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 told the Kremlin of his decision, which is understood to be a response to the Russian government’s violations of human rights and harassment 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 visited the Olympics and the Paralympics in London last summer.
The head of the Russian parliament’s foreign delegation on Sunday criticised Gauck’s decision. Alexey Pushkov tweeted: “The German president Gauck has not criticised the killing of children and women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he is so critical of Russia that he doesn’t even want to travel to Sochi.”
The boycott is the first of the Games 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 that criminalises gay “propaganda”.
In an open letter in June to the British prime minister and the IOC, 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.
In July, US senator Lindsey Graham also called for a US boycott of the Gamesin July, though his motives had been slightly different: the South Carolina Republican said Russia needed to be rebuked for offering asylum to Edward Snowden.
While Germany under chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Merkel has traditionally been keen to tread carefully in diplomatic exchanges with Russia, a standoff between Gauck and Putin has seemed only a matter of time.
Gauck, in his post-1989 role as special representative for Stasi archives, has come to represent a systematic investigation into the crimes of East Germany’s surveillance state, while former KGB agent Putin has overseen the rehabilitation of secret service personnel during his time in power. In German political circles, it is no secret that there is little love lost between the two presidents.
On Sunday, Gauck’s office confirmed he had declined to travel to Russia next February, but seemed to pull back from explicitly describing his decision as a boycott.
A spokeswoman said there was no fixed rule that the president had to visit the Olympics, and that president Horst Köhler did not visit the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
The German Union of Olympic Athletes said no visit by the president to Sochi had ever been planned in the first place. Gauck was, however, planning to take part in a welcoming party in Munich for returning German Olympians.
By Philip Oltermann