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Russia: Are Soccer Hooligans Being Used By Kremlin?

  • Julie Corwin --> (file photo) Russian politicians' love affair with youth movements continues to deepen with the emergence of new youth groups seemingly every other month. Parallel with this trend has been a growing -- but less visible -- cooperation with soccer fan clubs.

At the formal level, a Moscow city government committee approved a decree last week providing an estimated $3.5 billion rubles ($123 million) in 2006 for the creation of an association of fans of various sports clubs, the Civil Transition patriotic youth movement, and a youth TV channel. At an informal level, the pro-Kremlin youth movements Walking Together and its successor Nashi have been linked with various soccer fan clubs, whose members they reportedly use for security and other purposes.

Why soccer? One reason is that soccer attracts a young following, while politics in Russia does not. Most sociological research has shown over the past 10 years that less than 1 percent of Russian youth participate in public movements, according to "Profil" of 20 December 2004.

With their courtship of soccer fan clubs, Russian political authorities may be stepping where earlier counterparts feared to tread. In the early 1980s, Soviet law-enforcement officials were so alarmed by the growing zeal of Russian soccer fans and their adoration of British soccer hooligans that they started to crack down on any emotional displays by audiences during games. According to "Novye izvestiya" on 15 April, during matches, fans were banned not only from chanting or singing songs, but even applauding too fervently. Young people wearing the scarves of the clubs they favored were immediately under suspicion by the law-enforcement agencies. The disintegration of the Soviet Union helped dampen any remaining passion for soccer until the mid-1990s, when fan clubs experienced a rebirth.

One of the first Russian political leaders to see the political possibilities for an alliance with soccer fans was Vladimir Zhirinovskii, head of Liberal Democratic Party of the Russia (LDPR). Speaking on the basis of anonymity, a young Moscow-based soccer hooligan identified only as Vasilii told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 20 December 2004 that Zhirinovskii's team actively courted devotees of Dynamo Moscow. "They financed trips for out-of-town matches, published several fan books, paid for parties," Vasilii said. "LDPR figured that attracting Dynamo fans to their enterprise would raise their party's rating among youth." Vasilii said that LDPR never tried to use the fan club to provide security, although Walking Together did.

According to Vasilii, fans of CSKA (Central Sporting Club of the Army) participated for money in the riot that occurred in central Moscow in June 2002 following Russia's loss to Japan in the World Cup. The riot happened just before the first reading in the State Duma of the law on political extremism. "The media was full of talk about youth extremism. And suddenly before the second reading there was disorder on Manezh Square with attempt to break into the State Duma building," Vasilii said.
"Who brings a sledgehammer to watch a soccer match?" -- Russian police officer

Of course, Vasilii, if he indeed exists, was speaking anonymously, but suspicions about the violence have been voiced from any variety of different people. Soon after the incident, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov called the event a "well-planned escapade" and Communist legislator Vasilii Shandybin said that he believed the riot was a "specially planned action, timed to coincide with the Duma's discussion of the law on political extremism. "Izvestiya" on 11 June 2002 reported comments by a police officer, who was on the scene during the rioting, in which he wondered where rioters procured the sledgehammers and gasoline that they used to vandalize cars and storefronts. "Who brings a sledgehammer to watch a soccer match?" the unnamed officer said.

And suspicions persist two years later. In a talk show on Ekho Moskvy on 19 May, soccer trainer and player Aleksandr Shmurnov said he felt the incident "was to some measure a planned political action." "If it had only been about soccer, then it would have continued for 15 minutes and then everything would have dispersed or run out of steam."

In an interview with "Izvestiya" on 8 September, Oleg Pilshchikov, director the Moscow city's Committee for Family and Youth Affairs, dismissed any possibility that Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's government wants to use soccer fans for any nefarious purpose. "There were suspicions that we are gathering soccer fanatics under our banner in order use them as fighters during the [upcoming] Moscow City Duma elections," he admitted. However, he explained that their goal is more innocent. "Our aim is to make every young Muscovite an active member of society," he said.

Meanwhile, officials from the Nashi youth movement and its predecessor, Walking Together, deny having any connection to soccer fans at all. Konstantin Lebedev, press secretary for Walking Together, told "Komsomolskaya pravda" in December 2004 that his organization "does not cooperate with any kind of fan grouping." However, Aleksei Mitrushin, leader of the CSKA fan group Gallant Steed, has been identified in a number of articles as the director of the northeast branch of Walking Together and as a Nashi coordinator ("Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 April, "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 14 March, and "Ekspert," on 5 September).

From its very beginning, stories about Nashi have been heavy with references to brawny soccer hooligans, and activists at competing organizations have been more than willing to name names. Sergei Shagrunov, head of the Motherland party's youth group ,and Vladimir Abel, a top official with the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), both identified Roman Verbitskii, the head of Spartak Moscow's Gladiator fan club, as the head of Nashi's regional-development department in articles in "Kommersant-Daily," "Moskovskii komsomolets," and "Vedomosti." "Ekspert" reported on 5 September that Verbitskii and another leader of the Gladiators, Vasilii Stepanov, aka Vasya the Killer, have attended meetings at the Kremlin with other Nashi members. However, Nashi press secretary Ivan Mostovich told "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 August that he does not know any Roman Verbitskii.

Despite these denials, media stories alleging a connection between soccer hooligans and Nashi continue to proliferate. Verbitskii's name in particular has featured in recent stories about a 29 August incident in central Moscow. About 30-40 masked men armed with baseball bats and some wearing symbols of the Nashi youth organization attacked members of the NBP, Avant-Garde Red Youth, and youth organizations from the Motherland and Communist parties. Aleksandr Averin, an NBP activist who was a victim in the incident, said he saw Verbitskii among the attackers. NBP official Abel told "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 August that this is not the first attack on the NBP in which Verbitskii has played a part. "Criminal charges involving a certain Roman Verbitskii have been filed in connection with three previous incidents," he said. The daily also cited an anonymous police source that Verbitskii was present at the attack.

So far, neither Verbitskii nor anyone else has been charged in this attack. Also, reports in and "Novaya gazeta" this week suggested that they are not likely to be. Writing in "Novaya gazeta," No. 68, Yabloko youth-branch head Ilya Yashin, citing an anonymous police source, reported that presidential-administration official Nikita Ivanov visited the police station where the group of men suspected of taking part in the attack were being held and arranged for them to be quickly released without following regular police procedures. According to Yashin, Ivanov, 31, is nominally the deputy head of the administration for interregional and cultural relations with foreign countries at the presidential administration, but his department is in fact primarily concerned with youth policy and preventing an Orange Revolution. So far, only has echoed Yashin's claims about Ivanov's activities that day, and Ivanov's office has declined to comment.

According to most detailed accounts of the Russian soccer fan clubs, the young men share certain prejudices, such as a hatred for persons from the Caucasus, but they lack any broader political agenda. Their role models are British soccer hooligans. Bill Buford, an American journalist who went undercover with fans of Manchester United's Red Devils, suggested that British hooligans seek an ecstatic, sex-like release from mass violence. Similarly, "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote that Russian soccer fanatics "are directed not by political convictions but by the search for strong sensations." In their search for an adrenaline rush, they aren't likely to be easily controlled by anyone -- regardless of their bureaucratic rank within the Kremlin or without.

For more on the rise of political youth groups, see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth."