SOCHI, Russia — In a homely park nestled under a noisy overpass, 10 miles from the Olympic Park, a woman unfurled an orange and black flag Tuesday, donned a sandwich board adorned with a picture of President Vladimir Putin, and began a solo demonstration — in support of Putin.
This was the official Winter Olympics protest park, the only place in Sochi to hold a legal demonstration during the Games.
The Kremlin made a big deal of Putin’s decision in January to overrule a ban on rallies, and given all the gripes locals and activists have regarding Russia’s preparation for the Olympics, this figured to be a lively place.
Instead, the park provides a concise example of how Russia’s authoritarian system tamps down dissent.
In a departure from the Soviet era, when the Communist Party could declare anyone who bucked the system an enemy of the state, the new Russia has all the trappings of democracy — elections, protections, the right to protest. But elections are suspect, protections are routinely ignored, laws are used to harass and detain people who try to speak up.
As a result, most people keep their gripes to themselves.
The pro-Putin demonstrator Tuesday, Tatyana Shelkovskaya, stood vigil by herself, but she was not alone. A half-dozen men in dark jackets wandered the park, taking pictures of reporters, listening in on conversations and writing down notes. All of them said they were just passing by.
One of them, who identified himself as Alexei Barto, a visiting political scientist, said he was “interested in the process.” He and the others chatted like old friends with a city official who also turned up.
The official, Tatyana Katanidi, who said she is involved in the permitting process, said the pro-Putin demonstrator was only the second person to use the legal protest area since the Games began. Katanidi said someone else had staged a solo protest, but she could not remember what he wanted. A third group applied but was turned down because it had too many people, she said, and no one else has asked permission.
A local human rights lawyer, Alexander Popkov, said he knew why: Several activists he defends, who might have staged rallies, are behind bars on what he called trumped-up charges. And that makes people worry that protest is not just futile; it's dangerous.
“People are apolitical because they are afraid,” said Popkov, who represents some of the activists jailed or charged with crimes. “They prefer to sit in the kitchen and be discontent. They say there’s nothing you can do anyway.”
Popkov went through a litany of people who he said had been detained, arrested, charged, or fined for offenses they did not commit: An election observer was detained after he refused to let local officials change the results at a polling place after the votes in a recent election had been counted. An environmental activist, Yevgeny Vitishko, already serving a suspended sentence for allegedly spray-painting an insult on the fence of the regional governor's summer cottage, was detained while heading to Sochi for the Games. He was charged with swearing at a bus stop and jailed for 15 days — enough for him to miss the Olympics.
A local TV reporter was investigating a custody case involving a 6-year-old girl that had led to an investigation of wrongdoing in the department handling family matters when police arrested him after allegedly catching him with a small amount of narcotics. A judge has refused to hear the case for lack of evidence three times, but rather than dropping the case, prosecutors are building the case for a fourth time. The reporter, Nikolai Yarst, faces a maximum 10-year sentence.
Vladimir Kimaev, who heads the group of Sochi residents who applied for — and were denied — permission to demonstrate at the protest park, said he had been detained and harassed for his activities. In an interview Sunday, he spoke passionately about the way officials had green-lighted construction projects without gaining public approval, a violation of the law.
The construction of much of the Olympic Park paved over wetlands that were home to endangered plant species and a stopping point for migratory birds. He said residents of one village had been cut off from the world by a highway construction project that left them, despite many promises, without an access road to the route. He said people were angry about frequent power outages during construction, and worried about what will happen to Sochi when the Games are gone. “What they have done is illegal,” he said. “If the local media can’t cover it, we’ll have the foreign media.”
He had 350 people ready to protest, but the request had been turned down because the mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, had ruled that only 100 people were allowed. Katanidi said that Kimaev had refiled his application with the right number, and it was being reviewed.
“Even if we only bring 100 people I know I can be arrested,” Kimaev said. “They can bus in 20 people, add them up and charge me with violating the rules.”
On Tuesday, with Katanidi and the six men watching, Kimaev struck a more moderate tone. He said all the problems could be worked out with the city, and “this is not a matter for the world.”