Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday reversed a blanket ban on protests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, bowing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Russia had initially banned any political protests in the Russian Black Sea resort city during the February Games as part of a tough security crackdown, ostensibly aimed at preventing attacks by Islamist militants.
Putin signed a presidential decree saying that demonstrations, pickets and marches “can be held” but that their locations and routes must be agreed with city officials in Sochi along with regional police and security forces.
The decree, published on the Kremlin’s website, allows officials to set limits on how many people can take part in protests during the Games, which run from February 7 to 23.
Putin had issued a previous decree in August that forbade any rallies or marches over issues unrelated to the Games from being held inside the tightly controlled security zone.
The draconian measure was to take effect on January 7 and last until March 21 after the city hosts the Paralympic Games from March 7 to 16.
The IOC on Saturday praised the decision, saying that it came after Putin promised the committee last year that he would relax rules on protests.
“We welcome this announcement – it is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authority’s plans to ensure free expression whilst delivering safe and secure Games,” the IOC said in a statement.
IOC President Thomas Bach said in December that the Russian organisers had agreed to allow a “protest zone” at the Games after discussions with the committee.
Putin has ordered organisers and regional officials to select a single location in the city where protesters would be able to gather “freely”, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the RIA Novosti news agency.
“The president charged the Olympic Games’ organisers along with the leadership of the Krasnodar region and Sochi city hall with picking out a spot in the city where it would be possible to freely hold actions, rallies and other events — including if necessary protests,” Peskov said.
Putin is currently in Sochi where he is inspecting the Olympic sites. On Saturday he viewed rehearsals of the opening ceremony whose details are being kept strictly under wraps. Journalists were barred, Russian news agencies reported.
US President Barack Obama and European leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron have announced they will not attend the opening ceremony amid concerns over Russia’s rights record and particularly a recent law banning “homosexual propaganda”.
The authorities in other Russian cities including Moscow regularly instruct organisers of political protests to move events away from central areas and limit the number of participants. Limiting protests to a single location would go beyond the usual restrictions, however.
Russia is introducing extremely strict security measures during the Games, including drone surveillance, limited transport access to the city and the monitoring of the phone records of athletes and journalists accredited to the event.
Fears that Islamist militants could stage attacks during the Games were heightened by two suicide bombings last month in the southern city of Volgograd, a transport hub 700 kilometres (400 miles) from Sochi.