The roster of world leaders arriving in Sochi for Friday’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics neatly illustrates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current position on the international stage: Courted by the East, obeyed by Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours, but increasingly a pariah in the West.
Topping the list of expected guests are Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Asian rivals that have been butting heads since the two men came to office. Both leaders seek a steady supply of Russian oil and gas to feed their economies, as well as the Kremlin’s backing in a charged territorial row over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
North Korea’s ceremonial head-of-state, Kim Yong-nam, will also be in attendance, even though no North Korean athletes qualified for the Games.
The presidents of former Soviet republics Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Latvia will all be in Sochi. So too will be Georgy Margvelashvili, the new President of Georgia, which went to war with Russia on the first day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. A Kremlin spokesman said there’s a chance Mr. Margvelashvili and Mr. Putin will shake hands in Sochi, which would mark a symbolic end to the hostilities of six years ago.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the 2014 Sochi Organizing Committee, said Thursday that 65 heads of state and government and international organizations are expected to attend Russia’s first Winter Olympics. He said the total was a record, and three times the number of leaders who attended the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
But many of the most powerful leaders found somewhere else to be during the opening ceremonies. Among Russia’s fellow G-8 members, only Mr. Abe and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta are expected to attend.
U.S. President Barack Obama sent a tellingly low-level delegation to Sochi, headed by Janet Napolitano, a former Secretary of Homeland Security. She will be joined by several openly gay athletes, in what was seen as Mr. Obama rebuking Mr. Putin for signing a new law that criminalizes “propaganda” portraying gay and lesbian relationships as normal.
While the Russian delegation to Vancouver four years ago was headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, Canada’s delegation is Sochi is headed by former skiing star Steve Podborski and John Kur, Canada’s new ambassador to Moscow. Foreign Minister John Baird has criticized the anti-gay law as “incitement to intolerance.”
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will attend the opening ceremony, but used a press conference on Thursday to criticize discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrest, imprisonment and discriminatory restrictions they face,” Mr. Ban said, without referring specifically to the situation in Russia.
“I know principle six of the Olympic Charter enshrines the IOC’s opposition to any form of discrimination. Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century.”
Speaking later, Mr. Kozak denied gays are persecuted in Russia. He argued there should be no gay rights protests during the Games. “Political propaganda during sporting events is forbidden by the Olympic charter and Russian law,” he said.
Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have also criticized the Kremlin for its involvement in Syria, where Moscow has strongly backed Bashar al-Assad in the civil war there, and Ukraine, where Mr. Putin has threatened massive economic retaliation if Kiev signs a trade deal with the EU.
The most important meeting in Sochi is expected to be the encounter between Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has come under heavy criticism in Ukraine for leaving the country in the midst of political chaos at home.
Mr. Yanukovych dismissed Prime Minister Mykola Azarov last month in a concession aimed at placating the pro-EU protesters who have occupied central Kiev since November. Mr. Putin has since suggested that Russia could withhold $15-billion in promised aid until it sees the shape and political leaning of the new Ukrainian government. The threat has deepened Ukraine’s economic crisis, with the country’s currency, the hryvnia, plunging this week to a five-year low against the dollar.
The Olympic flame arrived in Sochi on Thursday, as it neared the end of its 56,000-kilometre journey, which has seen the torch taken to the North Pole, Siberia and into space by Russian cosmonauts.
Details of the opening ceremonies, which begin at 8:14 p.m. local time Friday, remains a closely guarded secret in Sochi. Volunteers who were invited to attend a partial rehearsal earlier this week said it was heavy on opera, ballet and modern Russian pop. The gala is expected to showcase the country’s long and proud cultural history, while suggesting the country’s reemergence as a global power.
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