Russia detains Greenpeace ship after Arctic protest

Putin made his comments to an audience of Russia experts that also included a number of opposition leaders who took part in protests against his rule last year, demonstrations that have dwindled since the president took a firm line against dissent. The opposition leaders hailed their inclusion as a sign that Putin may be open to dialogue after months of repressive tactics, but said it may also reflect divisions between relative liberals and hawks in Putin’s inner circle. “The Kremlin has different towers,” said protest leader Gennady Gudkov. “There are towers aimed at … group repression and there are those that understand that this is a dead-end path.” Alexei Navalny, whose strong showing in an election for Moscow mayor this month revived the flagging protest movement, snubbed the Kremlin’s invitation. He has a five-year sentence for theft hanging over him that he says was politically motivated by the Kremlin. OPPONENTS PUT QUESTIONS TO PUTIN Other Kremlin opponents at the annual meeting of the Valdai Group, which is dominated by foreign experts on Russia, put questions to Putin. Some criticised him, particularly over the anti-gay propaganda law he defended at the conference. They regard it as one of a series of repressive measures introduced by Putin to clamp down on dissent and shore up support among a traditional voter base since facing protests. But Putin told the conference: “Any minority’s right to be different must be respected, but the right of the majority must not be questioned.” He said Western governments should look to problems at home, and not get involved in the others’ business, including in Syria, where Moscow has supplied the government with arms. “We see how many countries of the Euro-Atlantic alliance have denied their roots, including Christian values,” he said. “This model is aggressively trying to be imposed all over the world and I am convinced this is a direct path to degradation and … a profound demographic and moral crisis.” Putin suggested the law banning “gay propaganda” was a response to gay marriage gaining acceptance in the West, where he said “families with many children are placed on the same level as same-sex partnerships, and belief in God on the same level as belief in Satan.” The law, which imposes fines and jail sentences of up to 15 days on Russians or deportation for foreigners, has prompted calls for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – where Putin wants to show off Russia as a modern state. In an off-colour remark, Putin fired back at Western criticism of the legislation, saying the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would not have faced trial for having sex with a minor if he were gay.

Greenpeace said armed coastguards had forcibly boarded and seized the Arctic Sunrise on Thursday, a day after two activists were plucked from the side of the Prirazlomnaya rig, owned by the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, and arrested. The Federal Security Service (FSB) said the Amsterdam-registered ship was being towed to Murmansk but might not arrive until Monday. It said there were 27 people on board, including four Russian citizens. The regional unit of Russia’s Investigative Committee said it was considering bringing charges of piracy, which can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in jail. The FSB denied the environmental campaign group’s assertion that the ship had been in international waters when it was seized. Greenpeace, which aimed to draw attention to the threat to the fragile Arctic ecosystem from expanding oil drilling, said it had had no contact with the crew in many hours, and that law enforcement officers had damaged the ship’s communications equipment. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the Greenpeace protest “was aggressive and provocative and bore outward signs of extremist activity that could lead to people’s deaths and other grave consequences”. It said it had summoned the Dutch ambassador to complain. Greenpeace said the real threat to the region was not its campaign ship but reckless energy exploitation. “The safety of our activists remains our top priority and we are working hard to establish what is facing them,” Ben Ayliffe, the group’s Arctic oil campaign head, said in a statement. “They have done nothing to warrant this level of aggression and have been entirely peaceful throughout.” Gazprom declined to comment. Russia has made tapping the region’s hard-to-reach resources a priority, and production from the Prirazlomnoye deposit is expected to start later this year, after delays that Gazprom blamed on technical issues. It is expected to reach peak production of 6 million metric tons per year (120,000 barrels per day) in 2019. (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin)