The German president has become the first major political figure to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. According to German weekly Der Spiegel, Joachim Gauck last week informed the Kremlin of his decision, which is understood to be a response to the Russian government's violations of human rights and harrassment of the opposition.

Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who played a key part in the East German protest movement before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has declined any official visits to Russia since coming to office in March 2012 and repeatedly criticised the country's "deficit of rule of law" and "air of imperialism".

In June a scheduled meeting between Gauck and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was cancelled – supposedly because of clashing schedules. Gauck had visited both the Olympics and the Paralympics in London last summer.

The boycott is the first by a major political figure. So far, it has mainly been artists and activists such as Stephen Fry, Harvey Fierstein and Lady Gaga, who have called for a boycott of the Sochi Games in reaction to a new Russian law which criminalises gay "propaganda".

In an open letter to the British prime minister and the IOC in June, Fry said "an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi is simply essential". David Cameron has ruled out a boycott, arguing that anti-gay prejudice would be better tackled by presence rather than absence.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has since echoed Cameron's stance, pointing to the Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan as proof that public attention could do more to change attitudes than boycotts.

US senator Lindsey Graham also called for a US boycott of the Games in July, though his motives had been slightly different: the South Carolina Republican said Russia needed to be rebuked for offering asylum to Edward Snowden. © Guardian News and Media 2013