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The Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony is taking place today, and organisers have declared that a record 65 world leaders are attending. But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. As it turns out, some of the biggest names in global politics will not be in the stands cheer on their athletes as the games are officially kick off. Indeed, quite a few won’t be taking the trip to Sochi at all. Barack Obama is sending a delegation including openly gay figure skater Brian Boitano in his place, and Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Francois Hollande are also staying away.
But while the International Olympic Committee’s Thomas Bach was less than impressed by the apparent boycott, labelling it an “ostentatious gesture” that “costs nothing but makes international headlines”, the absence of the big guns does give the lesser-known world leaders a chance to shine. Not all guests have been confirmed, but we’ve got the low-down on some of the the leaders the cameras might pan to during today’s festivities, or who could be spotted in the slopes over the coming weeks.
Putin’s long time colleague and fellow ice hockey enthusiast surely wouldn’t miss the Winter Olympics for the world. The Belarusian president is known as “the last dictator in Europe”, his near 20 years in power having passed without a single free and fair election. Under his leadership, peaceful protests have been violently dispersed, and civil society activists and political opposition — including rival candidates from the 2010 presidential elections — have been jailed. A brand new report from Index also concludes that: “Belarus continues to have one of the most restrictive and hostile media environments in Europe.”
The Turkish president made global headlines last summer, over his regime’s violent crackdown on the peaceful Gezi park demonstrations. Rather than accepting the protests were a manifestation of genuine grievances by his people, he blamed “foreign hands” and their “domestic collaborators” like many a less-than-democratic leader before him. His government was recently implicated in a big corruption scandal, and only yesterday, parliament approved controversial amendments to the country’s internet law. The new law, opposed by civil society, the opposition and international organisations alike, gives the government wide-reaching powers over the internet, effectively allowing them to block websites without court rulings, and gives them access to user data.
The Ukrainian president’s failure to sign a treaty securing closer ties with the EU in November, sparked the country’s ongoing Euromaidan protests. The authorities response was heavy handed — police clashed with demonstrators and journalist were targeted, leading to international condemnation. They authorities even briefly implemented a highly repressive new law, among other things allowing security services to monitor the internet, and defining NGOs receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents”. The law was, however, scrapped only days later following outrage from civil society. Meanwhile,Ukraine’s Prime Minister and government also stepped down, while Yanukovych took four days off ill. He’s back in the office now — just in time head to Sochi for a much-hyped meeting with Putin.
Kazakhstan’s president has been in power since 1991, and during that time, allegations of human rights abuses, including attacks on demonstrators and independent media, as well as widespread corruption have been regularly levelled at him. In 2012, following clashed between the police and striking workers, the president, who already effectively controls the legislature and the judiciary, further extended his emergency powers. But Putin wouldn’t even be his only high-flying friend. In September, Kanye West performed at his grandson’s wedding. The reported price tag? $3 million. Did I mention the accusations of corruption? Meanwhile, former British prime minister Tony Blair spent two years advising Nazarbayev and his government on democracy and good governance — a deal which “produced no change for the better or advance of democratic rights in the authoritarian nation”.
He has been the head of the government of Tajikistan since 1992, and was in power during the country’s civil war, where 100,000 people lost their lives. Allegations of human rights abuses, including torture by security forces and arbitrary arrests, are widespread. Much of the media is state-controlled, and independent journalists face violence and intimidation. “Publicly insulting the president” can see you jailed for as long as five years. Recently, a prominent member of the opposition, Zaid Saidov, was sentenced to 26 years in prison following what has been described as a “politically motivated trial”. In Sochi, he is set to meet with not only Putin, but also Chinese leader Xi Jinping.