World from Berlin: President's Sochi Boycott 'Sets an Example'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and German President Joachim Gauck during a brief handshake in June 2012 in Berlin. Zoom
AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and German President Joachim Gauck during a brief handshake in June 2012 in Berlin.

German President Joachim Gauck's office has informed the Kremlin he will not be attending the Sochi Olympics in February. German newspapers view his protest of Russian human rights violations as a moral decision by the German head of state.

SPIEGEL reported this weekend that German President Joachim Gauck will not be traveling to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in protest of human rights violations and the oppression of members of the opposition in Russia. Gauck's office reportedly informed the Russian government of the decision last week.

In the run-up to February's Winter Games in Sochi, numerous athletes are protesting a law passed in the Russian parliament, the Duma, that makes any "propaganda" directed at youth and endorsing homosexuality a prosecutable fine. SPIEGEL reports in its latest issue that the German head of state doesn't want his cancellation interpreted as disapproval of his country's athletes. To counter that image, he plans to meet the German Olympic team as they return to Munich after the games.

Gauck, whose office is largely symbolic, recently attended the Summer Olympics as well as the 2012 Paralympics in London. Although he has already been in office since March 2012, Gauck has not yet made an official visit to Russia. A longtime defender of civil rights, Gauck has criticized the country's democratic deficits numerous times and has lambasted the Russian government for impeding critical media. In June 2012, Gauck and Russian President Vladimir Putin were unable to find time in their schedules for a meeting.

In October, Putin offered a more moderate tone and pledged that gays and lesbians would also be able to enjoy the Olympics. "We will do everything in our power to ensure that the athletes, fans and guests at the Olympic Games feel comfortable, regardless of their ethnic origins, race or sexual orientation," Putin said at the time.

A 'Politically Dumb' Decision

The issue of boycotting the games has been a controversial in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel recently spoke out against taking such action. She said the world would be paying close attention to the situation in Russia during the games and that this could be more effective in implementing change than a boycott -- a move she said would hurt athletes more than anyone else.

Gauck's decision not to travel is being widely interpreted as criticism of Russia's treatment of opposition politicians and minorities in the country. The news has been reported on internationally by the Washington Post and the South China Morning Post, and London's Guardian has even reported that the "first major politician" is boycotting the Winter Games.

In Russia, the state media has so far been reserved in its coverage of Gauck's decision. But at least one prominent politician, Robert Schegel of the United Russia party, which dominates the Kremlin, has spoken out against the move, saying the German president's decision may be "personally justifiable, but that it is politically dumb." He also accused the German president of seeking to profit personally at the cost of German-Russian relations. "Gauck wants to benefit politcally, but he is working against Germany's interests because he is damaging its relationship with Russia."

Gauck's father had served time in a Soviet prison camp. And as a citizen of former East Germany, Gauck was a civil rights actvist. During the 1990s, he also helped the agency responsible for the archives of the East German secret police, the Stasi, to address the problems associated with mass spying in the former country. Gauck's relationship with Putin has always been tense.

The decision by the German president to boycott Sochi is a prominent issue on the editorial pages of the country's national newspapers on Monday.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The German president's decision may offend the large majority of the Russian people. The fact that Germany, a strategic partner of Russia, is avoiding this Olympic hour celebrating the new Russian national pride, will be seen by many people in Russia as an expression of the very moral arrogance many accuse Germany and other Western countries of possessing. It would have been better for Gauck to express his justified criticism in front of Russian state television cameras -- during an appearance in Sochi."

The center-left Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Gauck's biography alone suggests that he has little desire to shake hands with former KGB agent Putin or to help the Kremlin exploit the sporting event for its own purposes. The fact that Gauck's spokesperson isn't confirming the news is simply smart diplomacy aimed at preventing any escalation of the situation. Nevertheless, Gauck's decision sets an example for other politicians. Because it's not the athletes who should boycott Sochi. They should participate in the competitions and also be confident in expressing their opinions. Politicians, on the other hand, must consider who their visit will actually help -- and whether or not a boycott might be the smarter choice."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Will the fact that Germany's head of state isn't traveling to Sochi change anything? No. On Sunday many Russians were asking, 'Joachim who?' Most Russians are familiar with the chancellor at most. And the Kremlin will also likely find a way of crying foul because of this allegedly apolitical global sporting event."

"But President Gauck's thinking is different from that of most politicians. He doesn't just ask what effect his actions will have. He also asks if his conscience can accept the idea of supporting and lending a bit of gloss to an undemocratic regime. It appears Gauck's conscience has now recommended he should not. This is the freedom dissidents have -- to remain true to their conscience even if it appears they can't change anything. This kind of thinking has already shaken the foundations of many countries that haven't respected the rule of law."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"To the creators of the Olympics, the old Greeks, notoriously combative Hellenes, the games were a time of peace. There are good reasons for not attending, but also good reasons for making the trip. But in light of today's circumstances, one can probably apply greater pressure in terms of human rights -- specifically with cases like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or Pussy Riot -- when people speak directly to each other rather than about each other."

"When it comes to the issues facing the rest of the world, one also has to consider the days that will come after Sochi. Then things will revolve around the main agenda, one that is essential for Russia -- trade and natural resources, Syria's spreading civil war, barely curbed nuclear experiments in Iran and the issues of North Korea, China and the East China Sea. The president needs to send a moral message that the German government can then act on."

- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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