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The Week In Russia: World Cup Hosts Advance, Retirement Recedes

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino at a gala concert on Moscow's Red Square dedicated to the 2018 World Cup football tournament on June 13.

Vladimir Putin edged closer to a long-awaited meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, and Russian soccer fans reveled in decisive wins that moved the underdog host country past the group stage of the World Cup. But millions of Russian citizens got less welcome news, as the government pushed to raise the retirement age and lawmakers voted on language-education legislation that ethnic minorities fear could erase their cultures.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

One of the countless jokes that have already been spawned by the Russian leadership’s push to raise the retirement age goes something like this: “You say you’ll never see your pension? Look, we’ve held the Sochi Olympics, built a bridge to Crimea, and now we’re hosting the World Cup: There’s your pension right there.”

As seems to happen with some frequency, Russia is putting on a show for the world while some of its own citizens get the short end of the stick. And in this case, several citizens of Ukraine, too -- such as Oleh Sentsov, who remains in a remote northern prison while the colorful spectacle of the World Cup plays out in stadiums and on the streets of 11 cities.

Russia's On-Field Success

On the field, it’s going great for Russia: The host country has advanced past the group stage with seemingly effortless victories over Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and next faces Group A rival Uruguay on June 25. So far, so good for a team that -- based on poor performances going in -- many predicted would crash out early.

Russian football fans celebrate their team's win over Egypt in central Moscow.
Russian football fans celebrate their team's win over Egypt in central Moscow.

Off the field, it’s also been a success so far for the host country, despite several occurrences that would make a Russian soccer commentator shout “опасный момент!” -- dangerous moment.

Putin’s spokesman said the Russian leadership “breathed a sigh of relief” upon learning that nobody was killed when a taxi driver veered onto a sidewalk steps from Red Square and plowed into pedestrians, injuring seven people including two Mexican tourists in town for the World Cup.

Footage of the incident raised suspicions that it was deliberate, like a string of terror attacks in the West in which the assailants have used cars or trucks as weapons. But Russian officials moved quickly to quash this idea, saying it was an accident, and no evidence has publicly emerged to belie the driver’s claim that he stepped on the gas by mistake after 20 hours on the job.

The party has also been marred by racist chants, Nazi salutes, sexual harassment, and other offensive behavior, but Russians do not appear to be the culprits in most of the more prominent incidents -- aside from one in which a Russian man groped and kissed a reporter who was filming a live broadcast.

Putin-Trump Summit?

If Putin can be pleased with the World Cup so far, he may also be happy about another development. More than 17 months after Trump took office following an election that U.S. intelligence agencies say Putin targeted with an “influence campaign” aimed in part to support the Republican candidate, plans for a full-fledged meeting between the two are finally taking shape.

Trump said in June 21 that the White House is “looking at the possibility” of a meeting with Putin in July, and national security adviser John Bolton travels to Moscow next week to discuss it.

Some reports say Trump and Putin will hold a summit this summer.
Some reports say Trump and Putin will hold a summit this summer.

Barring some debacle, Putin will score geopolitical points if he meets with Trump.

The meeting seems more likely to happen after the July 11-12 NATO summit than before it. Either way, though, it means Putin will loom over the meeting of the Western military alliance.

Also looming large, one month after Trump called for Russia to be invited back to the G7 and withdrew U.S. support for a G7 summit communique that assailed Moscow and affirmed adherence to a “rules-based international order,” will be the question of Western unity in the face of Russia’s actions in the years since 2014 – and its intentions for the future.

Russians To Work Longer

A summit with Trump would be the biggest foreign-policy event for Putin since he was sworn in to his fourth term on May 7. Domestically, the biggest development – and the riskiest -- is the plan to raise the retirement age for the first time since the Soviet era. A bill submitted to parliament on June 16 would increase from 60 to 65 by 2028 for men and from 55 to 63 by 2034 for women.

Putin has been careful to keep his distance from the plan so far: His spokesman claimed the president has not been involved in discussions about pension reform in recent weeks and months.

But it seems clear that fourth-term Putin – who said in 2005, during his second term, that the retirement age would not be raised while he was president – has decided it’s time to take the risk.

Putin will have final say on the issue and may take steps to soften the blow before the bill becomes law; sometimes the second of three readings of legislation in the State Duma is used to tone down unpopular initiatives. And despite his professed distance from the issue so far, he will be watching a slew of planned protests closely in order to gauge what his government can get away with.

With the June 14-July 15 World Cup still going strong, vocal Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny and other politicians and parties – including liberal Yabloko, leftist Sergei Udaltsov, and the Communists -- are planning protests in early July. Some of them are also talking about joining forces, though experience shows that may be difficult to achieve.

Aleksei Navalny as he leaves a detention center in Moscow on June 14.
Aleksei Navalny as he leaves a detention center in Moscow on June 14.

Lev Gudkov, head of the independent polling agency Levada Center, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that it’s not clear whether anger over raising the retirement age will “lay the groundwork for a new consolidation of the opposition” or fade to become a “kitchen conversation” piece – a topic for private grumbling and not public action.

Native-Language Controversy

Another piece of legislation whose long-term effects could be momentous is a bill that would set new rules for the teaching of native languages – an issue with major repercussions for Russia’s “ethnic republics” such as Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Mari-El and others with sizable populations of ethnic non-Russians already struggling to keep their cultural identities alive.

Duma deputies have promised to make major changes before sending the bill to the upper house. But as passed in the first reading on June 19, it would prevent regions from requiring the study of and teaching in minority languages – making it voluntary at the request of parents.

One catalyst for the bill appears to have been remarks by Putin almost a year ago in which he suggested that ethnic Russians were being forced to learn the languages of minorities in “ethnic" republics. He said this would be “impermissible” -- and ordered prosecutors to determine whether it was happening.

Here, too, Putin – who has repeatedly called for unity across Russia and harmony among its many ethnic groups – signs a bill that risks undermining those goals.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.