The World Cup in Russia is the most expensive ever – with the official price tag around $15 billion. The result: several huge new stadiums, railroads and upgraded airports, plus the chance to reboot Russia’s global image. So, will the tournament represent a good value for Russians? As Henry Ridgwell reports from Moscow, the government appears to have used the World Cup to bury some bad economic news.

30 off

The FIFA World Cup in Russia is the most expensive ever, with an official price tag of $15 billion. Close to $3 billion has been spent on 12 new or upgraded stadiums, and at least another $8 billion on infrastructure, including new roads, railroads and airports.

Is that a good return for the Russian taxpayer?

Professor Leonid Grigoryev, an economist at the Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation, offers an unusual analogy.

“The discussion of the efficiency of the championship in Russia, like in Brazil, is the discussion of the economic efficiency of a wedding dress. On one hand, it’s necessary. It makes everybody happy,” Grigoryev told VOA in an interview. “The exact economic efficiency definitely cannot be defined in American quarterly financial reports. It’s a long-term story. We still hope to become not only a hockey country, but a football country.”

Brazil hosted the last World Cup at an estimated cost of $11 billion. Four years later, some of their traveling fans feel short-changed.

“Comparing Brazil with Russia, the infrastructure here is much better than ours,” Marcio Pessoa told VOA, as he enjoyed the festival atmosphere in Moscow’s Red Square.

Russia’s $15 billion investment is aimed at giving Russia an image makeover in the eyes of the world, even as it faces sanctions over its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

“[President Vladimir] Putin, with all this strength, pretends that all that is not important for him — ‘Despite sanctions, we conduct such a gorgeous World Cup. Despite sanctions we go ahead with the war in Syria. And the world has no right to lecture us.’ And the people enjoy that — until the very moment that they start feeling that for all this pleasure, they are paying out of their own pockets. It is right now that they start feeling that,” political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said.

The first to feel the pinch are likely to be the middle-aged looking forward to retirement. On opening day of the World Cup last week, the government announced a gradual rise in the pension age, from 60 to 65 for men, and a much bigger jump for women, from 55 to 63.

Moscow resident Eva, 62, told VOA that most Russians are taking it in their stride.

“It wasn’t really unexpected. Probably, they thought that the championship, the euphoria, will somehow smoothen out the effect. There was a joke going around. ‘Yesterday, I had four years until pension age. Today, I have nine years. And they still keep telling us that you can’t get your youth back!’” she said.

Russia said the World Cup is partly a gift for its youth: Unforgettable memories and glittering new facilities. The tournament finishes in a month. Its legacy will be measured in the coming years.

30 off

Angela Merkel says Germany remains fully committed to the Paris climate accord, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement.

Germany’s long-time chancellor said Tuesday that the U.S. move was “very regrettable” at a time when the overwhelming majority of countries worldwide are trying to limit global warming.

Merkel told a climate meeting with over 30 governments in Berlin that “climate change isn’t a matter of faith … it’s a fact,” citing new temperature records and the increase in extreme weather events around the world.

She said efforts to curb global warming would help limit economic damage and boost innovation.

Last year, at a global climate summit in Poland, Merkel urged delegates to hammer out a binding set of rules to govern the 2015 Paris agreement. 

30 off

A pop-up “Corruption Park” has opened in Ukraine to highlight the scale of the problem with interactive exhibits and displays of ill-gotten gains including a $46,000 crystal falcon.

One of the first things visitors see in the EU-funded show is a tent shaped like the gold loaf of bread found in the house of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych after he fled Ukraine in 2014.

Elsewhere, they can inspect a $300,000, limited-edition BMW seized from a corrupt official, and a copy of a 8-million-euro chandelier that, the display says, could have paid for a family’s electricity bill for 64,000 years.

In another tent, visitors lie back in a four-poster bed and watch a multimedia film of the imagined nightmares of a guilty government functionary.

The EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, which staged the show in Kiev’s botanical gardens, said it was meant to show the scale of corruption in Ukraine, and what it costs governments and citizens.

Ukraine’s Western-backed government has accused Yanukovych and his pro-Russian administration of widespread abuses and excesses.

But activists have also accused the current authorities of failing to crack down on graft, which is estimated to cost the country about 2 percent of its economic growth, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“For the kids, it’s a good example and revealing about the scale it all happens at,” Kyiv resident Lyuba said, as she queued with her children to don goggles and join a virtual reality anti-corruption investigation.

‘Corruption has taken so much’

The chandelier appears in a mock-up of an official’s room, decked out with the fruits of his corruption.

Other exhibits explain different schemes used for illegal enrichment.

“Corruption concerns everyone. This is one of the main ideas and goals of the project – to explain the direct relation between top level corruption and ordinary Ukrainians,” said Volodymyr Solohub, spokesman for the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, which paid for the 140,000 euro ($162,000) park.

“A lot of people just come out disappointed that corruption has taken so much from the country,” he said.

One tent called ‘The Fight’ explains what the current authorities have done to combat graft, including the establishment of anti-corruption agencies.

Depicting the various government bodies as pieces in a puzzle, the exhibit illustrates that there is one missing piece: an independent court dedicated to prosecuting corruption cases, whose creation has been repeatedly pushed back.

Earlier in June, parliament voted to establish the court, but activists have said the law contains an amendment that would undermine the court’s effectiveness and Ukraine’s commitments to external backers such as the International Monetary Fund.


30 off

The top U.N. human rights official called on the Trump administration on Monday to halt its “unconscionable” policy of forcibly separating children from migrant parents irregularly entering the country via Mexico.

U.S. officials said on Friday that nearly 2,000 children were separated from adults at the border between mid-April and the end of May as the Trump administration implements stricter border enforcement policies.

Administration officials say the tactic is necessary to secure the border and suggest it will act as a deterrent to illegal immigration.

But Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the policies “punish children for their parents’ actions.”

“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable. I call on the United States to immediately end the practice of forcible separation of these children,” Zeid said in his final speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council before his term in office ends.

The U.S. delegation, led by Geneva-based diplomat Jason Mack, did not refer to migration issues in its subsequent speech upholding LGBT rights and denouncing violence and discrimination against homosexual and transgender people.

Reuters quoted activists and diplomats on Thursday as saying that talks with the United States over how to reform the main U.N. rights body have failed to meet Washington’s demands, especially over its treatment of Israel, suggesting that the Trump administration will quit the forum.

Standing ovation

Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson praised the council for shining a light on appalling violations worldwide, saying it was part of the rules-based international system.

But Britain shared the view with the United States that maintaining a permanent agenda item focusing solely on Israel and the Palestinian territories was “damaging,” Johnson said.

Zeid said that “longstanding, grave and systematic” human rights violations continued in North Korea and urged Pyongyang to cooperate with the U.N. investigator on the isolated country whose mandate it does not recognise.

He cited clear indications of “well-organized, widespread and systematic attacks” continuing against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, “amounting possibly to acts of genocide,” while conflict has escalated in Kachin and Shan states.

The Myanmar government’s efforts to prosecute perpetrators have lacked credibility and human rights monitors must be on the ground before Rohingya refugees return from Bangladesh, he said.

Myanmar has denied nearly all of the allegations, saying its security forces have been waging a legitimate counter-insurgency operation against what it calls Rohingya terrorists.

Zeid accused China of preventing independent activists from testifying before U.N. rights bodies and voiced concern that conditions were “fast deteriorating” in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Yang Zhilun, of China’s Foreign Ministry, did not directly address his remarks, but said that all citizens exercising their right to assembly and demonstration must abide by the law and not harm “national, social and collective rights.”

Zeid urged the 47-member forum to set up international commissions on alleged violations in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Zeid, whose four-year term finishes at the end of August, received a standing ovation at the end of his remarks.


30 off

The Vatican and Mexico are lamenting how children “are suffering the most” from forced migration, as the Trump administration comes under increasing criticism for its policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.


The Vatican on Monday released the conclusions of the second Vatican-Mexico conference on international migration, held last week at the Vatican. The statement made no explicit reference to the separation policy, though it stressed the need to “insist on the centrality of the human person in every political act… reaffirming the inviolability of human rights and the dignity of every human being on the move.”

“Children are the ones who are suffering the most from forced migration. We must respond effectively to the challenges created by these flows, balancing the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and co-responsibility,” the statement said.


Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.


The head of the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops’ committee on migration has condemned the policy as “immoral,” and the issue dominated the U.S. bishops’ recent assembly in Florida.


The Vatican-Mexico statement called for a global governance body for migration “to ensure a safe, ordered and regular migration that helps all those involved.”


30 off

Thousands of exuberant Mexican soccer fans took to the streets Sunday to cheer their national team’s long-shot win against Germany in Mexico’s first match of the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament.


The 1-0 stunner, with Hirving Lozano scoring the winning goal, has given Mexicans hope that their team might win the tournament for the first time ever. Mexico has competed in the FIFA World Cup since the sporting event kicked off in 1930. The highest it has ever advanced is to the quarter-finals, placing sixth in both 1986 and 1970.


Lozano’s goal set off such a commotion that seismic detectors in Mexico City registered a false earthquake, which the geological institute said may have been generated by “massive jumps” across the city. Spectators who had gathered to watch the match on a big TV screen in the central Zocalo square screamed with joy after the score.


After the match, throngs of fans dressed in green converged around the iconic Angel of Independence monument, bouncing with joy and waving the Mexican flag. Small groups chanted “Mexico” and “Yes we could!” Some broke into song, including the traditional Cielito Lindo tune best known for its “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay” chorus. Car horns blared, whistles were blown and drums beat for hours after the match.


“We aspire to win a World Cup this time,” said Miguel Paez, a 31-year-old who donned a Mexican wrestling mask in the colors of the national flag as he celebrated on Mexico City’s main avenue, Paseo de la Reforma.


Paez described the game as a welcome distraction from Mexico’s upcoming July 1 presidential election. “Mexico needs a break. Mexico needs to shout,” he said, jumping up and down.


Some Twitter commentators and fans were quick to draw parallels between the Mexican team’s long odds ahead of the Germany match and the big lead in surveys enjoyed by leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO.


“AMLO can be beat. The surveys are based on few people,” said Jose Antonio Bohon, a 51-year-old national team supporter on his way to the Angel.


The win has also helped Mexican fans move beyond the team’s recent indiscretions.


The Mexican squad entered the 2018 tournament under a cloud of scandal. The problems began last year when the US Treasury Department accused team captain Rafael Marquez of being a front man for a drug kingpin. The accusation cost Marquez sponsorships and called into question whether he would play in the tournament. Marquez took to the field toward the end of Sunday’s match against Germany, notching his fifth appearance in a World Cup.


Also, earlier in June, gossip magazine TVNotas reported that nine members of the Mexican squad indulged in an all-night party with 30 female escorts following their farewell match against Scotland in Mexico City. Commentators worried that family tensions could distract the players from their goal of winning World Cup matches.


“They’ve always done things like that,” 53-year-old fan Magdalena Martinez said Sunday of the partying Mexican players. “It wasn’t my boyfriend or my husband, so as long as they continue to play well, who cares.”


30 off

A Turkish presidential candidate made his campaign speech Sunday from jail.

Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party spoke on television from his cell in western Turkey.

Turkish law grants all presidential candidates 20 minutes of television time.

Demirtas said he was illegally jailed 20 months ago, not because of any crime but because the Turkish government “fears” him.

He warned voters against casting a ballot for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prevent a “one-man regime.”

He said under the new Turkish law, no government institution would be able to oversee Erdogan or limit his rule.

Demirtas told viewers that voting for him and the People’s Democratic Party for parliament would be a vote for peace.

Demirtas was arrested on allegations of being a threat to national security. His party is accused of having ties to Kurdish rebels, whom the government regards as terrorists. The party disputes the charge and Demirtas says he will be acquitted.

Turkey is holding early presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. Voters approved a referendum changing the constitution to scrap the office of prime minister and granting the president executive powers.


30 off