Oped by ESI chairman Gerald Knaus and ESI fellow Ben Judah, originally published in Reuters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected the grandest of guests for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi — presidents, billionaires, the global big players.
For years he had imagined the presidential box like this: Needling President Barack Obama that NASA now depends on Russian rockets to get American astronauts into orbit. Emphasizing to French President Francois Hollande that France would be better served in the business world if it dropped all references to human rights. Making deals with the German delegation over champagne, as the ice skaters pirouette below, around the Olympic flame.
Putin's dream is slipping out of sight. Month after month of unrelenting bad news from Russia has started to bite.
It is now virtually impossible for U.S. and European Union leaders not to see that Moscow is undermining Western interests — from the Ukrainian diplomatic front to the Syrian killing fields.
Impossible to ignore the return of show trials — which, since the sentencing of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, enabled the prison system to swallow up dozens of Russian dissidents. Impossible to stay silent while Russian legislation imposes draconian penalties for the elusively defined crime of "Homosexual Propaganda."
This is why Western leaders have started to boycott the opening ceremony of Putin's pride and joy — the Sochi Olympics. The first to announce his absence was German President Joachim Gauck, a former anti-communist civil rights activist from East Germany.
Then came a note from Hollande. The White House has now made clear Obama will not attend. In his place the most senior figure in the delegation is former Cabinet secretary Janet Napolitano, who is now president of California's public university system. Canada's prime minister has added his name to those who will be missed.
When dealing with Putin's Russia, democratic politicians need to keep in mind one key point: Whatever the bravado — this regime is not as strong as it seems.
Moscow elites hide their fortunes in British tax havens. Leading ministers, oligarchs and political police chiefs establish homes in discrete addresses across the EU. Russia's leaders may drum up hatred of the West at home to legitimize their kleptocracy, but they are terrified of losing access to Europe — and thus their wives, children and fortunes.
This is why pressure works. Take Putin's shock announcement that he will pardon his former arch rival — the jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The fallen oligarch once tested the Kremlin's control over the oil industry, and has been locked away in prison camps in outer Siberia and near the Finnish border since 2003. Nobody expected Putin to ever release Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky is not the only man to be freed from Russia's prisons. Putin's Duma has passed an amnesty covering many prisoners — including men above age 60, veterans, minors, invalids, mothers and pregnant women serving up to five years.
Among the more than 20,000 due to be freed are most of the political activists locked up since the December 2011 protest movement broke out — including the globally known girl band Pussy Riot.
This could still just be a PR blast to stop the wave of cancelations of Putin's big show in Sochi. Outside pressure must continue until these prisoners are out of jail and reunited with their families.
But there is a more important lesson in this stunning news from Moscow. None of this would be happening had the Kremlin not decided that the Winter Olympics risked turning into a public relations disaster. Instead of celebrating Russia's return as a superpower, the news would have been dominated by LGBT athletes shouting "Free Pussy Riot" at the medals podium.
This would also not be happening had the Russian elite not been concerned that Brussels might impose its own version of Washington's Magnitsky List visa — which bars egregious human rights abusers in Russia, including those involved in the torture and murder of whistleblower Sergey Magnitsky.
This is why the West must not take one amnesty as a reason to reverse course. Putin's action should be viewed, instead, as a confirmation of the policy of frost and isolation.
Pressure works. Which is why we need even more of it to roll back Putin's authoritarianism and dissuade the Kremlin from a new round of arrests and show trials once the Olympic flame has left Russia.
This is why the EU needs to develop a forward-looking policy of denying entry and visa to Russian human rights violators. This would penalize criminal elements of the Russian elite, which seems to have parked everything it values in Western Europe.
To make such a policy work in Europe's jumble of institutions, member states could sponsor an independent commission of senior former judges, who would make annual recommendations to the European Council on who should be barred from entry. The council has the power to decide who may or may not enter its territory — so no new legislation is needed.
This proposal avoids two pitfalls: it is not summary justice and it provides a mechanism for appeal. The independent commission would review its recommended blacklist annually, providing room for appeal. The whole process would also ensure transparency.
Travel is a privilege — not a right. It has been regularly withdrawn from celebrities, even powerful politicians in allied states. The boxer Mike Tyson, for example, is banned from Britain. Several members of the Israeli Knesset considered to be racist also cannot enter Britain. The United States bars a long list of people, including Narendra Modi, the Indian politician slated to be the opposition BJP's candidate for prime minister in the 2014 elections.
Pressure works. This is why the EU needs to continue a principled and tough policy toward Russia's autocratic elite. The amnesty that Putin just announced may be electrifying news. Remember, however, that Russia is a country where not only elections are stolen, but also vast riches and resources.
Putin respects and heeds the strong. He can understand a clear message. This is why the EU needs an aggressive policy of systematic visa bans — and to help prevent the next Khodorkovsky from going to jail in the first place.