Edward McMillan-Scott: Tories are playing into Putin’s hands in high stakes game

I HAVE been visiting Russia since the depths of the Cold War. Later, I witnessed the development of real democracy, and more recently the closing down of freedoms there. President Vladimir Putin, first elected in 2000, will continue his dictatorial and often brutal reign until 2018.

Leaders of many democratic countries boycotted the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. President Obama didn’t attend because of Putin’s new anti-gay laws. Prominently present were the dictators of President Putin’s growing anti-democracy league. The presidents of Azerbaijan or Armenia are not interested in human rights.

Putin has international ambitions for Russia: this is the new Great Game, the 19th century strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Eurasia. He is trying to build a bloc in opposition to the EU: let us hope the Games begin to focus public attention on some other strange alliances.

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For Putin, the Games reinforce his domestic dominance when things are not going so well. Russia relies on oil and gas exports for 75 per cent of its income. Economic growth is glacial. Corruption is still rampant.

Human rights are repressed. I was the only politician speaking at an anti-Putin conference in Moscow organised by Gary Kasparov, which was closed down by Putin’s thugs, his Nashi youth movement, in 2006. They started by attacking independent journalists. More than 20 Russian journalists were murdered during Putin’s first presidency.

When Putin regained the presidency in 2012 – after a brief period of hope under President Medvedev, which some of my Moscow friends believed in – he unleashed an unprecedented crackdown.

New laws restrict non-governmental organisations, undermine freedom of assembly and discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The anti-gay law clearly violates the Olympic Charter, which states that “any form of discrimination… on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”. The role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is, among other duties, “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement”.

When William Hague was asked about these laws before Sochi, he said: “There is no doubt in Russia about what we think, we’ll be very clear throughout: the UK stands up very strongly for LGBT rights.”

However, on the eve of the games, his friend Sebastian Coe reverted to “don’t mix politics with sport”, a mantra he has used since breaking the sports boycott of the1980 Moscow Olympics.

An Olympic sporting boycott was imposed against South Africa by the IOC itself in 1964 because of apartheid; it worked. After the US and 60 other countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, within three years the USSR was crumbling. Political boycotts, such as Obama’s this week, can be effective too.

Putin’s “managed democracy” is reflected across a Eurasian continent straddled by Russia: I was once proudly shown a huge map in the Kremlin by President Gorbachev’s adviser. “See how tiny the EU is from our perspective,” he said. Today, gas and oil are the strategic tools which replace the Soviet Union’s ballistic missiles, and political alliances replace arms treaties in a largely democratic world.

David Cameron is part of this process. When he cut himself adrift from Europe’s mainstream centre-right in 2009, he formed new parliamentary groups. One was in the European Parliament, which led to my departure from his party. The other is even more controversial.

David Cameron’s formal alliance in the parliamentary assembly of Strasbourg’s Council of Europe – a post-war institution now of 47 countries – finds 17 Conservative MPs sitting with 24 MPs of Putin’s United Russia party in a group led by a Russian MP – as well as MPs from Azerbaijan and Armenia’s ruling (undemocratic) parties.

In Ukraine, President Yanukovich, whose MPs also sit with the Tories in that “other” assembly, leads a repressive, corrupt government. He sidles up to Putin, but many Ukrainians prefer the EU. Russia shares its powerful Black Sea fleet uneasily with Ukraine.

Ukraine matters to Putin. It is not just that without it, his vaunted Eurasian Union would lose its point: it is also that, if Ukrainians succeed in setting a democratic path towards the EU, they might inspire Russians to do the same. At a conference on Russia in Washington last year, I argued how the EU should respond to Putin. He cannot be allowed to continue with impunity. The EU, united, has the clout and the strategic need to assure our security.

The Conservative Party should abandon its alliance with Putin. This game is not a sport: it could get deadly.

Edward McMillan-Scott, Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, is Vice-President of the European Parliament for Human Rights and Democracy.