Dutch PM reminds Putin of gay rights at Sochi

08.02.14 @ 14:55

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Dutch PM Mark Rutte, one of the few Western leaders to attend the Olympic festivities in Russia, used the occasion to highlight concerns on gay rights.

  • The US women's hockey team competed against Finland on Saturday (Photo: sochi2014.com)

He told press at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Friday (7 February): “I think it was very important that during our last meeting in Amsterdam, and in St. Petersburg, we were able to discuss economic and geopolitical issues, and also subjects such as the situation of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans] community.”

He indicated the Ukraine crisis has further strained relations.

“Our ties are good enough for us to be able to discuss with each other difficult issues that come up in our relations … and perhaps the problems that may arise in these relations.”

Putin said: “I do not really see that we have any particularly big problems in our relations.”

He recalled watching a TV show about a gay club in Sochi in which a clubber said: “Sport is sport and the Olympics is the Olympics. Let’s focus on the Olympics.” The Russian leader added: “I fully agree with what he said.”

Rutte’s mention of gay rights comes after Putin last year banned "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”

The Dutch EU commissioner, Neelie Kroes, also raised the issue in her blog on Friday.

“I sometimes hear that ‘sport and politics cannot be reconciled.’ What nonsense. If sport can be reconciled with commerce, it can be reconciled with human rights,” she said.

Rutte was one of just five heads of state or government from Western European countries who went to Sochi.

Top politicians from Austria, Finland, Greece, and Italy also attended, while Denmark, Luxembourg, and Sweden sent royals.

Former Communist and Soviet EU countries were better represented: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia all sent PMs or Presidents.

The roll call does not amount to a boycott, however.

German President Joachim Gauck is the only EU dignitary who said he is not going because of human rights.

In comparison, his predecessor, Horst Koehler, did go to the winter games in Canada in 2010. But Canada's overall list of European VIPs was similar to Sochi’s.

Meanwhile, the Russian event saw a big turnout by countries due to join Putin’s “Eurasian Union” in 2015.

All five central Asian countries, Armenia, and Belarus sent top men.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych also went despite problems at home. Like Rutte, he met Putin, but they did not tell press what was said.

Away from the VIPs, Putin’s Olympic extravaganza met with a handful of small protests around Russia.

Police arrested 19 gay rights demonstrators in Moscow and four in St. Petersburg. They arrested 37 people in Nalchik, 300km east of Sochi, calling for better treatment of the Circassian minority.

Among athletes, the German team wore a colourful uniform, which, for some commentators, referenced the rainbow flag, a gay rights symbol.

The Greek team made an explicit gesture by putting on rainbow gloves at the ceremony.

But some of Kroes’ fellow EU personalities followed the “sport is sport” line.

The Greek EU commissioner for sport, Androulla Vassiliou, said the Olympics is “one of the most powerful unifying forces in our society.”

The EU ambassador to the US, Joao Vale de Almeida, promoted “the EU medal tracker,” a website created by German PR firm Euro-Informationen, which aggregates medals won by EU countries as if the EU was one nation.

“Counting all 28 #EU Member States my #Sochi2014 medal hope increases. We got 1,296 athletes!” he tweeted.

Amid reports of bad hotel facilities despite the games’ $50 billion cost, the opening spectacle saw just one glitch when a mechanical snowflake, representing one of the five Olympic rings, failed to open.

The official broadcaster, Russia-1, cut away at the embarrassing moment and cut back after the snowflake was put right.