Russian World Cup Security [Hooliganism, Crime and Terrorism]

The beautiful game transcends boundaries, as fans from different corners of the planet, different cultures and social class come together for the World Cup. Yet, as with anything so wonderfully entwined with the social dynamics of humans, it can be darkened by political machinations. The palpable excitement when nearing the stadium can be marred with a threat of violence and the atmosphere of fun and camaraderie may be sullied by danger. That being said, why miss out on the opportunity for adventure, learning, networking and enjoyment of the ultimate football experience when proper planning and sensible precautions can allay most any fear? Read on to pick up some useful safety tips, gain an overview of World Cup security considerations and a picture of what awaits in a land of caviar, Cossacks and comrades.

The Threat of Hooliganism

Much has been made of the threat of hooliganism during the World Cup, prompted mainly by violence between Russian and British hooligans on the streets of Marseille and Lille during Euro 2016. Around 200 Russian citizens were accused of carrying out focused and savage attacks on the fans of opposing teams. UK police spotters witnessed organised groups of Russian men preparing to fight with gum shields and gloves before striking. Further independent reports suggested the groups refrained from drinking alcohol to give them a fighting edge over the British. This, alongside investigations that identified many of the Russian hooligans as belonging to the armed forces, led Whitehall to speculate that the groups had been sanctioned by the Kremlin. Concern regarding repeats of such scenes were brought back by the broadcast of a BBC documentary which warned of a “festival of violence” awaiting fans brave enough to travel to the World Cup.

Russian football fans, acutely aware of how they are being perceived, were highly critical of the documentary, stating that they were being misrepresented and that ultras/hooligans only represented a small minority just as in many other nations. Indeed, such rhetoric does compound issues in the psyche of the Russian populace that they are unfairly treated by the West. Highlighted here is a paradigm that is important to fan safety and enjoyment during the World Cup. Russian hooligans by any metric only constitute a minority; most Russian fans are law abiding and have a positive outlook and dearly wish the World Cup to be a success. That being said, it is clear that if any person is to scratch the surface, they will find a nationalistic outlook underneath the welcoming veneer.

Fans travelling to Russia this year will do well then to treat Russia and its people just how they would like to be treated in turn. Hence singing offensive songs, lewd behaviour and so on are likely to draw ire. Be wary when taking pictures of officious places (and people) as you are likely to draw police attention.The Kremlin certainly has the capability and expertise to ensure hooliganism does not rear its head during the tournament. A raft of anti-hooligan laws and stadium bans for known offenders is backed by a tight grip on the larger groups of ultras by the FSB intelligence network. A well drilled police force and wide scale CCTV coverage threaten costly convictions to any that would try and test the peace. Soon after the events in Marseilles, Aleksandr Shprygin, alleged leader of the All-Russia Supporters Union – a group with links to the neo-Nazi movement – was detained by police and his car was destroyed by arson, an act widely thought to have sent a message telling ultras to keep their heads down during the World Cup.

The actual fear, in the minds of some is that the hooligans will be let loose and set upon the English, especially considering the diplomatic fallout following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter and the resultant expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats by the UK and its allies. There is hope that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will be an effective mediator and draw the issue to an amiable conclusion. Meanwhile, it’s probably best not to have loud conversations about political matters in public places whilst enjoying the festivities.

Still, should a traveller find themselves in the middle of a riot, there are ways to mitigate risks. Firstly, if you are in a group it is a good idea to arrange a meeting place if you get separated. Take pictures of each other so you know what clothing to look out for. On the subject of clothing, consider wearing something that can mark you as neutral if fighting does occur, take a plain jacket that can go over a football top for instance. In large crowds be aware of possible points of exit; often in large crowds it is easier to move with the mass of people and towards a side-street. Don’t run unless absolutely necessary as it might draw attention or cause panic. Calmly edge your way towards the outer section of the crowd in a perpendicular manner. If you are unable to get away from a riot area or must avoid projectiles being thrown, try ducking into cafes, shops and so on until the crowd calms or dissipates. Riots can spark abruptly, large groups of people may feed off each other, and when frustrated or excited it may only take one person to throw a bottle before the streets are covered in smashed glass and people nursing injuries.

As always, the best-case scenario is to avoid such situations completely, use your intuition and if you feel something is not right, exit the area. Try to comply with police where needed: authorities have promised that a large cadre of ‘tourist police’ who are able to speak a variety of languages will be in attendance at all large events. Although drinking is seen to be part of English football culture, and Russia famously classified beer as a soft drink until 2011, moderation is strongly advised. It may just prevent you from becoming an easy target or even a participant in crime. If charged and convicted of hooliganism, the minimum jail sentence involves 8-15 years imprisonment, and the Russian justice system is known for severity and strictness.

Street Crime

Beyond the football specific threat, street crime and petty theft are not uncommon. Much like in Barcelona or Rome, pick-pockets and distraction thieves are present in places where there are large crowds. St. Petersburg in particular is known to have a significant problem with this, as are public transport hubs like the Moscow Metro. Some may find it a little nerdy, but a money belt is useful for keeping your important items, it makes life easy for you and hard for pick-pockets as you get to relax a little more and they will simply look for easier targets. Similarly, scams and confidence tricks do appear with tremendous variety in Russia. As ever… never exchange currency with street vendors, look out for card skimmers on ATMs, don’t put your bag down, never hand your passport to someone unless you know with 100% certainty who they are, and if something seems too good to be true… it usually is.

Discrimination and The Risk of Terrorism

There are specific dangers too, especially for those who may by way of ethnicity or lifestyle fall victim to a notable wave of anti-gay and racist sentiment coursing through Russia at this time. Although it is not illegal to be gay in Russia, the ratification of a law forbidding “gay propaganda” was brought about in 2013 and was widely condemned by civil rights bodies. Some bodies have advised that LGBT people at the Russian World Cup should refrain from making public displays of affection, even going so far as to suggest hand-holding will be too much. Counter to this, anti-discrimination chief, Alexei Smertin, has dismissed fears over racism and homophobia towards fans and has even suggested that rainbow flags will not be banned at matches.

Unfortunately, racism continues to rear its head in Russian football. Investigations by Russia-based SOVA showed there were 89 racist and far-right incidents at games in the 2016/17 season. Just this March, French player Paul Pogba was targeted with offensive chants during a 3-1 friendly in Saint Petersburg. Islamophobia also poses difficulties, especially in cities hosting large amounts of exuberant fans from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Again, the propensity for trouble is largely dependent on the will of the Russian Federation and FIFA to address this issue. Russia’s relationship with Islam is inexorably linked to its foreign policy, which has been incredibly fraught following Putin’s scorched-earth offensive in Chechnya, ordered in 1999 when still Prime Minister. More recently, Russian involvement in Syria has led to estimations that between 2,000 and 4,000 fighters from Central Asia now live in the country. The threat of terrorism, in turn, looms over Russia and its large events. Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, recently declared that attacks were prevented at the warm up Confederations Cup.

Vigilance is the best defence in all aforementioned dangers. That being said it can be mentally and physically draining to be on your guard for hours on end, and after all, that is going to detract from the experience. Priavo Security have an expert team of bi-lingual armed and unarmed, trusted Close Protection Operatives. Accommodation, route reconnaissance, recreational activity and every other detail surrounding your itinerary will be inspected, checked and vetted. And our operatives will remain with you and your party 24 hours a day, providing intelligence updates and accommodating any changes as they arise. If requested, female operatives and family chaperones can be provided for wives and children. Operatives are experienced and dedicated enough to pick up on signs of danger long before it threatens you or your travelling companions. All you will have to worry about is culture, cuisine and the kick-about.

Cyber-Safety

We all know there is a precedent for spying in the land of the bear, a pop-culture mainstay and a spectre of the Cold War. Today, cyber-security has particular characteristics in Russia. FIFA recently highlighted the potential hacking threat, and warned players not to use public wi-fi. Any information you store and transmit can be readily stolen, placing finances, privacy, business interests and reputation at risk. This is particularly relevant to those working in STEM fields, politics, the media or those in the upper echelons of large businesses and financial institutions. For determined hackers, even strong and up-to-date commercial software is unlikely to be a deterrent and if you are known to have some extremely sensitive or useful information you may be forced into embarrassing situations and extorted. Laptops, phones and other devices may be subject to involuntary search and / or duplication by Russian authorities, and encrypted devices may be seized. In light of this, do not use your everyday work or personal devices; it may be better to use a cheap laptop or pay-as-you-go mobile, and even set up a throwaway e-mail address. Try not to charge phones through unknown USB ports, as they might be exchanging more than just power. Unless an expert on the matter, cyber-safety in Russia can be extremely complex. In truth the less you can do online and electronically the better, however, if you are looking to continue business or are looking to secure a lucrative contract in between matches this summer, Priavo Cyber services protect information and minimise the compromise of sensitive information on mobiles and tablets during global travel.

The 2018 World Cup looks like it will offer unforgettable adventure and experiences. Yet we live in interesting times, and against the backdrop of political unsteadiness, undoubtedly there are safety and World Cup security concerns. Being fully prepared to understand and anticipate the nuances of Russia is key to having a safe and enjoyable trip – one that Priavo can help you to enjoy. We have years of high-level security experience working across every situation for a wide variety of clients across the globe. We always begin our work by carrying out a comprehensive travel risk analysis covering you, your entourage and your itinerary. Once we’ve assessed your trip, we’ll present, advise and provide the most appropriate level and type of security to keep you as safe as possible.

To find out how our experienced security teams can help you and your party travel safely to the Games in Russia, contact Priavo today.