Russian authorities seem intent on keeping the country's civil society activists away from the Sochi Olympics - even if all they are interested in is attending the sporting events.
The means with which Moscow is accomplishing this aim is the "Olympic Passport," or spectator pass, which all ticket holders to Sochi events are required to obtain. Ostensibly, it is an extra security measure, a requirement that no other host country has imposed to date. After purchasing a ticket for a ceremony or sporting event, each ticket holder must apply for the spectator pass online, to be picked up in Sochi and presented on entering Olympic venues.
Russian authorities reserve the right to refuse anyone a spectator pass for any reason. A story in the February 5 edition of The New York Times looks at how the opaque decision process is enabling rights abuses.
The underlying purpose of the measure is supposedly to contain the threat of terrorism at the Winter Games. But as the Times story and other sources suggest, the requirement is also being used by the Russian government to crush the potential for any expression of political dissent. Multiple activists have received rejections thus far, including a native Sochi man who documented abuses against migrant workers brought in to build Olympic infrastructure; an organizer of last year's mass protests against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow; and a politician from the Udmurt Republic, known to Russians as the "welfare deputy" since his month-long experiment of living on a Russian minimum wage.
Olympic ID refuseniks, it should be noted, are allowed to return tickets to official vendors for a full refund.
To be fair, this year's competition is being staged in a volatile neighborhood, where the use of terror tactics is far from uncommon. Concern about a potential terrorist incident is far higher for these Sochi games than for any other competition staged in recent memory.
Even so, the Russian government has not laid out any parameters for how spectator passes are granted or denied. Nor is there any avenue for appeal.
"Obviously, this is done in the name of safety. But it would be better if they really worked on the organization of safety, rather than cutting off fans and potential spectators without oversight," Galina Arapova, a lawyer for the Voronezh-based Mass Media Defense Center, told the Russian-language news website Kavkazskii Uzel
A discernable pattern of rejections suggests that a black list has been compiled, comprising those who have crossed the Russian government in one way or another. Applicants receive a ‘da’ or ‘nyet’ within seconds after pressing the submit button, suggesting that the process is automated. When contacting Olympic ticket offices and customer service numbers, rejected applicants are told there is no way to find out why they have been rejected, and there is no use resubmitting an application for further consideration.
"The thing is, now I won't be able to go to the Paralympics either, even though there'll be people with disabilities there whom I have always helped," wrote a refusenik, activist Nikolay Levshits, on his microblog. He said he intends to file a lawsuit against the Russian Olympic Committee. "There are a lot of truly strong people who could and should be the subjects of reporting," he added.
The spectator pass requirement also opens a door for potential Russian government snooping, some computer security experts point out. As part of process, an applicant must submit a photo of him or herself. Applicants have the option of submitting a photo via the system’s interface, or uploading an old picture. Those choosing the interface exposes themselves to a heightened surveillance risk, as it allows for unhindered access to a computer’s operating system, making it easy for officials to plant spyware.