Russia makes U-turn over Sochi protesters

AFP, LAUSANNE, Switzerland

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 19

Russian authorities have agreed to go back on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree that no protests will be permitted at the Olympics in Sochi in February after pressure applied from the International Olympic Committee, IOC president Thomas Bach announced on Tuesday.

Instead there will be a sectioned off area where people will be permitted to voice their protests during the Games that runs from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23 in the Black Sea resort, where Putin has a holiday home.

In August, Putin, who played a major role in Sochi winning the right to host the Games during the bid race that came to a heady climax in 2007, had issued a presidential decree which forbade any protests to take place over issues that were not linked to the Games.

This followed hot on the heels of the equally controversial law which is seen to be anti-gay and which has prompted calls for a boycott from some quarters, although Bach has rejected such calls out of hand — he has bitter experience of a boycott as he and his teammates were unable to defend their fencing title at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of a Western boycott over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Bach, who was elected to the post in September to succeed outgoing president Jacques Rogge, has favored dialogue instead and he said that discussions with the organizers of the Sochi Games had borne fruit, as evidenced by the organizing committee’s announcement on Tuesday that the protesters would after all have an area where they could protest about anything they liked.

“We welcome the announcement of the organizing committee, which is following some discussions we had with our Russian partners that in Sochi a protest zone will be established,” Bach said.

“The space will give people who want to express their opinion or want to demonstrate for or against something the opportunity to do it in a special protest zone in Sochi. It will be located in Sochi. It will be open for demonstrations and protests. It is a measure we welcome so that everybody can express his or her free opinion,” the 59-year-old German added.

Asked whether the Russian authorities had offered guarantees that no protesters would be punished, Bach said that the protest area was specifically designed to prevent such reprisals against protesters.

The organizers have not specified where the area will be and Bach, not being over familiar with the geography of Sochi, was not able to say whether the protest zone would be in the center or on the outskirts of the resort.

Bach, a lawyer by profession, said that he would not comment on the decisions over the past two days that neither German President Joachim Gauck nor European Commission Vice President Vivianne Reding would be attending the Games.

Reding had been especially frank saying there would be no way she would attend the Games given the way minorities are treated by the Russian Government at the moment.