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News 07 Feb 14

Balkan Leaders Ignore West's No-Show at Olympics

Most Balkan leaders will not miss their opportunity to see the grand opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics, an event boycotted by many Western heads in a rebuke to Russia’s gay rights record.

Bojana Barlovac, Edona Peci, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Marian Chiriac
Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje, Bucharest

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi

Most Balkan countries are sending their top representatives to Russia’s southern city of Sochi to attend the Friday opening, steering clear of the controversy over Russia’s law banning ‘gay propaganda’ that drew Western criticism in the build-up to the games.

Bulgaria's PM Plamen Oresharski will attend the opening of the games, while President Rosen Plevneliev will appear at the closing ceremony, the Sofia authorities said.

In a recent interview with the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Plevneliev said that the games in Sochi will be "a bright page in the history of the world Olympic movement”.

Serbia is also sending its head of state Tomislav Nikolic. A photo of Nikolic with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi appeared on Nikolic's official Facebook page on Friday afternoon.

"It is colder than in London but the atmosphere here is much warmer," Nikolic said upon arrival in Sochi.

There was almost no public criticism in Romania when Prime Minister Voctor Ponta said he would attend too. He is already in Sochi where he will also take part in the official dinner party organised on Friday night by Putin.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov on Friday cancelled his flight to Sochi at the last minute due to “serious” technical problems with his plane’s engines.

The presidential delegation was ready for take-off when pilots noted the technical problems and aborted the flight, his office said, adding that Ivanov will however visit Moscow in the coming days using a commercial flight.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic and Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic have also left for Sochi, as has Milorad Dodik, the head of the Serb-led entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, Kosovo and Albania did not send political representatives.

Kosovos’ President Atifete Jahjaga and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said they will stay at home, as did Albania’s head of state, Bujar Nishani, and premier Edi Rama.

The grand opening ceremony starts at 17:14 CET. Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast, will welcome about 2,900 athletes in 15 disciplines.

But US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be in the stadium during the opening.

Indeed, most of Western leaders have been put off by the controversies over Russia’s treatment of its gay population and some countries in response have appointed gay athletes to lead their sporting delegations to Russia.

But Putin will have the company of the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, China's President Xi Jinping, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader of Belarus, as well as controversial Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is facing tough protests at home, are also likely to attend the ceremony.


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