guide told me that Transnistrians are given Russian passports.  That's a subtly important strategic maneuver on Russia's part.  When Transnistrian youth look for economic opportunity, the passport puts Russian higher education and jobs within easier reach than the West.  And if Transnistrian independence is ever threatened (or if Russia itches for expansion?), Russia can claim its interest on behalf of Russian citizens in the territory.  From cultural affinity to political identity, these are the very interests that Russia asserted in the invasion of Crimea.

And those ties to Russia help, I think, to illustrate Putin's strategy for a new kind of Russian union.  The Crimean peninsula essentially is Russia, Putin has argued, a minority Russian population being marginalized by a Ukrainian majority.  Russia is still fighting to extend this Crimean buffer zone into mainland Ukraine.  Move just a bit counterclockwise around the Black Sea coast and one comes to the prized port of Odessa, then shortly to the Dniester River mouth, leading to Transnistria.

Me and Lenin in Tiraspol (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Russia does not actually have to possess this territory to control it.  In fact, possession might incur unwanted responsibility.  Better that this Black Sea perimeter region looks to Russia for economic and political legitimacy and for cultural primacy.  The new USSR is not an integrated, hard-bordered political bloc, but a gravitational sphere of cultural influence.  After all, that was the very model of Western social organization that defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  Students and scholars from around the world looked to western Europe and the United States for intellectual leadership, and the West dominated popular culture.  The global balance of power will shift eastward if Moscow becomes a capital of letters.

For now, the hearts and minds of Transnistria are not yet committed.  Notwithstanding ubiquitous Cyrillic script and an unexpected Russian military presence this far west of Sochi, people in Transnistria, like in Moldova or anywhere else, just want security and opportunity.  The subsidized subsistence of Transnistria is a Potemkin Village—a curiously appropriate term, as related in origin to Russia's historic annexation of Crimea—not a thriving economy.

However, reinvigorated American isolationism and stalled European expansion eastward can't presently compete with what Putin has on offer.  Transnistria now looks like an idiosyncratic outlier among European neighbors.  One day Transnistria might prove to have been a bellwether.

To visit Transnistria or explore elsewhere in Moldova, I recommend Voyages Moldavie.  The website is in French, but contact guide Andrian Gurdis for English-speaking tourism, too.  For long-haul taxi services in Moldova, turn to Corneliu Scurtu and his business, Carpoint (Facebook). Read more about Transnistria at Wired (2016), The Bohemian Blog (2013), and The Wall Street Journal (2011).  There's a deeper dive, which I've not read (pay wall), into the Crimea comparison in Adrian Rogstad, The Next Crimea?, 65:1 Problems of Post-Communism 49-64 (2018).

Friday, September 27, 2019

Book review: Towles's 'Gentleman in Moscow' weaves rich tapestry of 20th-century Soviet Russia

I'm part of a book group, among other reasons, to find an excuse to read things I otherwise would not take the time to read. I love my group, but a lot of the times, the reading only confirms my good judgment about use of time in the first place. The exceptions, though, stand out, e.g., Fredrick Backman's Man Called Ove, and invariably make the whole commitment worthwhile.

Last month was such a worthwhile month.  We read Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, selection of public-service-lawyer-extraordinaire Karen Owen Talley.  Here's the beautiful and clever book trailer (Delphine Burrus, dir.).



"Beautiful and clever" only begins to describe this book.  I have not read Towles's previous and popular Rules of Civility, so I cannot compare.  Suffice to say, though, I was surprised to learn that Towles is a Boston-born investment manager writing from Manhattan, and not a full-time scholar of the Russian Revolution, or even a recently arrived time traveler from 1920s Moscow.  Shelved as "historical fiction" in some libraries, this book depicts changing Russian society over decades after the revolution, from the 1920s to 1950s, all from the curious and ultimately delightful perspective of an aristocratic political prisoner under house arrest in an upscale hotel.

Maybe Towles was playing at Russian style, or it's just his speed; the book feels slow on plot a good ways in.  Ordinarily that's a turn-off for my action-aficionado, smartphone-addled brain.  Yet somehow this book was engrossing; every day I looked forward to re-immersing my mind's eye in the fantastical world of the Metropol Hotel, as envisioned from the endearingly witty perspective of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov.

Towles is brilliant at authoring irresistible rabbit holes for the reader.  Sometimes these seemingly discrete stories feel like pointless tangents; a fellow groupie and I had simultaneously imagined Towles as the sort of person who carries around a small memo pad to jot down vignettes of the day, from his peculiar perspective, and then litters his writing room with the pages.  Yet these seeming tangents weave themselves together later in the book into a tapestry that is so much more than the sum of their parts.  While each vignette in the book seems dispensable in its time, the whole of the novel would be painfully incomplete were it lessened by any one.  Here's a short example, just as the Count has discovered morning coffee and the reward of grinding it himself:

Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep.  As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain.  But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.
In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth.  The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things.  While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.

. . . .

So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.
But time and tide wait for no man.

I won't go much into the meat of the tale, other than to counsel the reader to watch for time as a theme.  The seeming absence of plot is itself a grand illusion, representative of how time passes and transforms Russia outside the steady, unchanging walls of our protagonist's hotel confinement.  I didn't realize that until we started to put the pieces together as a book group, and now I wish I had paid closer attention on first read.

A TV series is in the making.  I thought that a bad idea, at first, worried that this delicate marvel would be tortured by Hollywood-like priorities until it yields something more fast and furious.  But a fellow groupie pointed out that it's all in the characters: an unhurried and dignified telling might be executed well in the right hands.  Perhaps it bodes well then that Kenneth Branagh is set to produce and star.  But don't wait for a screen adaptation; you'll be cheating yourself out of a journey best rendered by the imagination.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

“A Fair Shake for the Sheikh,” or “Cut Qatar Some Slack”: On World Cup 2022



My photo at a Qatar Stars League double header in March 2016: Empty stands tell the tale of native public interest in football.  However, Prof. Susan Dun reported that populous foreign laborers do pack matches for the leagues they follow: another piece of the untold story in Qatar.

I was just in Oxford, UK, for “Sport 5.”  (The full name of the conference, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net, is in the previous post about my contribution there.)  I tweeted some of the highlights of Sport 5 (link to Twitter from the ribbon atop this page, Sept. 13-15, 2016).  I want to share a bit more about one paper at Sport 5 that stood out for its unconventional thesis.  The paper came from this year’s conference coordinator, Professor Susan Dun, a communication scholar at Northwestern University in Qatar.

I don’t want to steal Dun’s thunder or evidence, so I’ll give only cursory treatment to her thesis and outline three rationales that I found persuasive.  My own impressions have mixed with recollection, so blame me for any misstatements.

In essence, Dun posited that however much Qatar deserves condemnation for corrupt dealings with FIFA (see generally Blake & Calvert’s The Ugly Game), the ills of the kafala labor system, or dreams of air-conditioned desert stadiums, the regime is not getting a fully fair shake in global perception.  She made a compelling case, and activists, journalists, and scholars investigating the social and economic implications of the upcoming World Cups in Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022—myself included—should take note.

First, Dun placed the Qatari bid for 2022 in the context of Qatar’s ambitious struggle for political legitimacy through soft-power sport.  In its rush onto the world stage, Qatar was not ready for intense scrutiny and scathing criticism that accompanied the award (and then was amplified by the FIFA corruption fiasco, pointed out David Storey of the University of Worcester, who, by the way, presented a fascinating paper on the GAA).  Within Qatar, criticism of Al Thani leadership is not just legally problematic, but socially taboo.  So Qataris were utterly ill equipped to respond to an external public relations crisis in a way that would have seemed natural to Western observers—with press conferences, collaborative inquiries, and affirmative information dissemination.  Instead Qatar took an outmoded defend-or-deny stance, which only bloodied the waters.

Second, Dun explained that Qatar actually implemented a great many reforms to redress exposed deficiencies, for example, illegalizing passport retention and improving living conditions for foreign laborers.  The communications failure has meant that reform stories have not gotten much play.  Meanwhile, reform has been slowed by understandable challenges.  Employers might still seize passports.  Wrangling the middlemen is a laborious process in part because rapidly developed Qatar lacks regulatory and enforcement mechanisms that Westerners take for granted in key areas, such as workplace safety and banking.  Communications failure again means that these impediments are not explained.  Reform is necessarily incremental, but unresolved problems on the ground are misconstrued to signal government indifference, if not malice.

Third, Dun documented a media affection for criticism of Qatar.  In part the penchant seems driven by ignorance.  Journalists, bloggers, et al., tend not to be familiar with Qatar, so are more likely to republish judgmental commentary without critical analysis for fairness and accuracy.  I suspect that hostility toward a wealthy Islamic state in the post-9/11 era also plays a role.  Again, communications failure exaggerates the problem.  Dun gave evidence that even Russia is more likely than Qatar to get a fair shake in media coverage.  I can attest that in my own research, I only recently read about changes in Russian labor law—allegations not unlike those that have plagued Qatar for years—to hasten World Cup infrastructure development at the expense of worker rights.  (See Martin Müller, How Mega-Events Capture Their Hosts: Event Seizure and the World Cup 2018 in Russia, Urban Geography, 2015, doi).

Dun got push-back in discussion with Sport 5 attendees, but she held firm.  To be clear, Dun makes no motion whatever to justify human rights abuses; quite the contrary.  She simply laments that the whole story of Qatar's reform is not being told.  It would be a mistake to pull the World Cup from Qatar, she says, because there are desirable reforms occurring that should not be undermined.  (This is happily consistent with Benavides and my extension in World Cup Dreaming of Jeremiah Ho's incrementalist theory).  She makes that case well enough that those of us who fancy ourselves objective observers should pay attention.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The World Cup of Human Rights?



I prepared this map for the Inter-Disciplinary.Net conference, Sport: Sport Places, Money, and Politics, the 5th global meeting of the Sport Project: Probing the Boundaries, this week at Mansfield College, Oxford. The map shows the movement of the FIFA Men's World Cup since the United States in 1994, illustrating FIFA's deliberate campaign to globalize the tournament and the sport.

In my talk yesterday, I traced the marriage of FIFA and human rights from Football for Hope investments in World Cup 2010 South Africa, to World Cup 2014 Brazil; on to World Cup 2018 Russia and World Cup 2022 Qatar; and at last, to a World Cup 2026 that might embrace the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the manner proposed by Professor Ruggie.

Daunting challenges are presented with respect to international legal norms on housing, labor, sexual identity, racism and equality, due process and criminal punishment, and religious and expressive freedom. FIFA's extreme demands on host countries for infrastructure development, commercial protectionism, and security have made tournament hosting more easily the province of authoritarian regimes than of Western-style democracies, and that tendency works at cross-purposes with the incorporation of human rights norms in the Western legal tradition.