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Kick In The Grass: Angry Fans Mock At Ukrainian Soccer Player’s Transfer To Russia

There were problems in the Zenit defense, especially on the left. Management decided to buy a quality center back.

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The team witnessed significant improvements in the intervention school, relative to the control school, the researcher said.
Ukrainian politicians made a futile attempt in 2018 to get countries to boycott the World Cup, which was hosted by Russia. A Sports Ministry order the same year barred government financing for athletes while they take part in competitions in Russia. (Pixabay)

It’s one thing for a Ukrainian soccer club to lose a top defender, quite another to see him go to a top team in Russia.

So when Shakhtar Donetsk’s Yaroslav Rakitskyy signed with Zenit St. Petersburg, a rival team in a rival country, fans in Ukraine went ballistic.

His Instagram account was bombarded with abusive comments, most not fit to print, with many questioning his patriotism. Others said the 29-year-old, who has 54 caps with the national team, should never don Ukraine’s jersey again.

Rakitskyy, who has attracted criticism at home for his perceived lack of Ukrainian patriotism before, has stayed out of the fray. Zenit’s press service declined an interview request from Current Time, and a reporter for the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA was barred from a Zenit press conference on January 30 on the grounds that he didn’t represent professional sports media.

It would not be the first time the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has spilled over into sport.

Ukrainian politicians made a futile attempt in 2018 to get countries to boycott the World Cup, which was hosted by Russia. A Sports Ministry order the same year barred government financing for athletes while they take part in competitions in Russia.

The conflict in parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk — which has pitted Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian government forces and resulted in at least 10,300 deaths since 2014 — has hit Ukrainian soccer hard. Shakhtar has not played in its home region since the fighting started, and the country’s top league has shrunk from 16 to just 12 teams amid tough economic times.

Rakitskyy took flak in 2014 for his supposed reluctance to sing the national anthem while playing for Ukraine.
Rakitskyy took flak in 2014 for his supposed reluctance to sing the national anthem while playing for Ukraine. (RFERL)

Shakhtar’s owner, Rinat Akhmetov, had some of his assets in the two regions “nationalized” by the separatists and some of the country’s top soccer talent has left for greener pitches.

In transferring to Zenit, Rakitskyy will be playing for not only one of Russia’s wealthiest and most successful teams, but one of Europe’s. Backed by Gazprom, Zenit paid 10 million euros for the 29-year-old defender, who had spent his entire career with Shakhtar and won seven Ukrainian titles there.

Rakitskyy took flak in 2014 for his supposed reluctance to sing the national anthem while playing for Ukraine.

“I just do not sing the anthem and that’s it. Of course I remember the words. Just taking that time to get tuned for the game, listening to other people singing,” Rakitskyy said on national television that year. 

For those who questioned his patriotism, the move to Zenit appeared to confirm their suspicions. An Internet poll by the news portal Tribuna.com showed 56 percent opposed Rakitskyy ever donning the national jersey again. Nearly 10,000 took part in the informal survey.

Oleksandr Horshkov, who played for Ukraine and several seasons for Zenit, predicted Rakitskyy could become a “pariah” if he continues to be called on to play for the national team.​

Yaroslav Rakitskyy (in yellow) in action against Northern Ireland at Stade de Lyon in Lyon in 2016.
Yaroslav Rakitskyy (in yellow) in action against Northern Ireland at Stade de Lyon in Lyon in 2016. (RFERL)

“I think it is a very possible scenario that he would become a pariah on the team, although I would not like it. Sports should be out of politics, but nowadays everything is possible,” Horshkov told Sports24. 

Horshkov added that Zenit’s reasons for pursuing Rakitskyy appear to be purely for sporting reasons.

“There were problems in the Zenit defense, especially on the left. Management decided to buy a quality center back,” he said.

Russian sports daily Sports Express compiled a list of well-wishes addressed to Rakitskyy under a headline: “Fans — Rakitskyy: ‘Don’t Listen To Eight-Year-Olds. You’re A Legend!'”

Twitter user Milanista struggled to contain his enthusiasm, saying Rakitskyy “going to Zenit is amazing. Will bring some much needed stability to the backline.”

And he won’t be the only big-name Ukrainian at the club. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who captained Ukraine in the past and even played a few seasons for German giants Bayern Munich, is an assistant coach at Zenit.

For fans of Shakhtar, it’s just the latest in a long drip of bad news. They must cheer from afar, as their team’s “home” matches are played mostly in Kharkiv, but also in Kyiv and even for a time in Lviv, as well.

Their home stadium, Donbas Arena, a state-of-the-art facility built at a cost of $425 million that also hosted games during the 2012 European soccer championships, now sits empty, damaged from shelling. 

Shakhtar sits atop the Ukrainian Premier League with a seven-point lead over Dynamo Kyiv. But the league is not what it used to be, with once-top squads Dnipro and Metalist Kharkiv having been relegated to amateur status.

Dnipro’s fall, in particular, most cruelly captures the struggles of soccer today in Ukraine. In 2015, the club was being toasted after falling just short to Spanish side Sevilla 3-2 in the Europa League final, the continent’s second-biggest competition behind the Champions League.

Off the field, all was not well at the club. Dnipro owner and oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy was struggling to pay the bills, including salaries to coaches and players.

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Two years after that Europa League final, Dnipro was relegated in 2017 to Ukraine’s third tier, the Ukrainian Second Division, as Kolomoyskiy’s patience and financing dried up. In 2018, the club was relegated again, to the amateur league.

With Dnipro’s fortunes waning, one of its top players, Yevhen Seleznyov, left the club in 2016. His destination? Russia. The striker, a regular on the Ukrainian national team, signed with Russian Premier League side Kuban Krasnodar amid jeers from fans in Ukraine.

“I never mixed sport and politics. This is just the situation. I hope people will understand,” Seleznyov told the Tribuna.com website at the time. “Maybe someone called me a traitor, I don’t know. But I did not betray anyone.” (RFERL)

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Russia’s Alternative to Western Credit Card Debuts in London

Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings in its National Wealth Fund

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Employees demonstrating a payment card
Employees speak while demonstrating a payment card during a tour at a branch of VTB bank in Moscow, Russia. VOA

A Russian backed bank payment card, introduced after Western sanctions upended Russia’s financial system five years ago and prompted Visa and Master card to deny electronic services to some of the country’s leading banks, is set for its European debut on London Wednesday, when a pilot project will be launched in collaboration with the Dutch global payment company PayXpert.

Moscow authorities hoped to get the MIR card accepted eventually in foreign markets, but progress has been slow outside Russia for the MIR payment system,  which operates outside of Western-controlled international financial systems such as Swift, which banks use to transfer money.

The pilot project with PayXpert “will lay the foundation for new promising trends in the foreign expansion of Russian payment cards,”  according to Vladimir Komlev, the head of Russia’s National Card Payment System, which operates the MIR system.

De-dollarization efforts

The effort is seen by analysts as part of the  Kremlin bid to de-dollarize the Russian economy to lessen the sting of Western sanctions. A Russian Finance Ministry official this month told Reuters that Russia will next year diversify its foreign currency holdings  in its National Wealth Fund, which supports Russia’s public pension system, aiming to lower the share of dollars in the fund’s reserves.

Dmitry Dolgin of the Dutch banking group ING said in  a report this month that de-dollarization efforts are now obvious across most sectors, including local business loans and bank-held international assets, although he said the dollar’s role  has actually increased in company and household savings and cash assets, partly because dollar interest rates have been higher than those offered for euros.

Credit Cards offers unique features
American Express, Visa and Master Card is displayed in this image. Each Credit Card offers unique features and benefits, along with unmatched privileges. Pixabay

U.S. authorities have been able advance sanctions by targeting companies that use dollars, and the establishment of electronic payment systems not tied to the dollar or largely controlled by U.S. businesses is one way for the Kremlin to reduce the impact of the West’s serial punishment of Moscow. Washington and the European Union have imposed a wave of sanctions since 2014 to punish Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and the poisoning of a defected Russian spy in England.

Komlev told Reuters this year that “In the next three years we want MIR cards to be operational in countries where Russians are used to traveling.” He projected MIR cards would be operational at some banks in at least a dozen countries by the end of this year. Turkish banks started to conduct transactions this year with MIR, which means both “peace” and “world” in Russian.

MIR was launched initially as a national payment system, with the first cards issued in December 2015. Russia’s leading bank, state-owned Sberbank, started issuing them in October 2016, and by the end of last year more than 70 million MIR-based cards had been issued by 64 Russian banks. The Kremlin has mandated that state welfare and pension payments must be processed through the system by next year, along with salaries paid to civil servants.

The card has a long way to go before it rivals VISA our Mastercard internationally. It is not accepted by international shopping platforms or major online booking services for airlines and hotels, although APEXX Fintech, a British start-up global payment company, said Thursday it would now start working with the MIR system. Among smartphone applications only Samsung has concluded an agreement with the MIR system.

Meanwhile, de-dollarization has been moving quickly. Russia’s Central Bank has currency swap deals in place with Iran, China and Turkey, allowing direct trade to be conducted in local currencies instead of U.S. dollars. Russia reportedly lost $7.7 billion in its bid to reduce dollars held in its reserves. Some of the dollars were turned into gold, and since January the bank has purchased 96.4 metric tons of gold.

People stand in line as they wait to enter the bank with their card
People stand in line as they wait to enter a branch of Sberbank of Russia bank. VOA

Alexei Zabotkin, head of the Russian Central Bank’s monetary policy department, has conceded that it would be impossible to completely empty the country’s foreign exchange reserves of dollars, as this would be  “fraught with excessive risks.” According to central bank data the  National Wealth Fund has $45.5 billion, 39.17 billion euros and 7.67 billion British pounds.

In August, the state-controlled Rosneft oil giant announced it would stop using the U.S. dollar for its export contracts.

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Nonetheless, analysts say there are limits on how far Russia can de-dollarize – the ruble is highly volatile and remains unattractive for investors and de-dollarization brings additional and sometimes prohibitive trading costs.

European regulators will be watching the London project closely. EU officials have been sympathetic about Russia’s de-dollarization bid, suspecting that as a spin-off the euro will be boosted as an international currency. In June the European Commission concluded that “the euro clearly stands out as the only candidate that has all the necessary attributes of a global currency that market participants could use as an alternative to the U.S. dollar.” (VOA)