The Caucasus Question in Russian Football

Anzhi Makhachkala celebrate

Sometimes football rivalry can go further than just fans’s distaste for other clubs and their traditions. False Nine Russian correspondent, Andy Shenk, looks at the Caucasus region in Russia and how the area’s recent success in football has exacerbated further tensions between ethnic Russians and their mountainous compatriots…

For many in the United States, Russia brings to mind only cold Siberian steppes and grey old women in frumpy grey overcoats. The stereotype is as propaganda-driven as Russia’s perception of America as one big dissolute reality TV show.

For those who have seen more of Russia than the old Soviet-era video clips, today’s Russian Federation bursts with colour, beginning with Moscow’s glitzy downtown and ending, for some, in the gorgeous Caucasus Mountains that flank Russia’s south-western border, strung between the Caspian and Black Seas.

Some is the key word, for many have little knowledge of the ethnic diversity dotting Europe’s highest mountain range. The northern Caucasus Mountains, home to about 40 distinct languages and people groups, only came under Russian control in the late 18th-19th centuries. Though Russian soldiers fought in the area for most of a century, there were few others who ventured into the region. Through the journals kept by military men and curious academics, however, the mountains gained an exotic reputation in the rest of the country. It was a place populated by fearless horsemen, vengeful warriors and beautiful Eastern women. The Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, stationed in the northern foothills of the Caucasus in 1837, wrote to a friend about his travels: “I dressed like a Cherkess [native], with a gun over my shoulder; we slept in the open fields, went to sleep to the howls of jackals, ate pitas, and even tried the local drink.” Quite a far cry from his noble upbringing in the capital of St. Petersburg.

Russian settlements were established in the mountain passes and on the coasts, but the high ranges between them were regarded warily, their inhabitants considered wild and uncivilized. In the 20th century, the stereotypes lessened thanks to the Soviet Union’s introduction of universal education and industrialization, but the cultural suspicions between the mountains in the south and the wide-open Russian heartland persist today.

Within the international sports community, Russia’s North Caucasus region has become renowned for its wrestlers, judokas, and boxers. In the 2012 London Olympics, the region sent almost 30 athletes to the Games and returned with four gold, five silver, and four bronze medals. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the region won 11 medals, including six gold. Given that the population of the North Caucasus today is only seven million, or 5% of the total population of the Russian Federation, their contributions to the Russian medal count (approximately 15% of all medals won) is widely discussed in the country.

Lucrative deal: Ruud Gullit signs as manager for Caucasus club, Terek Grozny, seen flanked here by Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov

Lucrative deal: Ruud Gullit signs as manager for Caucasus club, Terek Grozny, in 2011, seen flanked here by Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov

Still, it came as a shock when Russia’s top football flight, the Premier League, began to fill up with North Caucasus teams – Alania Vladikavzav, Anzhi Makhachkala, Spartak Nalchik, and Terek Grozny. The Russian sports world respected the Caucasian dominance on the wrestling mat, but didn’t expect an invasion of the football pitch.

The Russian Premier League, and the Soviet league that preceded it, has always been dominated by Moscow clubs. They won 33 of 53 Soviet titles, including the first 22 contested. Of the 20 that went elsewhere than Moscow, only four belonged to clubs not based in the capital of a Soviet republic: Zarya in 1972, Dnepr in 1983 and 1988, and Zenit in 1984. Dnepr and Zarya both now compete in the Ukrainian leagues, meaning only one Russian club from outside of Moscow ever won the Soviet league.

The break-up of the Soviet Union helped the smaller Russian clubs compete, but the hegemony at the top remained strong. Alania Vladikavkaz, from the center of the North Caucasus, broke through, winning the Russian Premier League in 1995, but it would be another 12 years until Zenit St. Petersburg wrestled the title once again from Moscow. Since their ascendance they’ve split honors with Rubin Kazan, shutting the Moscow clubs out for a remarkable five seasons, the longest stretch in which the capital city has been without a champion since 1982-1986.

Though Zenit and Rubin’s achievements were naturally upsetting to Moscow football fans, their greatest indignation has been saved for the representatives from the North Caucasus. In 2010, for the first time, all four Caucasus clubs, representing the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, competed in the Russian Premier League at the same time.

The hostility toward the Caucasus stems less from their football success, Alania’s championship notwithstanding, and more from underlying political and ethnic tension. The mountains are most known for the bloody conflicts that erupted there in the 1980s and 1990s, which sent thousands of young, ethnic Russian soldiers to their deaths, as well as innocent civilians in the republics. A few high-profile suicide bombings in Moscow in the last decade, carried out by Caucasus natives, have also hurt the region’s image.

That violent reputation, coupled with immigration to Russia’s heartland, most often Moscow and St. Petersburg, forced by high unemployment rates, has made the North Caucasus daily fodder for Russia’s media and blogosphere.

The anger, it should be noted, flows in both directions. Caucasus immigrants to Moscow and other large Russian cities regularly report racial profiling by the police (people from the Caucasus generally have a darker skin tone than Slavic peoples), job discrimination based on their recognizable last names, difficulty finding apartments to rent, and indiscriminate violence at the hands of ultranationalists.

Politicians and nationalists, meanwhile, accuse the southerners of fostering criminal activity in the cities where they settle and disrespect for the local culture. Alongside that, ethnic Russians complain of poor treatment in the Caucasus republics.

Though only a minority on each side calls for violence, deportations, or rebellion as a solution, the stereotypes formed by the media and through informal communication have taken hold. Ethnic Russians, in many immigrants’ eyes are racists, while the immigrants are viewed as disrespectful, or even worse, intent on denigrating traditional Russian society.

Caucasus breakthrough: Alania Vladikavkaz, pictured in 2012, won the 1995 Russian Premier League title

Caucasus breakthrough: Alania Vladikavkaz, pictured in 2012, won the 1995 Russian Premier League title

The tension often finds its most public face in football matches between Caucasus and Moscow clubs, as well as St. Petersburg’s Zenit. Spartak, CSKA, Lokomotiv, Dinamo and Zenit are not only Russia’s most successful clubs, but also reside in cities that have welcomed hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Caucasus. With the biggest fan bases in the country to match their success, they serve as the primary antagonists of the southern upstarts. Fan hostility in matches between Caucasus clubs and provincial Russian sides such as Krylia Sovetov and Rostov is also common, but the intensity on both sides tends to be less. There simply isn’t as much there to provoke conflict, whether it’s fewer Caucasus immigrants in those cities or the smaller ambitions and fan support of the provincial clubs.

On the football side of the argument, the Caucasus teams are most often criticized for building glitzy squads with federal money. Indeed, due to high unemployment, corruption, and limited sources of revenue, the Caucasus republics receive large amounts of federal support every year, money, which critics argue, should be spent in the regions that earned it, or, at the least, used for education and healthcare rather than the maintenance of wealthy football stars.

Though common practice in Russia for clubs unable to attract a private sponsor, none of the Caucasus teams currently in the Premier League, Alania, Anzhi, and Terek, are officially funded by their local government. Anzhi, beginning in 2011, is backed by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, Terek’s sponsor is wealthy Moscow businessman Telman Ismailov, while Alania secured the support of hydroelectric company RusGidro prior to the start of the 2012 season.

Alania did survive on a local budget from 2005-2011 and many suspect that Terek receive considerable support from Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s administration, nonetheless, several other Premier League clubs – Amkar, Rostov, Volga Nizhny Novgorod, Mordovia, and Rubin also enjoy significant, if not total backing from their government.

A political rally on April 23, 2011 in Moscow, headlined “Quit Feeding the Caucasus,” a popular refrain for ethnic Russians upset by the federal money sent to the region, included a final football-related resolution: “We demand a significant reduction in the money given to the North Caucasus football clubs given that the safety of fans from the rest of Russia cannot be guaranteed during travel to away games in the Caucasus region.”

A month later, several fan clubs, including Spartak’s Fratria, announced a boycott of away games in the Caucasus: “Every year,” read the statement from Fratria, “while attending away games in the Caucasus, fans face direct danger to their life and health…. We often hear that ‘all the children of the big football family’ in Russia are treated identically, but some ‘children’ are thrown out in the cold, while others are coddled and promoted!”

The boycotts received significant play in the media, with the responses from Russian football authorities and Caucasus fan clubs descriptive of the dynamics between various parties.

Dmitry Reisikh, head of Alania’s fan club Alanskie Barsy: “I think the boycott is strictly political. If someone wants to gain influence ahead of some big events in the country, that’s their issue.” Ramazan Gaziev of Anzhi’s fan club Wild Division took a different tack, “We’re happy about this – now true fans of football and their teams will start coming to us [to matches in Makhachkala] – people who could care less about this move.”

Then-president of the Russian Football Union Sergey Fursenko reacted negatively to the boycotts, “We’re broadminded people, which is why I find it strange that our teams are being sorted by their ethnic origins.”

"Broadminded people": Ex-President of the Russian Football Union, Sergey Fursenko, sees no reason for fans to boycott games in the Caucasus

“Broadminded people”: Ex-President of the Russian Football Union, Sergey Fursenko, sees no reason for fans to boycott games in the Caucasus

Since the summer of 2011, conflicts have continued to periodically erupt. Both sides continue to complain of ill treatment during away games by the home fans and local police. Anzhi, forced by UEFA to play their 2012/2013 Europa League home games in Moscow, a decision which Zenit’s largest fan club, Landscrona, officially endorsed, witnessed an united attempt by the Moscow fan clubs to disrupt one of the games. Zenit fans, following their latest trip to Makhachkala last August, reported that two of their fans were savagely beaten after the game by stadium officials. With hotheads on both sides willing to commit excesses, both camps have legitimate complaints and both feel they are stereotyped unfairly by the media.

Russian society at large has little love for its football hooligans, Caucasian or not, which is reflected in the public dialogue. The boycotts and skirmishes are seen as little more than the actions of addle-brained youth with nothing better to do. That general distaste carries over to the public’s attitude toward the Russian domestic game as a whole, which suffers from abysmal attendance at stadiums and tiny TV ratings.

The conflict has raised two significant issues for fans of the Moscow and St. Petersburg clubs. First, the fan clubs’ attitudes toward one another. Traditionally hostile – “ultras” from the clubs often fight and violence can break out between regular fans on match days – the fan clubs have nonetheless united over their opposition of the Caucasus. Their long-standing enmity stands in contrast to the Caucasus fan clubs, which enjoy naturally close ties. At matches between their teams, fans are friendly and it’s not uncommon for them to travel to support other Caucasus clubs in important contests.

Second, and somewhat incidentally, the three clubs representing the Caucasus in the Premier League this season, Alania, Anzhi, and Terek, are also led by three of Russia’s most recognizable coaches: Valery Gazzaev, Guus Hiddink, and Stanislav Cherchesov, respectively.

The first two once coached Russia’s national team, while Cherchesov earned fame in the early 1990s as Spartak Moscow’s starting goalie and later managed the historic club from 2007-2008. Though Cherchesov struggled during his turn at the helm of Spartak, he is still regarded as a club legend, having won several league titles during his time on the pitch. Gazzaev and Hiddink, meanwhile, may well be Russia’s two most successful and popular coaches since Oleg Romantsev’s run with Spartak in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gazzaev led CSKA to three league titles and a UEFA Cup championship from 2003-2006, while Hiddink took the Russian national team to their best international finish in the post-Soviet period, a bronze medal at Euro 2008. With Terek tied for fourth in the league this season, 19 games into a 30-game season, Cherchesov’s star is also on the rise once again.

Unsurprisingly, even their reputations have done little to calm relations between fan clubs. The indignation on each side runs deep, deeper than any soothing words from a famous coach, player, or Russian Football Union chief can assuage. Caucasus fans, as a minority in Russia’s football world, want their place at the table to be respected. Their opponents, however, view their presence as an encroachment, even an attack on their rights and honor. Neither side may profess to be political, but their conflict illuminates a divisive debate in today’s Russian Federation over the Caucasus’s place in society.

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