GENEVA – Protesters will be allowed to express their views at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia after games organizers agreed to allow an area for them following talks with the International Olympic Committee, President Thomas Bach announced Tuesday.
In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who played a major role in Sochi winning the right to host the games during the bid race, which came to a heady climax in 2007, had issued a presidential decree that forbade any protests over issues that were not linked to the games.
Instead, there will now be a sectioned-off area where people will be permitted to voice their protests during the games, which run from Feb. 7-23 in the Black Sea resort where Putin has a holiday home.
The Russian leader’s decree had followed hot on the heels of the equally controversial law that is widely seen as being anti-gay and that has prompted calls for a boycott from some quarters.
However, Bach rejected such calls as out of hand — having had the bitter experience of a boycott as he and his teammates were unable to defend their fencing title at the 1980 Summer 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 said that he favored dialogue instead of an outright boycott.
He said that discussions with the organizers of the Sochi Winter Games had borne fruit. As evidence, he pointed to 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 demonstrators.
Unfamiliar with the layout of Sochi, Bach said he did not know where inside the resort the protest area selected by the organizers was.
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 Winter Games.
Reding had been especially frank, saying there was no way she would attend the Winter Games given how minorities are treated by the Russian government at the moment.
Gauck’s office denied he was boycotting the games — although the former pastor and rights activist did go to the London Games.
Nonetheless, Germany’s human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, told national news agency DPA in an interview that Gauck’s decision not to go to the games was “a wonderful gesture of support for all Russian citizens who are committed to freedom of expression, democracy and civil rights.”
Bach said such decisions had nothing to do with the IOC as they did not issue invitations to political leaders.
“Speaking on behalf of the IOC, I can only say this kind of invitation are invitations from governments to governments and it is not up to the IOC to interfere in government relationships,” he said.
“The IOC wants its autonomy to be respected and it implies also we respect the sovereignty of the government.
“But on a personal note, I know President Gauck a little bit. He’s a man who knows how to use his words, if he would have had something to say from a political prospective, I am sure he would have said this,” Bach added.
Bach said he was confident Sochi would be ready for the Winter Games extravaganza although work remained to be done.
“There is still a lot to do in regard of accommodation, infrastructures, stadiums and others issues but we are very confident that everything will be in place,” he said.