Putin Loosens Protest Ban in Sochi for the Olympics, but Restrictions Remain
President Vladimir V. Putin on Saturday eased a sweeping ban on public protests in Sochi, Russia, starting on Tuesday and continuing through the Olympic Games next month and the Paralympic Games in March. However, any demonstrations will require approval in advance from the authorities.
The ban, which Mr. Putin ordered in August, had prompted criticism from human rights organizations and expressions of concern from the International Olympic Committee. The new order, published on the Kremlin's website, appeared to be an effort to burnish Russia's reputation before the Olympics. It followed the release of some of the country's most prominent prisoners, including the tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, two performers from the punk band Pussy Riot, and 30 activists from Greenpeace.
The announcement on Saturday formalized plans that had been in the works to allow approved protests at a park in the Khosta district, about halfway between central Sochi and the Adler district, where the main Olympic Village is.
"Please, everybody, welcome," the president of the Olympic organizing committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, said in an interview in December when asked about the criticism Russia faces on issues like political freedoms, gay rights, and environmental damage caused by the construction in Sochi. "You're free to express those opinions during the Games."
The protest zone, about nine miles from the nearest Olympic site, is similar to three created by the Chinese government during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In China, however, the authorities refused to grant permission for any rallies in the protest zones and instead harassed or arrested those who applied.
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Tanya Lokshina, Russia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Saturday that the easing of the ban was part of Russia's "efforts to convince critics that it's a democracy where freedom of expression is respected within reasonable limits."
"I suggest they shouldn't let themselves be convinced that easily," Ms. Lokshina said.
The restrictions on protests are part of some of the most extensive security measures ever put in place for an international sporting event. The threat of terrorism has been a paramount concern at all Olympic Games, but it has been greater in Sochi because of the simmering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus, not far away.
Twin suicide bombings that killed at least 34 people last week in Volgograd, about 400 miles northeast of Sochi, raised new fears that followers of the terrorist leader Doku Umarov intended to make good on his threat last summer to disrupt the Games.
Beginning on Tuesday, the authorities will ban unregistered vehicles in Sochi and increase security in public places. Russia's equivalent of the National Security Agency is reported to have created a surveillance system to intercept any phone calls or emails to or from people in the area. Visitors to the Games, which begin Feb. 7, will have specially encoded passes in addition to tickets for events. Anyone seeking to hold a demonstration will have to get approval from the mayor's office and the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the K.G.B.
The Kremlin issued the new order as Mr. Putin toured Sochi for a second day to oversee final preparations of the two "clusters" of Olympic facilities: one in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana, where he skied, and one on the coast, where he played hockey on a team that included the Russian hockey veteran Pavel Bure and the president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. (Mr. Putin's team won, 12-3.)
Mr. Putin was accompanied by many senior officials in his government, underscoring the prominence of the Olympic project. With only five weeks to the opening ceremony, some sites are not ready, including the main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies are to take place, and the ski jump, which has been plagued by scandal and cost overruns.
Vladimir I. Yakunin, the president of Russian Railways, which built a network of train lines connecting Sochi to the Olympic sites, joined Mr. Putin as he rode the train from the mountains to the coastal cluster.
"The most difficult stage of the preparation of our facilities is finished," Mr. Yakunin told reporters, according to the Interfax news agency. "Of course, there are some details to be finished, but in general everything is ready."
- By The New York Times