MOSCOW — Of all the sentences you didn’t expect to read during the World Cup, how’s this one...
The controversial politician who sponsored Russia’s much-maligned “gay propaganda” law has launched a bill that would make it a criminal offense to criticize the country’s national soccer team.
That’s right, Vitaly Milonov, who likes to think of himself as one of Russia’s tough guy political influencers (because, you know, they don’t have enough of those), apparently thinks his nation’s World Cup squad are so delicate as to be unable to cope with a few harsh words from fans or in the media.
According to RT.com, the website of Russia’s Kremlin-backed television network, Milonov is behind a bill that would see fines of $160 levied on anyone found guilty of “verbally tormenting” the team.
He strongly believes in his argument, reasoning that such criticism lowers national morale. He strongly believed in his argument when he successfully sponsored the anti-LGBT law in 2013, too, claiming that to allow protest or speech in favor of “non-traditional sexual relations” was damaging to the minds of Russian children.
Back then, his law was lambasted internationally for having little in the way of common sense and providing a poisonous curb on basic human rights.
“Our players are ours, regardless of how good they are,” Milonov told the Komsomolskay Pravda newspaper this week. “And here some idiots make fun of them and spoil their pre-game moods. If our footballers lose, we should blame those who insulted our boys.”
How’s his logic working out this time? Well, ahead of the World Cup, Russia had failed to win for seven games and entered the event ranked 70th, the lowest of all teams. Because of this dismal run, it was, incredibly, criticized by its fans and media.
And, whether inspired by or in spite of said criticism, it went out and destroyed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the tournament opener to instantly give itself one foot in the knockout round, barring a major collapse.
Yet while Milonov’s latest round of rhetoric is notable for its absurdity, the most remarkable thing about it is that we have come to hear about it at all. Not much Russian news is finding its way into the public domain right now, unless you count photos of Vladimir Putin looking like a proud papka as the goals piled in on Thursday.
The much is by design, according to the Mediazona news service, which reported that Russia’s Interior Ministry has ordered local authorities to cease releasing figures that could spark fears about crime rates among foreign fans and to instead report “things that are cheerful.”
Proof perhaps, of what was already widely suspected – that Putin’s regime is determined to emerge from this tournament having racked up a public relations win, no matter what.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Russia has ground to a political halt while the planet’s biggest sporting festival is going on. Far from it.
The net had barely stopped rippling after the final goal on Thursday when the Kremlin announced a major policy shift on one of the biggest hot-button topics in Russian society. In sweeping moves, the retirement age will rise from 60 to 65 for men, 55 to 63 for women, while an increase in value added tax from 18 to 20% was simultaneously rolled out.
The policy and especially its timing was criticized by political opponents, but the way Moscow celebrated in a carnival of color and alcohol-fueled revelry, it might still be a while before much of the public finds out that they face another several years of toil.
It will be a rude shock when the party ends, but at least Russia finally has a winning soccer team, one so good – for now – that there’s simply no need to curse them and risk the inconvenience of a criminal record.