Western leaders should not allow the World Cup to become Putin’s tribune – MEP Harms

Handshakes of Western leaders at the Russian stadiums during the World Cup will represent support for Vladimir Putin's policies. Pictured: Russian officials opening the 1000-day countdown before the start of the World Cup. Photo: kremlin.ru 

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The upcoming World Cup in Russia is facing calls for a diplomatic boycott. Rebecca Harms, an MEP from the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, is leading the call. A letter she initiated calling upon heads of governments to refuse to pay their respects to Russian President Putin at the Russian stadiums has been signed by 60 MEPs. This initiative, she explains, aims to ruin the holiday not for the players and fans but for Vladimir Putin and FIFA.

The decision to hold the World Cup in Russia was controversial from the start, as is the decision to hold the next World Cup in Qatar. Until now, FIFA explains with good intentions, insisting that the football championship helps mutual understanding between peoples and the world, especially in the context of tense relations between Russia and the West.

In an interview with Euromaidan Press, Ms. Harms explained why she thinks the presence of world politicians at the World Cup will not help make the relations between Russia and the West any less tense.

“Just look at the experience with Sochi and the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Only three days after the final ceremony of these games, which are dedicated to global peace and friendship, we saw Vladimir Putin send his troops to occupy Crimea. Shortly afterward, the war in eastern Ukraine started. I think from this moment on nobody can really argue that international sports and sports events will have any impact on Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine or the West. And we have the experience with his brutal intervention in Syria, he is backing the brutal torturer and murderer Assad. The Russian army in Syria is connected to unbelievable war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is another reason not to believe that sitting in a stadium, making friendly faces and shaking hands with Putin will be a diplomatic instrument to change something.

With the help of big money, the Kremlin supports anti-European propaganda media, and extremist parties, which try to undermine liberal democracy and replace it with an authoritarian system in many EU countries. Nowhere can you find such lies as on Russia state TV channels – about the gas attack in Syria, the Skripal case, the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, Ukraine, and the Western reaction to Russian policies. Critics and opposition activists, particularly, in Crimea, go to trial and disappear behind prison walls. The cult of Stalin is making a comeback.

Yes, we need a new initiative towards Russia, we need a new diplomatic and political offensive, but the table for this is organized in Minsk and Geneva. But under these circumstances, handshakes on stadiums in front of the global public will look as approval of his authoritarian domestic and aggressive foreign policies. And this is what he wants with the show around the championship. The leaders of Western nations shouldn’t take part in this!”

Ms. Harms explained that politicians want to get close to the teams of their countries in the case that they win, as they want to profit as politicians from sports. She said that such politicians could use the sports event to raise awareness about the human rights abuses taking place in Russia – for instance, by visiting the minimum 66 Ukrainian political prisoners incarcerated in Russian prisons.

“If they want to go, they can connect it to their political attitude towards Russia. They can say: ‘We will sit in the stadium with the fans, not with Putin, but for this, we need to get permission to visit the political prisoners in the camps.’ For me, this could be a decision I could even honor. But just to go and sit there, I think it’s not acceptable.”

The World Cup is set to take place in Russia during 14 June-15 July 2018.

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