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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Russia Wins by Learning from Foreigners

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

Economists and investors like talking about the BRIC countries, meaning Brazil, Russia, India and China. Besides making a clever acronym, it would seem that the four don't have a lot in common as far as history, culture or economic structure is concerned.

But the BRIC countries are all vast landmasses occupied by large populations with relatively low per-capita incomes that have enjoyed rapid economic growth over the past decade. In addition, they are drawing closer together. Look at the young players on the Russian football team who embarrassed established European powers and thrilled fans in Austria and Switzerland.

Despite its loss to Spain in the semifinal, Russia's fantastic performance at the European football championship united the nation and brought overjoyed fans to the streets. But sports is never free of politics -- especially not among former Cold War powers, who for four decades after World War II fought proxy battles at Olympic stadiums and ice rinks around the world. There has been a persistent drumbeat in the pro-government Russian media implying that the team's success -- combined with a win earlier this year at the World Hockey Championship in Quebec and Zenit victory in the UEFA Cup, as well as the first-place finish by singer Dima Bilan on Eurovision -- are somehow the result of Vladimir Putin's eight years as president.

The myth being promulgated by the Kremlin describes Russia as downtrodden when democrats were in power in the 1990s. State assets were squandered and sinister elements abroad conspired to keep Russia weak. But now, under Putin's firm and wise leadership, Russia has risen from its knees. It is rich, economically powerful, politically stable and once more respected by foreigners. Is it a surprise that sports victories have followed?

But in recent history, there is little connection between sporting success and economic prosperity or political stability. Argentina won its two football World Cups in 1978 and 1986, when the country was oppressed by a military junta and struggled with hyperinflation. Moreover, midway between its two football victories, the country experienced a disastrous military misadventure in the Falklands.

Brazilians, meanwhile, have been playing football with a little less dazzle since they began their current spurt of economic growth around 2002. Universal favorites, they failed to make it to the final of the 2006 World Cup.

In Russia, the success of its football team makes a mockery of the Kremlin's political doctrine. Its leaders never tire of talking of the country's special historic path. They reject Western experience and denounce its model for democratic society and a market economy. Russia, they claim, is sui generis -- it needs its own "sovereign democracy" as well as an economy that is dominated by the state and managed by bureaucrats.

Yet, the football team won because Guus Hiddink, a world-class coach with a proven international track record, was brought in, not some corrupt nincompoop with Leningrad ties to Putin.

Another myth is that Russia is finally reclaiming the Soviet-era grandeur. This is nonsense. Watching Russian fans nowadays brings tears to my eyes when I compare them with what Soviet fans used to look like at international competitions. Only two decades ago, they were shabby, uptight and frightened members of tiny delegations -- hand-picked by the Komsomol after a lengthy vetting process. They got puny amounts of hard currency, which they scrupulously saved, eating canned fish in their hotel rooms so that they could buy Western goods anywhere they could. They sat sheepishly in their seats and chanted half-heartedly when prompted by their brooding KGB chaperones.

Russia has indeed risen from its knees. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it didn't happened under President Vladimir Putin, but in 1991, when it sent communism to the dust heap of history.

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