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Why Putin's protecting his sports minister

Roman Goncharenko / msh
July 20, 2016

A damning report over state-run doping is heaping pressure on Russia's sports minister. But President Vladimir Putin is sticking by his old St. Petersburg pal, Vitaly Mutko. The pair go back more than two decades.

Russland Putin und Mutko
Vitaly Mutko (l.) and Vladimir Putin have worked together for more than two decadesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Druzhinin

For the liberal Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-commissioned report is "devastating," describing a doping system for Russian athletes "dictated by the state." The paper notes that this verdict is brutal, tells only part of the tale, and is not free of a political component. Nevertheless, it reports that the report is justified, because "Russia has given too many causes for complaint."

If the world of sport or the International Olympic Committee is looking for confessions or contrition, though, "you have come to the wrong people," the Kremlin-critical paper asserts.

Kremlin takes Mutko under its wing

Perhaps heading this list of the wrong people is Vitaly Mutko, the 57-year-old sports minister. His name appears more than 20 times in the 100-page report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren - although the most senior accusations are all leveled at Mutko's subordinates.

The sports minister is also the president of Russia's RFS football federation and a member of FIFA's executive committee. Russia is hosting the 2018 World Cup yet McLaren's report alleges Mutko was directly involved in covering up a footballer's positive doping test. WADA's board of directors therefore called on FIFA's ethics committee to investigate.

Russland Olympia Sochi Putin
Sochi 2014 - the most expensive Olympics ever - were a key PR event for the KremlinImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Zemlianichenko

WADA President Craig Reedie also said that Russia's suspended RUSADA anti-doping agency will not be permitted to restart its work so long as Mutko remains in his post.

But a resignation currently looks unlikely. The sports minister has received support from the highest echelon.

"Mutko is not mentioned as an actual perpetrator [in McLaren's report]," President Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said this week. In his first statement on the matter, Putin himself did not mention Mutko's name. The president also sought to protect those officials he has provisionally suspended, saying that the report from WADA might be politically motivated.

How a sailor took charge of the sports ministry

So who is Vitaly Mutko and why is Putin sticking by him, despite these serious allegations? He hails from southern Russia and began his working life as a sailor in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg once more. He went to a technical college and studied at a domestic shipping institution. He soon moved into politics, quickly rising through the ranks to the position of deputy mayor in St. Petersburg by 1992. At that time, Vladimir Putin headed up the mayor's committee for external relations; and Putin would become first deputy head of the city administration in March 1994.

Putin and Mutko even joined forces to organize the first international sports event held in Russia since the Soviet Union's collapse, the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg.

In 1997, after Mayor Anatoly Sochak lost city elections, Mutko moved from politics into sport, becoming chairman of football club Zenit St. Petersburg. Current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev - yet another top dog at the Kremlin with roots in the city - supports Zenit.

Rußland England Fußball Zenit St. Petersburg gegen FC Liverpool
Zenit is among several clubs sponsored by Russian state oil giant Gazprom, whose international export arm is headquartered in St. PetersburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa

During his stint as club chairman, Mutko completed a correspondence law course at St. Petersburg's university, just when Medvedev was teaching there.

Once Putin was elected president, Mutko returned to politics, first as the chair of the sports committee in Russia. He has headed Russia's football federation since 2005 and has been sports minister since 2008. Putin, who likes to project an image of himself as a sports enthusiast, entrusted several key prestige projects to Mutko, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the successful 2018 World Cup bid.

When Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, Mutko's speech in English was well received, earning plenty of laughs and some support. His sentence "Let me speak from my heart," delivered with a thick Russian accent, has become a part of modern political lore in Moscow.

Mounting criticism, but no suspension

Mutko has faced plenty of criticism, and calls for him to quit, in recent years. FIFA came under fire in 2014 owing to allegations of corruption when awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. However, the organization's ethics committee cleared both countries, or rather failed to categorically prove wrongdoing. Mutko then came under pressure owing to the doping allegations against Russia's track and field outfit. In an interview with German broadcaster ARD earlier this year he dismissed any allegations: "It is impossible to hide anything," he told investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt, who had started the scandal rolling in 2014 with his initial revelations.

In the mean time, WADA has confirmed many of Seppelt's allegations. Yet the Russian sports minister's position still seems safe. So far, since the publication of McLaren's report, only Mutko's deputy and an adviser have been suspended from their jobs, pending a separate Russian investigation. Observers say that the close relationship between Mutko and Putin - who has bestowed several Russian honors on his longstanding ally - explains the inaction. Putin has a reputation as a politician who stands by his friends and doesn't abandon them: especially not when they're under pressure.

In Russian media, you don't find that many critical voices like the Novaya Gazeta. Most of the press mirror Putin's stance: WADA's report was politically motivated, and there's no state-sponsored doping system in Russia - despite individual instances - they say.

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