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Russia tests limits of World Cup feel-good factor

Moscow (AFP) – Safe, exciting, well-organised: Russian President Vladimir Putin has scored points by hosting the World Cup. But the soft-power dividend at home and abroad is limited, analysts warn.

Despite the cold shoulder he usually receives from his rivals in the West, Putin has presided over a good-humoured tournament with gripping matches and street parties.

Thousands of Latin American fans have fuelled a fiesta atmosphere in the summer heat. Even Russia’s own unfancied team have given locals something to shout about and are now preparing for a quarter-final against Croatia.

Yet Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian politics expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, judges the soft-power effect of hosting the tournament as “insignificant”.

Relatively few fans have made the journey to support teams from other Western nations, he noted, and “there is nothing to suggest that Russia’s image abroad has improved”.

“The patriotic fervour will subside and the day after the tournament everything will return to exactly the way it was.”

– Sport and diplomacy –

Following the doping-tainted Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and violence involving Russian fans at the Euro 2016 football tournament, the World Cup was Russia’s chance to take the edge off tensions through some soft-power diplomacy.

Despite a few incidents, coverage has been dominated by colourful scenes of peaceful celebrations. Rival fans have posed together smiling for photos on Red Square.

On July 15 television viewers around the world will see Putin sit in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to watch the final of a tournament widely hailed as a success.

The next day he will fly to Helsinki for a one-on-one summit with US President Donald Trump in a bid to ease tensions.

As the fans partied this week and last, Putin and other Russian officials met with visiting US delegates to prepare for the summit.

The sides congratulated each other on winning the right to host the World Cup — Russia this year, and the United States in 2026, along with Mexico and Canada.

But Putin will leave an uneasy mood back home once the party has ended.

Lev Gudkov, director of independent pollster Levada, says there are “more and more discontented people” in Russia.

“Everything to do with the tournament is perceived positively, but that does not affect people’s real lives,” he told AFP.

“It is purely a media effect.”

– Putin’s popularity falls –

Before the street parties erupted in Moscow and other cities following Russia’s victory over Spain on July 1, crowds elsewhere were rallying in anger at pensions reform.

Many Russians fear the measure — announced on the very day the World Cup began — will drive them into hardship in the final years of their lives.

The pension age will rise — for the first time 80 years — by eight years to 63 for women. For men, it will rise by five years to 65 — just two years short of average male life expectancy.

Russians’ quality of life has declined in general over the past four years, since the West imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing the Crimean peninsula.

Putin has distanced himself from the cabinet’s reforms. But he has not been spared the popular anger.

Despite the revelry of the World Cup, in a survey published on Tuesday by Levada, 48 percent of respondents said they trusted Putin — down 12 points in a month and a half.

A study by the state-controlled VTsIOM institute in late June indicated that the president’s popularity rating had fallen by 14 points in three weeks, to 64 percent.

“For the first time in a very long while, the popularity ratings of the whole leadership have fallen,” said Kolesnikov.

“Usually, Putin is spared, but now his popularity is falling too.”

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