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Far-flung Olympic protest park an 'insult' to demonstrators

Carlo Angerer / NBC News

A public park in Khosta designated as a protest zone by Russian officials.

SOCHI, Russia - Trains rumbled by, cars sped along the highway overpass above, and only few pedestrians strolled through this public park on a recent gray day in Khosta, a beachside part of Greater Sochi, declared as the official protest zone during the Olympic Winter Games. 

In other words: This is hardly a high-visibility spot for people trying to share their message with the public.

And that isn't likely to change when the Olympics actually begin on February 7; the protest zone is a 40-minute journey by public transport from the Olympic Park. At first, Russian authorities prohibited protests, most likely directed at the country's government for its anti-gay laws and the environmental impact of the Olympics, all together during the games. But after much criticism from within the country and from abroad, they have offered up the small city park wedged between the main traffic corridor and a river.

"This is a way to show disrespect for people who'd like to express themselves politically and even that came only as a small concession," Maria Lipman, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said. "It is seen as an insult by political protesters."

Before staging a demonstration, activists also need to apply for permission with the authorities. A spokesperson for the city of Sochi told NBC News that nine days before the start of the Olympic Games no application to protest has been received.

Russia's opposition faces difficulties beyond Sochi. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent pardon of political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky and an introduction of widespread amnesty that freed members of Pussy Riot at the end of last year, opposition activists and the liberal media face new restrictions.

Wednesday, Russia's independent and liberal television station Dozhd or "Rain" was taken off the main cable provider Acado. The channel's editor-in-chief, Mikhail Zygar, sees this as an attack. In a message posted on the website, he wrote, "It is obvious to us that a campaign has been launched against us." The channel grew to prominence during the large anti-government demonstrations in Moscow in recent years, and has reported critically of the government.

Russia's Cable Television Association had suggested on Tuesday to take the channel off the air, following government criticism of a poll the channel conducted. The poll asked viewers whether the city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, should have been surrendered to the Nazis during World War II to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Critics saw this questioning of history as "unpatriotic".

The crackdown on the liberal TV channel comes as political activists report of restrictions they face visiting the Olympics, even as fans. Some, like Nikolai Lev@!$%#s, who were previously involved in opposition protests, have been barred from receiving fan passes needed to enter Olympic venues even though they hold valid tickets.

Lev@!$%#s recently bought tickets to the luge event. But when he tried to register for the "fan passport" needed to get into the Olympic venues his application was rejected, he said. He added that organizers told him that they had the right to decline registration for anyone without explanation.

He believes this is connected to his political activism, as he has been organizing anti-government demonstrations in Moscow in recent years. He said he wanted to attend as a fan and had no intentions to stage a protest in Sochi.

"I just wanted to be in Sochi for the sport events; I wanted to speak to people from different countries," he said. "I didn't want to be involved in any provocations. The athletes are not responsible for the political activities in our country."

He believes that Russian security services have created specific lists with people that they would keep away from the games. Political analyst Lipman said this could be a possibility. She added that if a person has a history of being detained, they likely have been recorded.

"There are many instances, when people get detained, even in very small demonstrations," Lipman said. "If they are not authorized, police have the right to detain them."

She said that the upcoming Olympic Games have had little impact on the political climate in today's Russia. She said the release of prominent political prisoners stripped critics of tough arguments, but did not change the overall situation under Putin's government.

"What he demonstrated is that he has the power in this country: he can be tough and he can be kind. But he will only show kindness when he wants," she said. "Less prominent people, who are regarded as political prisoners, are still on trial. The overall situation is that justice is in the hands of the powerful and this has not changed at all."