For over three weeks now Russia has dominated international headlines as host of one of the biggest sporting tournaments, 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Russian nation takes great pride in hosting prestigious events, including the Olympic Games and Eurovision. The government welcomes these sentiments and uses international events as a soft power tool to legitimise its foreign policy actions and improve Russia’s international image.

This year’s World Cup has also come at a convenient time for the Kremlin; who has ostensibly used it as a distraction from a series of painful, but much needed, reforms.

Since the start of the tournament, the Russian government has announced a large-scale pension reform (which includes a significant increase in retirement age), an increase in VAT, as well as an increase in various tariffs - from customs duties on purchases from foreign online retailers to an increase in tariffs on travel passports and driving licenses.

Unsurprisingly (but perhaps contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations), the propositions led to public outcry. The increase in retirement age was met with particularly strong opposition, with the latest polls showing that 89% of Russians condemned the reform (Interfax, 05.07.2018).

As a result, President Putin’s approval ratings suffered a record plunge (by 14% in two weeks) (The Bell, 29.06.2018).

The negative response turned out to be so strong that the Kremlin – it has been reported – opened an informal public relations group to overcome the negative public attitude to the pension reforms (Vedomosti, 05.07.2018). Meanwhile, actual protests against the pension reform began on the 1st of July and took place in over 30 cities across Russia (apart from the cities that host the World Cup games, where protests have been delayed). More protests are scheduled for the rest of the month.