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Russia's 'informal' markets hamstring international sports governance

When I was 14 years old, I lived with a host family in a town about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of Moscow. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that some of the items I brought with me from abroad seemed to have different meaning for my peers than they did for me. Hair conditioner. Denim jeans. Crayola markers, for example.

At first, I assumed these items attracted attention because they were novelties. But an incident involving my contact lenses showed me that my seemingly meaningless items were communicating something powerful. I didn't initially see it, though, because my assumptions had grown out of circumstances and social structures incongruent with the “alternative” markets in which my Russian peers moved. These informal markets, which blur the line between public and private, remain prevalent in Russia today. Though they have received scholarly attention, they are not widely understood. This matters in my line of work especially because these markets are partially responsible for how oligarchs have been able to use sport to circumvent non-sports sanctions – and why international sports’ governing bodies struggle to create effective solutions for combating it.

While in Russia, I met an older boy who began asking me out on dates. I said no. But he kept asking. One day at the school, this boy cornered me in a classroom entryway and asked if I would go walking with him that evening. Again, I said no. But his reaction this time differed from previous encounters. He mentioned one of my friends, and asked if this friend was the reason I kept saying no.

I did a double-take at him. This friend he referred to was someone I met through my host family. He and I regularly went on walks and watched movies together. Later that afternoon, coincidently, this friend planned to row my host sister and me out onto the lake for a picnic and a swim. I was not aware, though, that this older boy even knew my friend, let alone that I was spending so much time with him. His knowledge and tone alarmed me. As I wondered what the Russian word for “stalker” was, I noticed how quiet the room had become. The people gathered in the hallway and in the classroom had stopped their conversations and were now watching us.

This older boy then proclaimed – loudly – that he didn’t want me going on walks with this friend anymore. I stared at him, incredulous. I had never heard a young man talk like this, other than on television or film. My inner monologue insisted that this was too “out there;” that I must be misunderstanding this. But the more he spoke, the more I realized he was serious.

Panic set in. I tried to think of the best thing to do or to say. But I had nothing. I felt my eyes begin to swell with tears. I wiped one of my eyes. And as I did, one of my contact lenses fell out.

I wore rigid gas permeable lenses, otherwise known as “hard” lenses. They popped out more easily than the “soft” lenses I would later wear. Regardless, as I knew it in that moment, my contact lens supply was limited. My understanding of the Russian contact lens market was limited to "official" data, which suggested my type of contact lenses had little penetration in Russia. Re-ordering would be costly and would require a black-market seller. That term – “black market” – gave 14-year-old me the image of a dark alley, where I, wearing a trench coat, would slap rubles into a shadowy figure’s palm, and in return, would be handed a box of contact lenses. If I were lucky. Maybe I wouldn’t receive any contact lenses at all, and would instead be raped and/or kidnapped.

This is what I was thinking about as I stood there, wide-eyed, looking down at the classroom floor, then back up to this boy, then back to the floor again. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dropped to my hands and knees and frantically felt around on the floor, hoping I could find my precious, legitimately purchased contact lens.

The boy ceased his declaration and asked what I was doing.

I squinted up at him – and the confused bystanders – out of my “good eye” and said I was looking for my contact lens. After a pause, he asked what my contact lens looked like. I described it. He crouched down and began feeling around on the floor, too. He found the lens and carried it over to me, holding it on his outstretched finger before sliding it into my palm. I mumbled a spuh-SEE-buh, elbowed past him and the crowd, and left.

Word of this incident spread at a speed that simultaneously disturbed and impressed me. But not for the reason I expected. According to my diary, only two people said anything to me suggesting that this boy’s behavior had been morally suspect. Everyone else was transfixed on my contact lenses.

“Common sense” had told them I had cried because I had dropped the lens and didn’t know how or where I could replace it. I learned through multiple conversations that the market data I saw before coming to Russia was alarmingly inaccurate. My lenses had penetrated Russia. I could get them. And hair conditioner. And denim jeans. And markers. But I would have to get to know people. I would have to understand blat.

The definition of blat isn’t universally agreed upon among Russian scholars. According to corruption and informal practices expert Dr. Alena Ledeneva, blat is “the use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply and for circumventing formal procedures.” Ledeneva’s entry in the Global Informality Project includes examples of blat, such as a school friend saving the best cuts of meat for you at the store where she worked, or an acquaintance who worked at the Bolshoi Theatre setting aside tickets for your parents after you helped their daughter get into university. Russians have a long history of exchanging everyday goods and services without using money. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, these informal network were how “people survived in an economy of shortage, and how the regime survived under similar constraint,” according to Ledeneva.

Though some scholars predicted the power of these networks would dissipate after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, this has not been the case. Whereas these networks were once used for everyday goods and services, they expanded to include more sophisticated needs and favors, Ledeneva said. But systematically gathering information on these networks is challenging, at best. They are “officially unacknowledged and rarely registered in written sources inside the country” And they are illegal. In his 2020 book about Russian doping whistleblowers Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov, The Sunday Times' sports journalist David Walsh described how not even Vitaly, an idealist who believed in anti-doping efforts, could avoid participating in Russia's economy of favors: "He paid the bribes to the traffic police when they held out their hands. He used connections and influence just like every Russian did to make life better or to stop life being worse. He had made calls and paid money to avoid a drafting request from the army when applying for the new passport he'd needed to go to the Beijing Olympics. This was life."

German investigative journalist Grit Hartmann concluded in a July 2022 study, “Finding a Global Response to Corruption in Sports,” that global Olympic sport has become largely dependent on Russian sports officials’ deep pockets. Russian athletes have been barred from international competition. However, top Russian sports officials, who are indebted to these aforementioned informal networks with top political brass, have not been. According to Hartmann, "They sit on the boards of international federations and inject untold millions into global sport, privately or with state-owned companies as sponsors.

International sports governing bodies seeking effective solutions for combating oligarchs’ use of sport to circumvent non-sports sanctions need to acknowledge these relationships. Without doing so, their Russian counterparts will likely retreat further into defensive behaviors, and make decisions that confound their international contemporaries. According to corruption and foreign business strategist Dr. Päivi Karhunen and her colleagues, this is typical of such informal networks: They produce “an inclination to distrust individuals, groups, and organizations outside one’s personal relationships.” According to Karhunen et al., “The lesson of blat for post-communist Russians seemed to be that one ought to secure personal benefits for members of one’s circle at the expense of the state and those outside the circle.”

Formal rule changes alone will not stymie informal networks’ ability to exchange goods and services. Official rules are just one more constraint these informal markets face. They will adjust and reconfigure. And as a result, global sports governing bodies' fight against corruption will continue to flounder.


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