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Dispatches: World Leaders Thinking Twice about Sochi
December 16, 2013

The news that several world leaders will not attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi sends a clear signal: Russia’s climate of discrimination and abuse ahead of the Sochi Games should not stand. The country’s anti-gay “propaganda” law contradicts the Olympic Charter, muzzles the media, and has created an unprecedented crisis for athletes, reporters, spectators, and, obviously, government officials. 

This week Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, announced she would not attend the Olympic Games in Russia this winter, tweeting that she would “certainly not go to Sochi as long as minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation.”

Reding and other leaders are not proposing a boycott that could affect athletes and national teams who have trained for years to compete, but rather are making a statement that Russia needs to repeal its anti-gay law and other abusive laws. That is something the International Olympic Committee itself should do. 

The two most prominent heads of state to thus far declare their non-participation – French President François Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck – have not confirmed they are protesting against Russia’s discriminatory anti-gay law. But leaders should indeed be wary that by attending the February 7 Opening Ceremonies for the Sochi Games, they implicitly endorse Russia’s crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and the country’s escalating climate of violence and homophobia.  

They may also be concerned about the silencing of activists and journalists ahead of the Games. Or the abusive “foreign agents” law that is at the core of Russia’s crackdown on civil society that worries the leaders. Or Russia being the most consistent obstacle to the international community addressing abuses against civilians in Syria.  

There are plenty of other concerns as well: the bogus charges against the Arctic Greenpeace protesters. The Pussy Riot case. The Bolotnaya case. And the exploitation of migrant workers and other abuses directly linked to Russia’s preparations for the Games themselves.

Whatever their reasons, the presidents of France and Germany have possibly set a trend in motion: more leaders are likely to join them in steering clear of Sochi. And they should. Unless world leaders are willing to speak out publicly and in meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s disastrous human rights record and specifically call for the repeal of the anti-gay law, they shouldn’t make the trip.