Bill Etheridge has tweeted about his return from an “economic forum in Yalta” where he addressed “government officials from Russia”. In his speech to the conference, Etheridge appeared to cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, claiming that there is a lot of “murky water” and that no one has provided “solid proof”.
The event’s organising committee features a number of individuals sanctioned by the West for their alleged involvement in criminal activities perpetrated by the Russian state.
Sergey Aksyonov chairs the organising committee. His position as Head of the Republic of Crimea and involvement in the region’s illegal annexation by Russia has earned him US sanctions that freeze his assets and ban him from entering the country. Last year he declared that Vladimir Putin should be president of Russia for life, and that the Soviet Union would never have collapsed with Putin in charge.
Another member of the committee, Sergey Abisov, is Putin’s Interior Minister in Crimea. He has been sanctioned not just by the US, but by the European Union that pays Bill Etheridge’s wages as an MEP.
Other members of the committee were also involved in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Georgy Bryusov was revealed to have emailed an advisor of Vladimir Putin to suggest the creation of a Russian nationalist group to “fight and defeat” pro-European protesters in Ukraine.
Etheridge is now likely to face pressure explain his involvement in the conference. His most recent declarations of interests to the European Parliament and to Dudley Council where he is a local councillor were made before the conference, making it unclear how his visit to Yalta was funded.