Alan Hubbard: Vladimir Putin compromises in bid to avoid the global cold shoulder at Sochi Games

Few world leaders are more aware of the power of sport in global politics
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The Independent Online

What is Vladimir Putin's Winter Olympics game? After months of fears that the snowy mountains of Sochi would resound with echoes of old-style Russian repression that was so evident at the Moscow Games of 1980, it appears that instead there has been a glacial glasnost.

The canny Russian president, conscious that his country is risking opprobrium at a time when its economy needs investment, has apparently effected a pre-Games amnesty with a series of gestures transparently made to appease an anxious International Olympic Committee and allay concerns of boycotts and demonstrations disfiguring the event.

These include the release from jail of the Pussy Riot feminist punk protest group, dropping charges against Greenpeace activists and the unexpected pardoning of his long-time imprisoned political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

One of the freed members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said on her return to Moscow that their release was blatantly designed to improve Russia's image before February's Games, which she called Putin's pet project.

Their success is a matter of "masculine pride" for him, she said, crediting the threat of a boycott for her group's early release from a Siberian labour camp. "The thaw has nothing to do with humanism. The authorities only did this under pressure from Russian and Western society."

It is a shrewdly timed exercise in damage limitation by Putin. Few world leaders are more aware of the power of sport in global politics than the former KGB officer and judo black belt.

But the political controversy is not likely to go away. The presidents of the United States, France, Germany, Canada and Belgium say they will not attend the Games, though no one specifies that this is in protest at Russia's new anti-gay laws .

We revealed last week that Prime Minister David Cameron was considering staying away, and it has now been confirmed he will not go to Sochi, though the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, and Sports Minister, Helen Grant, who both have responsibilities for equality, will be there to support Team GB.

Downing Street insists that Cameron's absence is not a statement about Russia's stance on gay rights. "He doesn't think that boycotts and grand gestures achieve much," said an aide.

The law signed this year banning the distribution of so-called propaganda about non-traditional sexual relationships to minors raised concerns about whether gay athletes and spectators would face discrimination at the Olympics.

However, it is believed Putin has intervened to backtrack on his sports minister Vitaliy Mutko's statement that the law could be used during the Games to prosecute anyone voicing support for homosexuality.

Putin said last week that Russia's main responsibility as host was to ensure equality for all: "The main thing for us is the good organisation of these competitions, the creation of equal terms for all athletes."

These Olympics are clearly part of Putin's aim to highlight the international strength of Russia and his own status as the world's most powerful leader. To ensure the success of the event in the mountains around the westernised Black Sea resort that is Putin's summer retreat, his cabinet last week approved an extra $50 million (£30m) in subsidies for the Games, whose overall cost of $51bn makes them the most expensive Olympics – winter or summer – in history.

But preventing Russia's 2014 snow show from becoming a cold war that could prove a damning prelude to their hosting of the football World Cup in 2018 is obviously a price Putin believes is worth paying, financially and politically.