Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed over the weekend that he will ease the blanket ban on protests his country had planned for the Sochi Winter Olympics, which start next month. Instead, Russia will be designating several "protest zones" where, at least in theory, demonstrations will be allowed. But far from actually advancing freedom of expression in Russia, Putin's move seems like the latest in a series of gestures meant to simply buy some good headlines ahead of the games' opening ceremonies.
The Sochi Olympics, of course, have been dogged by controversy regarding Russia's crackdown on political dissent and its passage of extreme anti-gay laws, which Russia's leaders at least initially said would be enforced during the games. There were even scattered calls for the U.S. and others to boycott the games entirely, in a repeat of 1980. (You can see my piece on why such a boycott would be a bad idea here.)
Putin has mostly been defiant in the face of worldwide criticism during the buildup to these Olympics. But in the last few weeks, in addition to creating the aforementioned protest zones, Putin released members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who had been jailed for dissent. He also freed former oil tycoon and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as 30 Greenpeace activists captured and jailed by Russia three months ago.
But do these moves signal that Putin is turning over a new leaf? Hardly. Instead, they seem to be aimed at doing the minimum possible to quiet complaints in the weeks before the Olympics begin.
As Reuters reported, here's what Putin's new directive regarding protests at the games says: "Gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets, which are not directly connected to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, could be staged on January7-March 21 2014 ... only after agreeing with ... a local security body." And even if someone manages to get permission from said security body, they'll receive the right to protest in a zone that is 9 miles from the nearest Olympic site. That hardly amounts to allowing political speech in any real sense of the phrase.
Putin's inspiration for his move seems to be the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during which Chinese authorities also created protest zones. Those zones turned out to be little more than a joke, though, as authorities rejected applications for demonstrations even within the zones and detained those attempting to use them. Time Magazine dubbed China's effort "complaint-free protest zones."
But, inevitably, the International Olympic Committee praised Putin's move, saying "It is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authorities' plans to ensure free expression during the Games whilst delivering safe and secure Games." This is consistent with the committee's general gutlessness regarding Putin's draconian measures. When the anti-gay laws were first passed, the committee – instead of challenging them and insisting Russia respect the games' commitment to equality or lose the right to host future Olympics – tapdanced around, merely giving assurances that athletes wouldn't be affected (which Russia then contradicted).
As Tanya Lokshina, Russia director at Human Rights Watch, said, easing the protest ban is simply Russia's latest last-ditch effort "to convince critics that it's a democracy where freedom of expression is respected within reasonable limits." She added: "I suggest they shouldn't let themselves be convinced that easily."
Indeed, I'm not sure anyone short of the International Olympic Committee is buying that Putin has any real commitment to allowing political dissent during the games. In fact, things will likely get worse, not better, as Russia is facing some very real terrorist threats. But since the committee is the only entity with any real power when it comes to the Olympics, it's the only one that needs convincing. And, as usual, it is taking what Putin says at face value, hook, line and sinker.