It’s World Cup time again

We now have a tournament, conceived as a bridge between nations, taking place in a country that has hardly stopped burning those bridges

Except for those whose interest in football is just zilch, the World Cup is without an equal for the emotions it provokes. This week, the World Cup in Russia was given the final go ahead last Thursday by the referee whistling for the first game to begin. As is normal, it involved the home team – Russia.

Meanwhile, the top US counter-intelligence official advised Americans travelling to Russia that they should not take electronic devices because they are likely to be hacked by criminals or the Russian government. According to William Evanina, an FBI agent and the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, hackers could target World Cup travellers, even if they think they are insignificant.

Fears of clashes between fans – such as the notorious English lager louts and the even more notorious Russian hooligans who are renowned for their savagery – have somehow abated, but the possibility has not been entirely eliminated.

None of this need necessarily make the tournament any less watchable, the football any less beautiful, and the sense of occasion any less exciting. It will not affect Cristiano Ronaldo’s skill or Kevin de Bruyne’s through balls. Unlike what happens in a political crisis or financial scandal, the game is always there to move the spotlight away from the impropriety. There comes a time when, for most observers at least, the geopolitics stops and the football starts. Russia will host its World Cup, we’ll all watch it, and it will probably be fine. Just try not to look too closely, or you’ll see something you’re not supposed to!

Eight years have passed since Vladimir Putin arrived in Zurich, in December 2010, with a smile on his face just as Russia had been named as the host of the 2018 World Cup. “From the bottom of my heart,” he said in fluent English, “Thank you.”

He promised ‘Visa-free entry. Free-of-charge trips between cities.’

‘Besides,’ he told the world, ‘you can get to know Russia: a unique country with a long history and a rich culture. Not bad. Not bad at all.’

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Many leaders of important – and less important – countries have passed their ‘sell-by’ date and are nowhere to be seen – including those who are now literally dead and buried.

Putin is still there, of course. Last Friday, President Putin – now eight years older, even more secure in power and Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin – issued a recorded welcome address. Putin spoke in Russian and stood solemn, almost grim, in front of a Kremlin backdrop.

During the eight years since Putin’s ‘Thank you’, many events have occurred. There was the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. There was the time the Russians were accused of shooting down a passenger jet, killing 298 people. Or the time ‘Russia’ tried to murder one of its former spies in Salisbury. Or the time it orchestrated an enormous state-sponsored doping programme. Or the time it defended Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Or the numerous occasions when it is believed to have interfered in foreign elections. Or the fact that Russia would flatly deny almost all of these accusations in the face of Western sanctions. Things did not really go as planned.

The change in Russia’s stance towards the West provides an intriguing background to a World Cup that will otherwise be defined by the world’s top footballers through emotional expressions of ‘patriotism’ as well as by stunning feats of athleticism and outstanding unplanned acts of sportsmanship.

And so, as Jonathan Liew writing in The Independent of London put it, we now have a tournament, conceived as a bridge between nations, taking place in a country that has hardly stopped burning those bridges.

Yet the World Cup still gives President Vladimir Putin – no doubt aided by President Trump’s differences with Europe – the chance to cast Russia in the role of a global power.

Historic… (1)

Writing in Foreign Affairs after the extraordinary Donald Trump meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Daniel R. Russel asked whether the meeting was a historic breakthrough or a historic blunder. He replied to the rhetoric question by affirming that “Kim Jong UN may have outwitted Trump”.

President Donald Trump assured the American people that they could trust Kim Jong Un and that North Korea’s supreme leader was sincere about denuclearisation. On what grounds do these assertions rest, one might ask?

The reply seems to be Trump’s self-confidence in ‘the art of the deal’ by just relying on his own hunches. America and the world can “sleep well tonight”, President Donald Trump declared on Wednesday, boasting that “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

Andrei Lankov, writing in NK News insists that the Singapore agreement is remarkably nebulous and that: “Trump had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to extract concessions from Pyongyang – and he blew it.”

As Russel put it: “No previous US president considered it prudent to embark on summitry with so little preparation or on terms so favourable to the other side, let alone to promise to unilaterally discontinue defensive joint US-South Korean military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. For his part, Kim can rightfully boast that he has accomplished what his father and grandfather could only dream of: achieving the twin goals of building a viable nuclear weapons capability and then winning international acceptance as a ‘very honourable’ peer, as he was referred to by the leader of the free world.”

That practically sums it up!

Historic… (2)

Anybody who might be certain that there is a rule-of-law crisis in Malta would probably be surprised to learn that later this month EU ministers will hold a hearing on alleged rule-of-law violations in... Poland.

This follows a historic decision of the European Commission (as distinct from the European Parliament) that does not believe the Polish government has done enough to ensure the independence of the country’s judiciary.

Last December, the Commission triggered disciplinary proceedings under Article 7 of the EU treaty for “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish courts, basically, the Polish government’s ability to remove up to 40% of the Supreme Court’s judges and the justice minister’s power to discipline judges. Poland has insisted that these changes are legal, and a domestic matter on which the EU should not interfere.

Given this background, is it any wonder why Malta’s alleged rule-of-law violations do not raise any real concerns in the EU Commission?

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