Sunday

1st May 2016

Pussy Riot call for extra EU sanctions on Putin

  • Alyokhina (r) and Tolokonnikova: celebrities in Brussels, 'witches' in Russia (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Two activists from the Pussy Riot punk group have urged EU politicians to heap sanctions on Russia’s elite to accelerate Vladimir Putin’s fall from power.

Twenty-five-year old Masha Alyokhina and 24-year-old Nadya Tolokonnikova told MEPs in Brussels on Tuesday (1 April) that EU blacklists will erode support in the President’s inner circle and boost opposition morale.

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They said Europe should target four men: oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owns British football club Chelsea; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; oil baron and Putin confidante Igor Sechin; and oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The Pussy Riot activists were recently freed after almost two years in labour camps.

They have launched an NGO, called Zona Prava, to campaign for prisoners’ rights, and are touring European and US cities in search of financial and political backing.

They want an end to forced labour; better access to healthcare; and foreign training for prison guards.

Asked by EUobserver if there is a chance for human rights to improve while Putin stays in charge, Tolokonnikova said: “No. He has created a system in which anybody who calls for changes, no matter how small, becomes an enemy of the state.”

She noted that Putin is likely to become “more cruel” if he is isolated, but believes Russian society will turn against him as the economy deteriorates.

“It is not true that Russians don’t want change. Russian people want to be free,” she said.

Her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, noted that 50,000 people protested against Russia’s invasion of Crimea: “The situation is unpredictable. Fifty thousand can quickly become 100,000, or 500,000. If you have 1 million people on the streets of the capital, then you no longer control the country.”

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were jailed for performing a protest song on a church altar.

They have become celebrities in the West - some MEPs and EU officials crowded round them to take selfies on Tuesday. But conservative Russians do not sympathise with their actions.

“They call us witches and they say we should be burned,” Tolokonnikova said.

Alyokhina noted: “In Russia, women are supposed to stay home, to look after their men, and to keep quiet. So we are inappropriate women.” She added they could be re-arrested “at any moment,” but said they will not change their provocative tactics: “We try to be ‘serious.’ But we can't do it.”

Their call for extra sanctions comes after EU states blacklisted 33 Russians and Crimeans over Putin’s invasion of Crimea.

MEPs will on Wednesday also vote on a list of 32 Russians said to have played a role in the death of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky.

The European Parliament list is not legally binding. But campaigners aim to send it to EU countries’ consulates in Moscow in the hope the political stigma will see them quietly decline visas.

A senior EU diplomat said if Russia invades mainland Ukraine, EU countries will blacklist more senior Kremlin officials.

But he said there is no appetite in the EU Council to impose sanctions for the sake of human rights or political reform.

“If Russia de-escalates the situation in Ukraine, I see a lot of eagerness to return to business as usual … European companies have big interests in Russia. It is one of the EU’s main energy suppliers,” he noted, with the existing list-of-33 set to expire in six months’ time.

He added that Pussy Riot and other activists have a long way to go stimulate change.

“What we saw is that when Putin annexed Crimea his approval ratings actually went up to over 70 percent,” he said.

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