Vladimir Putin’s decision to open up to a group of Western journalists, including the BBC’s Andrew Marr, was – in one sense – a triumph for the President. Whoever has been teaching him to exercise his smile muscles and make eye contact has been doing an excellent job, but the Russian President’s judo training must also take some of the credit for the success of the exercise. The journalists landed flat on their backs.
As a result, the Russian President was allowed to get away with a defence of his country’s anti-gay legislation by blithely commenting that “I myself know some people who are gay. We’re on friendly terms. I’m not prejudiced in any way.” Gay people , Mr Putin said, faced no discrimination at work or in society in Russia, and a change in the law that Mr Putin sanctioned last year “did not harm anybody”.
None of this bears scrutiny. The law change could be interpreted to ban any public event in support of gay rights. Activists are right to argue that the law also condones homophobia and violence against gay people. They point to arrests, homophobic statements from officials and persistent violence against the community as evidence that to be gay in Russia is to be disciminated against and to live in fear.
With the anti-gay issue dominating the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Mr Putin clearly felt the time was right for a charm offensive. The world should not be taken in – and not only because of Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens.
The Games have already cost more than all the previous 21 Winter Olympics put together. It is claimed that more than a third of the cost has been corruptly creamed off. One specially built 30-mile stretch of road cost an estimated £5bn. A Russian magazine calculated that an ordinary road of the same length could have been paved with caviar for the same price.
Corruption on this scale is new to the Olympics, but it has been the bread and butter of Russian politics since Mr Putin came to power 14 years ago. But he tossed off questions on this issue with practised ease. All the nations participating in the Games have a stake in their success. Hence the tame questions and laughable replies. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union … our country was in a state of depression … We need to feel that we can do great things,” he said. Mr Putin has certainly improved Russia’s national mood, as well as its economy. But his hope that Sochi will, as he put it, be “a turning point in the story of Russia itself”, is ill-founded. It looks much like more of the same.