Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday reversed a blanket ban on protests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, bowing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Russia had initially banned any political protests in the Russian Black Sea resort city during next month’s Games as part of a tough security crackdown, ostensibly aimed at preventing attacks by Islamist militants.
Putin signed a presidential decree saying that demonstrations, pickets and marches “can be held,” but that their locations and routes must be agreed with city officials in Sochi, along with regional police and security forces.
The decree, published on the Kremlin’s Web site, allows officials to set limits on how many people can take part in protests during the Games, which run from Feb. 7 to Feb. 23.
Putin had issued a previous decree in August last year that forbade any rallies or marches over issues unrelated to the Games from being held inside the tightly controlled security zone.
The draconian measure was to take effect on Tuesday and last until March 21 after the city hosts the Paralympic Games from March 7 through March 16.
The IOC on Saturday praised the decision, saying that it came after Putin promised the committee last year that he would relax rules on protests.
“We welcome this announcement — it is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authority’s plans to ensure free expression, whilst delivering safe and secure Games,” the IOC said in a statement.
IOC president Thomas Bach said last month that the Russian organizers had agreed to allow a “protest zone” at the Games after discussions with the committee.
Putin has ordered organizers and regional officials to select a single location in the city where protesters would be able to gather “freely,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“The president charged the Olympic Games’ organizers, along with the leadership of the Krasnodar region and Sochi City Hall, with picking out a spot in the city where it would be possible to freely hold actions, rallies and other events — including, if necessary, protests,” Peskov said.
Putin is currently in Sochi where he is inspecting the Olympic sites.
US President Barack Obama and European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, have announced they will not attend the opening ceremony amid concerns over Russia’s rights record and particularly a recent law banning “homosexual propaganda.”
The authorities in other Russian cities, including Moscow, regularly instruct organizers of political protests to move events away from central areas and limit the number of participants. However, limiting protests to a single location would go beyond the usual restrictions.