World Cup fans around the globe have turned up and tuned in for 64 exciting soccer games taking place in 11 Russian cities through July 15. There has been discussion of World Cup global politics, but there’s another story here: The tournament’s locales also reveal much about center-periphery politics in Russia.

All 11 of the host cities are in European Russia, as the Russian bid originally proposed. Some of these sites are not surprising — Moscow and St. Petersburg are Russia’s largest cities, while Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Kazan, host of the 2013 Summer Universiade, had large new stadiums in place.

It’s the other site choices that raise eyebrows. Yekaterinburg, the easternmost city in this year’s World Cup, for instance, needed large temporary stands to meet the FIFA capacity requirements for group games, already relaxed from 40,000 to 35,000 for 2018.

Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Volgograd’s soccer teams play in the Russian second division and would not likely draw sufficient crowds to fill their 40,000-seat stadiums. Kaliningrad Oblast’s inclusion is especially counterintuitive — the region has fewer than 1 million residents and borders Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, leaving little access to its stadium for other Russians.

More puzzling is that these cities were chosen ahead of the southern city of Krasnodar or an additional venue in Moscow — both of which had privately funded stadiums that met FIFA requirements but went unused.

The distribution of the seven cities that got new stadiums in preparation for the World Cup suggests Moscow instituted a punishment-reward strategy targeting local officials. The federal government rewarded loyalty from local officials in nonethnically Russian regions, while enticing less-supportive local officials in predominantly ethnically Russian regions.

We’ve seen this sort of reward mechanism before in Russian politics. But enticing greater support from these Russian regions is a departure from an observed mechanism in previous research.

Incentives for politicizing World Cup stadium construction

Large stadiums constructed for popular events, such as the World Cup, not only have questionable economic impacts but also may go unused after the events end. However, local officials can benefit by pointing to a stadium as a major public works achievement or, more nefariously, using construction of a stadium for private gain. For instance, it is suspected that officials misappropriated more than a quarter of the $48 billion used to construct venues and infrastructure for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

For the World Cup, the federal government not only paid for the stadiums but has also come under pressure to pay for their upkeep. Thus, local officials may benefit both politically and financially from new World Cup stadiums in their city, without bearing the financial burden.

Given local officials’ interest in getting a new venue, the federal government may use new stadium construction to alternatively reward, punish or entice local officials. Research, both within Russia and in other contexts shows that such punishment-reward mechanisms are common in federal systems where central governments seek the loyalty of local officials.

There’s an evidence trail 

So how does support for the federal regime shape the distribution of stadium construction, exactly? Here’s what I found. 

Russia has 45 cities with populations in excess of 300,000 that plausibly could have been included as bid cities with new stadium construction — the initial bid explicitly ruled out cities in Siberia, the Far East and North Caucasus. The 45 cities competed for 10 bid spots, with six additional slots going to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and Sochi, which had stadiums at or near completion that were fit to host games at the time of the bid. After the bid was approved, the 16 bid spots were whittled down to 12 stadiums in 11 cities.

There appear to be two broad patterns for why cities were chosen for bids: The percentage of voters that supported United Russia — Russia’s primary pro-regime party — in the 2007 elections; and the percentage of ethnic Russians in a given region. For cities with substantial populations of ethnic minorities, greater support for the UR appeared to play a decisive factor in bid inclusion.

In the Republic of Mordovia, where 40 percent of the population are ethnic Mordvins, the capital Saransk — a city of 300,000 people — was chosen for the bid after 93 percent of the region voted UR. Much larger cities in the vicinity of Saransk with minority populations, such as Ufa (83 percent support for UR) and Izhevsk (61 percent), didn’t make the cut.

But UR vote share appears to either have had no effect — or even been detrimental — for regions that are more than 90 percent Russian. Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000 whose region backed UR with 53 percent of the vote received a bid ahead of Voronezh, a city of more than 1 million where 57 percent backed UR. Volgograd, with 57 percent of voters backing UR, beat out Perm and Saratov, similarly sized regions that backed UR with 60 percent. A statistical analysis available here confirms this general pattern for all 45 potential host cities.

Were some regions punished after the 2011 elections?

Elections after the initial bid, but before the host cities were finalized, seemed to present an opportunity to punish noncompliers. In the December 2011 elections, United Russia lost approximately 15 percentage points overall. In 2012, following the elections, the Moscow suburb of Podolsk, along with Krasnodar and Yaroslavl, were removed as host cities.

Twenty-nine percent of Yaroslavl voters supported United Russia in 2011, UR’s worst performance in any federal region. UR had 32.5 percent of the vote in Moscow Oblast, the region around the city of Moscow — the second-lowest of the regions bidding to host World Cup games. The fact that both bid cities were removed in the final selection stage illustrates that the federal government punished predominantly ethnic Russian regions that did not deliver support for UR after being enticed with a bid before the 2011 parliamentary elections.

This is why the story of World Cup 2018 paints a more nuanced picture of Russian politics than seen in many popular outlets. While Russia certainly remains a competitive authoritarian regime, Moscow does not have absolute authority over the periphery, and it plays a complex game of punishment and reward to secure loyalty.

And that helps explain why the 2018 World Cup has brought new stadiums to cities like Kaliningrad and Saransk, rather than more well-known Russian cities with larger populations.

Konstantin Ash is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Florida and currently a participant in a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program in Russia.