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(Not) All Fun and Games: Soft Power and Sports in the Caucasus

Submitted by on Sunday, 22 July 2012.    805 views No Comment
(Not) All Fun and Games: Soft Power and Sports in the Caucasus

On March 8, 2011 an all star football team from Brazil battled the reigning FIFA world champions from Chechnya and their captain; FIFA Player of the Year Ramzan Kadyrov.

Give me a second! Okay. Now that the Kadyrovites have left the room I can tell you that the Chechen team was made up of “government officials” and not world champion football players. I can also tell you that while he is team captain, Ramzan Kadyrov is not FIFA Player of the Year. This game, which the Brazilian side won “narrowly” by the score of 6-4, appears to have been an exercise in what appears to be Kadyrov’s interpretation of soft power. Typically, soft power is reserved for foreign policy but its mantra of “making other people want what you want”[i] may produce results in the Caucasus, a region in which athletic competitions of all types are highly regarded by the population.

Sport appears to be one of the main ways that Kadyrov appeals to the population of the republic. In addition to the game played against Brazil, Kadyrov hired international superstar Ruud Gullit to coach Terek Grozny; Chechnya’s member in the Russian Premier League. It was reported that Gullit would be paid between €1 million and €2.5 million from a budget of €1.8 billion that Kadyrov receives annually from Moscow. Since part of this budget is to be focused on fighting the “Islamic insurgency” in the republic, one could argue that the hiring of Gullit to train a respectable football team might be a tactic used by Kadyrov to lure resistance fighters out of the mountains and join him at Dynamo Stadium to watch a match; making them want what he wants. The question is though, what does Kadyrov want? While he may argue that all he wants is peace and prosperity within his nation there is a mountain of evidence that speaks otherwise. First, spending an inordinate amount of money on football cannot be what every Chechen wants. In 2010 the unemployment rate in Chechnya among the “capable population” was measured at 70 percent. This includes farmers in agrarian parts of the nation who are “absolutely poor” and forced to live off of their own crops. Even in the city centers of Grozny and Gudermes, unemployment is rampant and draconian laws force families to spend what little money they have on mandatory school uniforms for their children, as well as hijabs for their daughters. Recent “legislation” from Kadyrov has made the hijab a requirement for all females working in or attending educational institutions in the country, much to the dismay of those opposed to the Arab tradition. Those who do not comply face termination from their jobs or expulsion from school. These contradictions to soft power are coupled with extra hard power by Kadyrov, forming what certainly cannot be called smart power. In one display of this, Kadyrovites gathered up family members of resistance fighters and used them as human shields as they attempted to perform a roundup of rebels in the forests of Chechnya.

Chechnya is not the only area of the Caucasus in which sport is used in an attempt to sway public opinion, though. Across Chechnya’s border to the east lies the Republic of Dagestan. This region, which experiences near daily bombings and violence and is plagued by poverty and high unemployment, recently signed Cameroonian superstar footballer Samuel Eto’o to a contract worth €10 million per year after paying Italian club Inter Milan €21 million for the right to sign him.

On the western end of the Caucasus, both Chechnya and Dagestan are dwarfed by the money spent by Russia on the 2014 Sochi Olympics; a staggering amount totaling more than €26.3 billion. These games, meant to improve Russia’s image on a global scale as well as, no doubt attract investment and make the country money are marred by the fact that they are taking place on occupied land. The Circassians, who have called the Black Sea city of Sochi their capital for centuries, were driven out and murdered en masse by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Caucasian War. This culminated in a Russian declaration of total victory in 1864, which was followed by the expulsion of most of the remaining Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. Today, members of the Circassian diaspora around the world are calling for the cancellation of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games and recognition of the Circassian Genocide; with the latter only being undertaken by the nation of Georgia in 2011. At this point in time it remains to be seen whether or not football clubs and the Olympic Games will be all it takes for Russian backed rulers in the Caucasus to keep facts about its living conditions and human rights record out of the ears of the global community and off the tongues of it residents.

(i) Lock, Edward. “Developing a ‘strategic’ concept of power” In Soft Power and US Foreign Policy: Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Inderjeet Parmar and Michael Cox, 33. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Michael Capobianco
La Diplomatie – No.57 (July-August 2012)

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