Europe’s leaders should boycott Putin’s Olympic ceremony
In February 2014 the Russian elite will gather in the gleaming super stadiums of Sochi — governors and oligarchs, police chiefs and “political technologists” — to thunderously applaud as Vladimir Putin opens his Winter Olympics.
He has been dreaming of this for years.
But this is not a ceremony European leaders should attend.
In Sochi the Russian elite wants to dumbfound the EU — not only with synchronized ice skating and Kremlin-coordinated firework displays — but with a ceremony underscoring the absolute power of their leader.
This is Putin’s Olympics — his Berlin 1936, his Beijing 2008.
This bald autocrat locks up punks, protestors and political prisoners — and made homophobia state policy. But he has no doubt the West will be there to shake his hand in Sochi — none whatsoever that French, British and German leaders will congratulate him on the success of the games, and thus the strength of his rule. Why so?
Moscow no longer sees the U.S. and the EU the way it used to. The long oil boom has not just been an upward curve in Russian power — for Russian politicians it has been a decadelong journey into Western finance.
As giants like Gazprom and Rosneft, or banks like Sberbank and VTB, ballooned in value — sucking in Western talent and exporting Russian capital –- lieutenant colonels from the Cold War like Putin saw a whole new side to the West.
It showed them that European elites are willing to be complicit in Russian corruption — because the billions stolen from the Russian budget and from Russian state companies are not hidden in that country but almost all in the EU.
Putin’s men found willing laundrymen — be it in the banks of Luxemburg or Cyprus, or through British and German lawyers. Kremlin billionaires found Europe remarkably accommodating — beneficial ownership structures, shell companies and banking secrecy seemed made to order.
Russian money really is everywhere in Europe. You can feel in on the beaches of Spain and Greece — because Russians make up more than 50 percent of all Schengen visa applications to the EU. You can feel it in central London — where Russians now snap up more than 10 percent of luxury properties
This money taught the Kremlin there were as many cynics in London and Berlin as in Moscow. They came to see Europeans as hypocrites — or to quote the fallen Kremlin politician Vladislav Surkov: “people who lecture us about human rights whilst dreaming of our hydrocarbons.”
Then they noticed something else about European elites — the more money Russian companies invested in Parisian property or the London Stock Exchange, the quieter and quieter these states became about Russian human rights.
Thinking back — the comparison becomes stark.
In 2000 the leaders of the European Union still had guts. When visiting Russia in 2000 the British premier Tony Blair publicly called for allegations of Chechen war crimes to be investigated — to Putin’s fury. These same crimes in Chechnya saw the Council of Europe temporarily suspend Russia’s voting rights until 2001.
Today such actions seem unthinkable.
Moscow has become again a city frightened of the political police. You only need to know two numbers to realize how their power has grown: the already infamous Investigative Committee — a political police force founded in 2011 — has ballooned from 20,000 to 60,000 strong.
Moscow has declared war on NGOs. “Political funding” from the United States is now banned. Foreign funding requires any NGO on a non-Russian grant to label itself a “Foreign Agent.” NGOs find themselves in an increasingly unworkable environment — inspected, raided, drowned in paperwork.
Moscow is once again a city of constant show trials. The courtroom campaign that began with the Pussy Riot case — extending through those of 28 protestors charged with “provoking mass unrest” — has reached its logical conclusion in the trial of Alexey Navalny.
He faces five years in a labor colony, should his appeal “fail.” Outside the courtroom, supporters burst into tears at the verdict. Hundred of thousands who took to the streets saw the verdict as a personal insult, a personal humiliation — and a personal threat.
But what has the European reaction been?
Deaf to the shock in Moscow that hit with the news of Navalny’s five years — Brussels posted an obtuse statement saying the trial “raises serious issues about the rule of law in Russia.”
Putin hears European silence as consent. This makes European elites complicit. Because Russia’s political owners are vulnerable — far more vulnerable to Brussels in fact than distant Washington, D.C.
With children in British public schools, their fortunes in Cypriot accounts and their business contracts with German companies — their greatest fear is losing access to Europe. Threatening visa bans –- modeled on the U.S. Magnitsky List — could unnerve and divide the Kremlin.
But Europe has not only chosen not to use this power. This is a shame — because pressure really does work.
Look at Navalny. Hours after he had been handcuffed and detained, for what everyone presumed was five years, more than 10,000 gathered outside the Russian parliament to protest. His name trended on Twitter — and he was released, even allowed to continue to run for mayor of Moscow, pending his appeal.
What then might a strong European reaction achieve?
Putin likes to humiliate. In Britain, he was late for David Cameron in Downing Street and had no manners to wait for all the G8 leaders to be served at dinner before starting to eat. In Germany, he meets Angela Merkel with huge scary dogs because he knows she fears them. In Moscow, he makes every EU-28 leader that comes to see him wait hours — to feel like a supplicant.
Europe needs to prove something to Putin.
Europe needs to prove to Putin that repression and persecution have costs — that if this is just the beginning of a wave of arrests, by the end of it he will have lost the Kremlin’s free pass to Europe’s banks and havens. This would make his henchmen pull him back from the worst.
Europe needs to speak to Putin in a language he understands.
This is why the leaders of the European Union should boycott the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. There is no reason to attend a $50 billion celebration of his political power. There is every reason to make his cronies frightened they are approaching the tipping point in their EU access — where Putin becomes a financial liability.
This is different from a full European boycott — athletes should still compete. It is more personal, direct and humiliating — forcing Putin to watch the pirouetting skaters and the Olympic flame in the company of leaders who also lock up their enemies.
Like his friend Bashar al-Assad.
PHOTO: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (front), International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge (L) and head of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee Dmitry Chernyshenko visit the stand displaying medals for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi during the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Executive Board meeting, which is part of the annual SportAccord convention, in St. Petersburg, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool