With the World Cup less than three years away, host Russia is under increasing international pressure to rein in racism in its domestic league. But a group monitoring racism in European soccer has accused Russian officials of doing little if anything to address the problem.
Racist chants, posters spewing hate-filled messages, and discrimination -- and sometimes violence -- against supporters appearing to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia, are all too common at some stadiums in Russia, antiracism activists say.
An expert on soccer in Russia and Eastern Europe, Pavel Klymenko, accuses officials of the Russian Football Union (RFS) of either understating the problem or even denying one exists.
"The Russian Football Union took some sporadic action last season, sanctioning several clubs for racist behavior. But you can see this disciplinary action was not very consistent," says Klymenko, a researcher at Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE).
A report by FARE this year listed more than 200 cases of racist or discriminatory behavior in Russian soccer over the previous two seasons. Klymenko says that the numbers are probably much higher, since many incidents involving racism go unreported.
The report describes 22 cases of "anti-Caucasus displays" and 15 attacks on people from ethnic groups hailing from the region.
Ending The 'Bigotry'
In the latest such incident, Russian Premier League team Anzhi Makhachkala, from the North Caucasus region of Daghestan, said its team and supporters were targeted by CSKA Moscow supporters during a recent match in the Russian capital.
According to Anzhi officials, CSKA fans shouted abuse about the Caucasus region and its people during the match in Moscow on August 1. The supporters also unfurled a banner reading "animal planet" with a modified Anzhi crest featuring an apparent antigay slur.
In an unusual move, Anzhi General Director Sergei Korablev issued a statement on August 3 calling for an end to "bigotry" in Russian soccer. "The CSKA fans' chants included insults directed at our club and fans, expressions that provoke hostility on the basis of ethnicity," he said.
Some CSKA fans said they were also abused by Anzhi supporters with sexist chants against ethnic Russian women.
CSKA is no stranger to controversy.
Last season, the club played all three of its Champions League group-stage games behind closed doors -- with no fans in the stadium -- after European soccer's governing body, UEFA, punished the team for a string of racist and violent incidents involving the club's fans. The club was also fined 200,000 euros ($220,000) by UEFA and banned from bringing away fans to two games in Europe's top club competition.
Last month, CSKA's entrant for the Russian Premier League's annual beauty contest was stripped of her "Miss Congeniality" title after her social-media account was found to contain numerous neo-Nazi posts and racist statements, including some directed against people from the Caucasus.
On August 5, the RFS's disciplinary commission did mete out punishment over the incident. It fined CSKA 500,000 rubles ($7,800) for the offensive banner and ordered parts of the team's stadium closed for an upcoming game.
The commission ruled that the chants violated rules against "swearing and also insults," but oddly did not charge CSKA under antiracism rules.
Blaming The Victim
It's not the first ruling by the commission to leave observers scratching their heads.
In July, the disciplinary commission took no action after Spartak Moscow fans racially abused FC Ufa's Ghanaian player Emmanuel Frimpong -- including audible monkey chants -- during the opening game of the Russian Premier League season on July 24.
The commission did take action, not against Spartak (although it did receive a paltry fine of the equivalent of $300 for fans throwing objects on the field during the game in question), but against Frimpong, imposing a two-game ban for his reaction to the alleged racist abuse. (Frimpong allegedly shouted an expletive-laced response and gave the middle finger in the direction of the fans hurling abuse at him.)
The dumbfounded player reacted to that news on Twitter:
Open Forum For Racism
Perhaps sensitive to outside scrutiny, Russia's World Cup organizing committee did respond to the Frimpong incident, condemning "racism and discrimination in all its forms," and expressing confidence the run-up to the 2018 World Cup "can act as a catalyst to positively change" the country's soccer culture.
So far, there's little evidence of that.
According to Klymenko, players from the Caucasus face more racism in Russia than black players from Africa. "It is very common, and this is actually something that is missing from most of the accounts on the situation in Russian football," he explains. "The fact is that racism against black African players is a bit less than racism and xenophobia displayed toward people from the Caucasus in Russian football."
The overall racism in Russian society toward people from the Caucasus regularly spills over into Russia's soccer stadiums, sparking a "snowball of abuse," Klymenko says.
"The conflict between the Caucasian teams, like Anzhi Makhachkala or Terek Grozny, when they travel on away matches to Moscow or St. Petersburg or elsewhere in Russia, is quite evident. This also sparks quite a lot of reaction from Caucasian teams, the supporters themselves, using xenophobic chanting against the teams they're playing," Klymenko explains.
In December 2010, the killing of an ethnic Russian soccer fan by a North Caucasian man ignited riots at the foot of the Kremlin walls. Soccer supporters came together with neo-Nazi groups to a political rally on Manezh Square organized by radical right-wing groups that quickly degenerated into attacks on "aliens" and police special forces. Some 30 were injured in the clashes and more than 60 soccer supporters were detained.
Clubs competing in European competition have made some headway in weeding out neo-Nazi supporters, according to Klymenko, but their presence is still strong.
"Almost in every club you can see the far-right groups promoting their ideology from the stands. And this remains, I would say, one of the biggest places of neo-Nazi propaganda in Russia: the football stadiums, because they often go unpunished," Klymenko says.