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As the International Olympic Committee and the government of Japan debated whether the COVID-19 pandemic would force the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics, another major event was taking place in the world of international sport. For the first time, the US Department of Justice publicly accused Russia and Qatar of bribing officials from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to secure the World Cup.

The accusation came as part of an indictment of two media executives formerly employed by 21st Century Fox; a former executive of the Spanish media company Imagina Media Audiovisual SL; and an Uruguayan sports marketing company called Full Play Group SA. Each of these had allegedly paid bribes to secure broadcasting rights. It marked the first time that the Justice Department had so explicitly pointed the finger at Russia and signals a potential escalation in the approach of US law enforcement to Russian corruption.

The 2015 investigation of FIFA that spawned the indictment was groundbreaking. It uncovered massive bribery and corruption within FIFA and led to the indictment of more than twenty-five FIFA officials, businessmen, and corporations. While a number of these individuals have since faced legal consequences for accepting bribes, corrupt officials in Russia and other foreign countries embroiled in the scandal have yet to face justice. This is because cases built against these individuals must be developed with the utmost discretion. If an individual knows that they are under indictment, they will cease to travel, which in most cases precludes arrest.

Despite this risk, the Department of Justice decided to make its accusations against Russia and Qatar public. One potential catalyst for the shift in strategy could be recent allegations that the law enforcement agencies of Switzerland, where FIFA is based, were colluding with corrupt FIFA officials. In this case, Swiss law enforcement may have tipped off FIFA officials about possible indictments; the FIFA officials in turn may have tipped off kleptocrats. If FIFA officials informed Russian kleptocrats that they were being targeted by the investigation, openly accusing Russian officials of bribery may have helped the Justice Department cut its losses. At that point, those officials would not be traveling anyway for fear of arrest. With that course of action no longer available, a public accusation of bribery became a second-best option.

In addition, Russian officials likely recognize that the risk of facing a Justice Department indictment is greater now than ever before. If a crime committed abroad directly affects the United States, a US connection will be recognized; those individuals may be indicted even if they are not on the territory of the United States. For example, US officials recently indicted fourteen current and former officials of the Venezuelan government, including Nicolas Maduro, for money-laundering and drug-trafficking crimes. These actions could portend future actions against Russia on account of its malfeasance in international sport.

US athletes spend countless hours preparing for competitions, and US corporations spend fortunes purchasing broadcasting rights to reap advertising revenue. When these competitions are tainted through corruption, both athletes and corporations are defrauded. Indeed, as seen in this most recent indictment, US companies like 21st Century Fox may become embroiled in a bribery scandal and so face indictment themselves.

A New Avenue for Fighting Russian Corruption?
It has become clear that the international organizations corrupted by Russia will not be able to clean up internally but rather must be taken on from the outside. Governance committees and reform efforts have failed, having largely served as ways for these organizations to make it appear as though they were handling the issue internally while continuing to operate as before.

For example, during the Russian doping scandal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, hundreds of athletes were defrauded by Russia’s systematic doping scheme. Despite an international outcry, more than five years later, no Russian officials have faced legal penalties, and a serious blanket ban still has not been imposed on Russia by the international sport governance structure. Only a partial ban was implemented; Russian athletes remain eligible to compete.

Russia has even attempted to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to overturn its partial ban, which the country has appealed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, claiming that “we’re living in completely different conditions” and “the main thing right now is to be together.”

Russia views victory in international sport as a propaganda opportunity and a chance to sell itself as a functioning member of the international community. This view, common among authoritarian states, has a long history going back at least to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. Russia’s calculus with respect to deploying corruption in international sport will change only when the price truly becomes too high to justify it. The recent actions by the Justice Department are the first real increase in that price, perhaps the first such move in the history of international sport.

As US authorities demonstrate a willingness to pursue Russian malfeasance aggressively through legal avenues, it remains vital to equip the Department of Justice with the tools it needs to complete this task effectively. In January 2019, Helsinki Commissioner Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), along with former Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-26) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-18), introduced the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act to provide the Department of Justice with the authority to investigate and prosecute doping fraud in international competitions.

Currently, doping is technically legal under US law, although it is against the agreed-upon rules of international competition. The Rodchenkov Act would redefine systematic doping as fraud. Fundamentally, cheating athletes and corporations out of their hard-earned gains via doping is no different from doing so through mail and wire fraud, computer hacking, bribery, or other acts of corruption.

Recent efforts by the Department of Justice to tackle Russian corruption in international sport have been perhaps the most comprehensive and complex initiative to counter Russia’s use of corruption as foreign policy. The global scope of this model, as well as its ambition to root authoritarian corruption out of an international organization, could lay the groundwork for further global anticorruption enforcement.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Paul Massaro

Policy Adviser, US Helsinki Commission
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more