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Will FIFA's Mounting Scandal Affect Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter take part in the official handover ceremony for the 2018 World Cup in Russia in Rio de Janeiro on July 13, 2014.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter's shock resignation on June 2 amid a growing corruption scandal at soccer's world governing body has uncorked questions that had previously been bottled up.

Among them are whether the World Cups in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 could be under threat as U.S. and Swiss authorities pursue charges in separate investigations.

Swiss prosecutors are looking into whether the bidding process to award those World Cups was less than clean.

Qatari and Russian officials deny doing anything underhanded to win the bids, despite a string of reports suggesting otherwise.

That the U.S. probe was motivated by a desire to punish Moscow seems unlikely despite Russian protestations to the contrary, says Gavin Hamilton, the chief editor of World Soccer Magazine.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Hamilton notes the U.S. probe has so far focused on alleged corruption inside the regional soccer organization for the Americas and Carribean, CONCACAF.

However, that's not to say the Russians have nothing to fear, especially from the Swiss investigation.

"There've also been concerns about the Russian bid because there was a deal between the Qatari 2022 bid and the Spain/Portugal 2018 bid to exchange votes. And the Qatari bid managed to get the votes from the supporters of Spain/Portugal, [but] Spain/Portugal didn't get the supporters of Qatar because their votes went to Russia. Russia managed somehow to persuade the exco [executive committee] voters that they had a stronger case than Spain/Portugal,” explains Hamilton.

Michael Garcia was refused entry into Russia to investigate corruption charges.
Michael Garcia was refused entry into Russia to investigate corruption charges.

Hamilton also notes the Russians were less than cooperative with Michael Garcia, a U.S. lawyer tasked by FIFA to investigate corruption charges over the Russian and Qatari bids.

"He wasn't even able to speak with the people involved with the Russian bid because they refused to allow him entry into Russia, and then said their computers which they had used in the bid had been destroyed. So Russia did everything they could to obstruct any investigation into malpractice," says Hamilton.

Garcia stepped down in December after FIFA decided to publish only a summary of his report.

Adding to his anger was FIFA's conclusion that the probe had found no wrongdoing by Qatar and Russia, a claim strongly refuted by Garcia, although he has demurred publicly at making accusations.

Sepp Blatter leaves after a press conference announcing his resignation in Zurich on June 2.
Sepp Blatter leaves after a press conference announcing his resignation in Zurich on June 2.

Experts agree it is too early to say whether the Swiss or U.S. probe could uncover such graft that FIFA officials would be forced to rethink holding the World Cup in Russia or Qatar.

In the case of Russia, time is not on the side of investigators.

"Preparations in Russia are thoroughly advanced. We are only three years away from the World Cup in Russia, so to switch it to another venue would be very problematic and involve huge legal costs. And any FIFA case would have to be completely watertight," Hamilton says.

There is a precedent for shifting the venue for a World Cup.

In 1986, the World Cup was played in Mexico instead of the planned Colombia.

That decision was made in 1982, and not by FIFA but by the government in Colombia, which was facing economic troubles and, more troubling for Bogota, a growing M-19 guerrilla movement.

FIFA accepted the decision and quickly the United States, Canada, and Mexico emerged as replacements after Brazil backed down.

Mexico won every vote cast by FIFA's executive committee at the time after then-FIFA President Joao Havelange gave his backing.

The prospect of huge profits promised by a Mexican TV mogul and, coincidentally, FIFA official allegedly won Havelange over.

Russia's Presentation For FIFA World Cup
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(WATCH: Russia's Presentation For FIFA World Cup)

For Russia, Blatter's exit is bad news, according to the Russian daily Kommersant.

Russia was one of Blatter's most vocal backers as he bid to win a fifth straight term at FIFA.

The daily says Blatter defended Moscow when some in the West and elsewhere criticized FIFA after Russia won the right to host the 2018 event four years ago.

As the recent FIFA scandal unfolded, Kommersant writes, it was none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin who came to the defense of Blatter, saying the FIFA president was coming under undue "pressure."

Russian officials suspect the probes -- especially the one launched in the United States -- are motivated by politics.

Relations between the West and Russia are at Cold War levels over the conflict in Ukraine.

Putin on May 28 accused the United States of "a further attempt to expand its jurisdiction to other states." Putin said he had "no doubt" it was aimed at blocking Blatter from being reelected.

As the scandal broke last week, Russian officials lined up to deny it had anything to do with them.

"There's no doubt, if the 2018 World Cup was to be held in the U.S.A., and not Russia, then there would have been no arrests," alleged Vasily Shestakov, a Russian lawmaker.

Seven FIFA officials were arrested in Zurich on May 27 as part of the U.S. probe. They are now facing deportation on charges of accepting more than $100 million in bribes.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.