by Noah Simon | February 7, 2014
Russia will employ 40,000 police, armed service members, and security workers for the Winter Games in order to minimize threats from the historically volatile Caucasus region that neighbors Sochi. The government’s exhaustive security measures are designed to prevent terrorist attacks. However, Russia is also using these security measures in effort to further silence political dissent and halt mass demonstrations. In spite of the many restrictions in Sochi, leading Russian activists and opposition members are finding ways to convey their messages to international audiences during the Olympics.
Protest Zones and Regulations
During August 2013, President Vladimir Putin moved to ban protests at the Olympics outright. By early January 2014, the Russian government announced they would allow demonstrations, as long as local authorities in Sochi approve them beforehand. In addition, Russia designated a zone for protests, placing it in a town seven miles away from the area of competition.
Requiring approval for protests and the creation of specific protest zones is not unprecedented. In fact, these very tactics were used for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government looked to deter protests from garnering attention during the games. In Beijing, nearly all permit applications for demonstrations submitted before the games were rejected. Out of 77 permits submitted prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 74 were instantly denied.
Thus far, one application for protest has been approved in Sochi. The permit was granted to six supporters of the local Communist Party. The group applied for a permit on January 27, and was permitted to hold a rally on February 1, six days before the opening ceremonies. Even the six participants noted that while their protest was approved, it received hardly any attention since the protest zone is set in a mostly desolate area.
Recent Arrests and Physical Restrictions
On February 3, Russia arrested Yevgeny Vitishko, an activist who had reported on the environmental impact of construction leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Vitishko will be jailed for 15 days for swearing while waiting at a bus stop- a misdemeanor that is seldom enforced. Rights groups believe he was arrested to prevent him from being in Sochi during the games.
Russian authorities also have halted protests by foreigners. An Irish PETA activist had her passport taken away after staging a protest against the use of fur in Russia. Laura Dalton, an animal ambassador for PETA dressed as a snow bunny and held placards against the use of animal furs.
To attend the Winter Games, spectators must apply for an “Olympic passport” to enter any of the venues even if they have purchased event tickets. The Russian government has rejected applications for passports from prominent activists and political opposition supporters. These applications can be rejected without any explanation from authorities.
Nikolai Levshits, a prominent Russian activist who was denied the Olympic passport, told the New York Times, “It’s the first time in Olympic history when you need extra documents besides a ticket to attend”.
Planned Protests and Russia’s Political Opposition
Given the regulations, it is unclear whether there will be any significant demonstrations in Sochi during the games from political opposition groups.
Still, Russian activists at home and abroad are striving to bring more attention to their causes during the Olympics. On February 2, several thousand gathered in Moscow to demand the release of 20 prisoners arrested in the 2012 demonstrations against President Putin.
International campaigns and initiatives have also begun to bring attention to the political and social causes of many Russians. Leading opposition politician Alexey Navalny helped create a website detailing the production costs for the Olympics in effort to expose government corruption. The website examines Olympic venues and reveals the source of funding for their creation.
Meanwhile, two members of the protest band “Pussy Riot” have begun an international campaign to free political prisoners. Recently freed from prison themselves, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina spoke at an Amnesty International concert and have appeared on U.S. television, speaking out against the Russian prison system, the controversial law restricting gay activities, and President Putin’s policies.