Russian police academy turns into World Cup nerve center
DOMODEDOVO, Russia (AP) — Police from 33 countries are gathering under one roof for the World Cup as Russia prepares to deal with potential issues ranging from hooliganism and terrorism to backlash against local laws restricting LGBT rights.
The police representatives from all 32 competing countries plus 2022 host Qatar will gather in a police academy on the edge of the forest outside Moscow to share intelligence and spot troublemakers in World Cup crowds.
At the center, opened Tuesday by Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, they'll walk up a red carpet to the entrance, past a table football game and a large plastic model of World Cup mascot Zabivaka the wolf, before sitting at desks arranged by each team's World Cup group.
"Our task is to respond quickly, correctly and according to the law" when trouble occurs," Kolokoltsev said.
The top British officer working at the tournament, Chief Inspector Joseph Stokoe, takes part amid diplomatic tension. Britain has accused Russia of using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in March, which Moscow denies.
Stokoe says the aim is to "take politics out of policing." He recommends that visiting LGBT fans follow local laws which restrict how they can express their identity in public.
Russian law bans the so-called "propaganda" of homosexuality in any setting where children could be present. In practice, it has been used to restrict public discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and to block protests, although Russian authorities have suggested the measure won't be as strictly enforced at the World Cup.
When asked what advice he'd give to LGBT fans who are following the England team, Stokoe predicted "they will follow the law as it is in Russia."
The scenario of fans flying the rainbow flag has been raised with local authorities, Stokoe said, "to ensure there's communication between the Russian authorities and us around the right behavior and hopefully ensure the police can deal with any issues that do come up around LGBT fans who may feel they're suffering any discrimination."
Hooliganism has been an issue at previous tournaments, and British police are hoping to help ensure exuberant fans aren't mistaken for hooligans following clashes between Russia and England supporters in France at the 2016 European Championship.
"I know how excitable and how much English fans can enjoy the occasion, drinking and singing, waving the flags," he said. "I know I need to try and explain to my Russian colleagues that that isn't a precursor to anything more than England fans enjoying themselves when they go to the match."
Hooliganism is also a concern for Polish police captain Wojciech Dobrowolski after clashes between Polish and Russian supporters at the 2012 European Championship in Warsaw.
Tough Russian policing and the reputation of Russian hooligans deterred Polish hooligans from coming to Russia, he said.
"They know that Russian hooligans are also famous and I think that they know that in Russia police is very strong and they can have problems with law and with Russian police," Dobrowolski said.
Russian police representatives at the opening of the center refused to take questions about their security strategy.
Local authorities have pointed to a blacklist of 451 fans banned from sports events by court order, though that number is lower than for similar programs in many other European countries.
People with knowledge of Russia's hardcore fan scene have told the Associated Press that as many as several thousand Russians have been refused a government-issue Fan ID, making their World Cup tickets invalid.
One veteran hooligan from Moscow told the AP last month that leaders of the Russian fan scene have been threatened with prison sentences by the security services if there's trouble at the World Cup, even if they aren't directly involved, to ensure good behavior by other members of their groups.