Russian leader may find it hard to reverse his liberal stand once the Winter Olympics are over

What a difference an Olympic Games can make. A little over a year ago, Germany's Angela Merkel was being lectured by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, over the dangers posed by feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot. Now, not only are two members of the band to be freed from prison, but charges against the 30-strong crew of a Greenpeace ship detained after an Arctic protest have been dropped following a Kremlin amnesty. The two New Zealanders in that crew - David Haussmann and Jon Beauchamp - can attribute their freedom not to any change of mind by Mr Putin about drilling for oil in the Arctic but to the looming Sochi Winter Games.

It's not unusual, of course, for the Olympics and politics to become intertwined. But it is quite a while since the impact has been so pronounced. The international attention that will fall on the Black Sea venue in February has prompted a number of steps that run dramatically counter to Mr Putin's human rights record and his determination to eradicate dissent.

Fifteen months ago, this caused tens of thousands of people to take to the streets of Moscow to protest against new repressive laws, arrests and the interrogation of activists. Germany's Parliament reflected international opinion in passing a resolution that linked Russia's rollback of democratic freedoms to Mr Putin's return to the presidency.

For a time, the President carried on undeterred. Russian prosecutors and tax inspectors raided human rights watchdogs in a clampdown on foreign-funded charities and non-governmental organisations operating in the country. Some in the Kremlin claimed they were fomenting dissent.


Further international outrage followed when an anti-gay law was passed banning the public discussion of homosexual rights and relationships anywhere that children might hear it. Calls for the Games to be boycotted led to Russian Olympic officials hurriedly stating there would be no consequences for gay athletes who chose, say, to wear rainbow armbands at Sochi.

Finally, however, the spotlight on the Olympics, a pet project for Mr Putin, has forced him to react. The treatment of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members and the so-called Arctic 30 had caused uproar around the world, with thousands at rallies calling for their release. The amnesty law passed by the Russian Parliament with the President's support has freed them, and those convicted for participating in demonstrations against Mr Putin. International condemnation of his record will, for the moment, ease.

This is important because the President's main worry has always been the threat to the Games posed by Chechen guerrillas. Chechnya, just some 300km from Sochi, has been locked down by Moscow since the last of several invasions by the Russian army. But bombings by the guerrillas continue, and the Chechen Muslim leader has vowed to stop the Games. Even by the standards of other modern Olympics, the security at Sochi will be extreme.

Clearly, there is a measure of cynicism in Mr Putin's moves to sanitise Russia's image and to preserve the fiction that he presides over a united and contented nation. Little will have been gained if the crackdown on dissent resumes as soon as the last athlete leaves Sochi. Sometimes, however, it is difficult even for the most dominating of political figures to put the genie back in the bottle. Such are the risks of international exposure.