Putin and the FIFA scandal

The Russian president’s reaction to the corruption charges is part of a battle over global rules of political order.

Vladimir Putin has emerged as the most high-level and vocal public backer of FIFA’s discredited leadership. Putin’s comment that US indictments of FIFA officials were “yet another blatant attempt [by the United States] to extend its jurisdiction to other states” raised eyebrows on both shores of the Atlantic. Most people, however, explained Putin’s criticism as a desire to make sure that nothing endangers Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup – the right that had already come under intense criticism due to Russian actions in Ukraine, and that could in theory be reviewed in the course of a criminal investigation that the Swiss authorities have opened into FIFA corruption.

However, while the World Cup is certainly important for Moscow, and any reversal of the decision to award it to Russia would be a humiliating blow, for Putin the scandal is in fact about much more than the World Cup. It is – as he said – about global, though in this case informal, rules of the game; the rights to set those rules, to enforce them, and the extent of their jurisdictional boundaries.

Putin’s vision of order

For Putin, few things are less acceptable than the absence of authority over a territory.

For Putin, few things are less acceptable than the absence of authority over a territory. Not necessarily his authority – contrary to what many would say these days, Putin is not bent on ruling the world, or even much of Europe – but absence of a clear authority as such. This is why Putin demonizes the memory of the 1990s in Russia. That merry, wild and hard time, when authoritarianism had collapsed, but no alternative system had yet taken root, was dangerous in his eyes, almost like a car without a steering wheel. This is also why Putin’s Russia has been an adamant supporter of the Assad regime in Syria – not because of the old ties to the Assad family, but because the alternative looks set to be anarchy. This is also the source of much of the anti-American rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin: America, with its sympathy towards democracy and liberal revolutions, is seen as sowing dangerous chaos in the world, whether through incompetence or hostile intent.

In Putin’s statements over many years, the quest for both internal and international order emerges as a silver thread. Order is understood as the ultimate goal as well as justification of state authority, and control is the tool of the rulers, in the service of order. Therefore, destabilization of order and attempts to erode the rulers’ control over the ruled are seen as hostile actions – and, consequently, they can be used as hostile actions against enemies or challengers, if a situation calls for it.

Moscow sincerely thinks that Western countries’ judicial systems are in some hidden ways subordinate to the state.

This notion of order has some special features that are characteristic of much of Russia’s thinking. It tends to be tilted towards absolute rule: while Moscow’s mindset can well understand crude or informal power balances, it often struggles to understand formal, institutional ones. Moscow sincerely thinks that Western countries’ judicial systems are in some hidden ways subordinate to the state, the way they are in Russia, and that the Western media carries the governments’ messages.  In other words, Moscow’s view of order is very state-centric. And not only state-centric, but big state-centric: a persistent strand in Russian thinking maintains that only big states can be truly sovereign, while smaller ones are inevitably “vassal states,” underlings of some big power.

Corruption as a tool of control

And this brings us to the role of corruption. In this struggle to impose order on a stubbornly chaotic world, corruption is an invaluable tool. Corruption enables rulers to create hierarchies and structure, to establish allegiances both inside the country as well as beyond its borders.  In this context, controlled and sanctioned corruption ceases to be a breach of rules, and instead becomes a constituent pillar of the system, a principle to be cherished and defended. With some exaggeration, one could say that in Putin’s system corruption plays a role similar to that of the media freedom in the West: it is a tool in the hands of the dominant power.  If a free press in the West is a means by which societies can control their elites and rulers, then in Russia corruption is the means by which the Kremlin can control the elites as well as societies. It is used in an almost institutionalized manner.

A good illustration is a story told in Moscow’s political circles about one opposition leader’s exchange with the Kremlin operators. It was still the era of “managed democracy,” and the Kremlin had decided that a moderate success of this opposition party at the elections would benefit the political landscape as whole. So they came to offer cooperation. The conversation had nearly concluded, when the Kremlin’s delegation remembered one more thing: “Oh, Mister Y, and we need you to accept a bribe from us!” “But what for,” asked Y, astonished. “Oh, does not matter, anything will do,” was the reply.  “We simply need to have some compromising evidence on you, just to be on the safe side.”

For the Kremlin, corruption has been a reliable means of keeping control over all meaningful elites.

It is not important whether this story is actually true: it certainly could have happened. For the Kremlin, corruption has been a reliable means of keeping control over all meaningful elites – economic, political, municipal, media, even intellectual. It is the basis of much upward mobility in Russia. In the clientelist system, loyalty rather than merit is rewarded, and access to illicit wealth is the reward as well as guarantee of continuing loyalty. If one is not motivated by personal wealth, then access to power, institutions or resources – a general opportunity to accomplish something in the society – plays the same role.

Needless to say, for Moscow corruption is also a means of extending its influence abroad: sometimes, other countries’ leaders can be bought, but more often, other countries’ homegrown corruption can be used as an entry-point to expand one’s leverage.

The clash of clientelist networks

However, while the West promotes media freedom as a universal value, Russia certainly does not promote corruption in the same way. The reason is not only that this would be hard to do with a straight face, or even that in a totally corruption-based world Russia would not necessarily emerge as the winner. For Russia, corruption also serves as a sensitive friend or foe indication system (IFF in military parlance). This operates on two levels. The people – or companies or countries – that do not engage in corruption are clearly alien elements to the system. What happens to them depends on the circumstances. If they are dangerous, they will be marginalized or isolated, even destroyed. If they are not, they will survive and maybe even command some respect and autonomy. In some cases they will be classified as “vassals” of another big power – and then they will enjoy even some immunity, almost like diplomats.

The slightly mafia-style concept of “someone’s people” is a distinct feature of the Russian system.

It is more interesting, however, how the relations between rival clientelist networks operate.  Even though the Kremlin has the supreme authority, smaller players have some autonomy – and they have “their people.” The slightly mafia-style concept of “someone’s people” is also a distinct feature of the Russian system. During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, for example, Moscow was immersed in speculations about how many of “his people” Medvedev was allowed to bring to the Kremlin and how much of his staff remained “Putin’s people.” When, after Putin’s return to power and the general downfall of the liberal forces, “the people” of some former liberal members of government were fired and remained unemployed, with their patrons not able to help them, this was a sign of serious change.

“The people” can also themselves break with the patron, but that is risky and usually happens only when the patron’s fall from grace and power seems certain. The former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov lost all “his people” in a matter of days when it became evident that the Kremlin intended to fire him. Former President Boris Yeltsin’s people also defected to the camp of leadership contenders Yury Luzhkov and Yevgeni Primakov in the fall of 1999 – but that was a mistake. The remaining “Kremlin’s people” managed to bring Putin to power, and it took the defectors years to re-establish their positions.

Things get really tense if one tries to discipline or demote someone’s “people” without the patron’s sanction. This is equivalent to the declaration or at least the threat of war – and the target needs to react quickly. Sometimes the situation can be resolved through negotiations; sometimes the “balance of power” is restored with the help of third powers, i.e. fellow patrons; sometimes intervention from the highest-ranking arbiter – Putin himself – is needed. If peace cannot be restored, then clan warfare will break out. Russia saw much of this in the 1990s. Later it became evident that open internal feuds endanger the system as a whole, so in the new century, in Putin’s times, conflicts have more often been prevented or resolved behind the scenes. But not always – the latest incident of inter-clan clash happened very recently, when the Federal Security Service and the Chechen leadership clashed after – and possibly over – Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

As suggested above, Russia’s clientelist relationships extend well beyond its borders. For example Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych was clearly a “Russia’s person” in Moscow’s eyes – if not by convictions, then certainly by virtue of his corrupt relationships and the ties that these created. Yanukovych’s talks with the EU were therefore viewed by Moscow not even as a rebellion by Yanukovych, but as a hostile takeover attempt by the West, which, as far as Moscow is concerned, eventually succeeded.

For the purposes of the situation, FIFA officials were “Russia’s people,” and Western authorities had launched an attack on them.

This system explains why Putin reacted to the FIFA scandal as he did. It is hard to say whether Russia bribed FIFA; however it is evident that an implicit but very clear mutual understanding was established between Russia’s and FIFA’s leadership. So for the purposes of the situation, FIFA officials were “Russia’s people,” and Western authorities had launched an attack on them. For Putin, that means effectively an attack on Russia – an attempt to impose alien rules if not exactly within Russia’s jurisdictional boundaries, then at least in the sphere where rules established by Russia carry the day. So indeed Putin could not have been clearer: it really was a “blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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