Updated: Thursday, 06 February 2014 19:09 | By Agence France-Presse

Putin welcomes friends to Sochi Olympics but sceptics stay away

Russian President Vladimir Putin will welcome to the Sochi Olympic Games dozens of world leaders supportive of his rule but heads of state of big Western countries will be conspicuous by their absence.

Putin welcomes friends to Sochi Olympics but sceptics stay away

Vladimir Putin (centre right) stands next to Russian pole vault champion and Olympic village mayor Elena Isinbayeva (centre left) after delivering a speech at the Olympic village in Sochi on February 5, 2014 - by Pascal Le Segretain

Putin is expected to be joined at Friday's opening ceremony on Sochi by the likes of Ukraine's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych who is controversially leaving the political crisis at home, or Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However Western leaders such as US President Barack Obama, Francois Hollande of France and British Prime Minister David Cameron are not attending, in a move partly seen as driven by concern over Russia's human rights record.

The furore over Russia's law against the spread of "gay propaganda" to minors has turned these Games into one of the most controversial editions of recent decades.

Russia and the International Olympic Committee emphasise that there is no necessity in protocol for heads of state to attend Olympic opening ceremonies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Thursday impatiently slammed the counting of heads of states coming to the Games, saying it was "so stupid and such rubbish" to keep discussing how many leaders were coming.

"I don't remember a single Olympics that was accompanied by such chatter," he said.

However Russia is clearly prepared to roll out the red carpet to those it wants to welcome, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov boasting that 44 world leaders are expected at the opening ceremony and a total of 60 are set to attend the Games at some point.

The attendance of Yanukovych has been slammed by the Ukrainian opposition as wholly inappropriate given the country is mired in a crisis that some have warned risks leading to civil conflict.

Another Kremlin ally enjoying Friday's festivities will be authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus who the US accuses of running "Europe's last dictatorship".

Putin will also be welcoming Leonid Tibilov, the president of breakaway Georgian region South Ossetia which is recognised by Russia and just a handful of other far-flung states.

Putin is expected to have bilateral talks in the next days with several key foreign leaders who are attending the opening, including President Xi, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

'Declining non-existent invitations'

Yet several world leaders made it pointedly clear that they would not be attending the Games, hugely irritating Russia given there is no established pattern of heads of states being present at opening ceremonies.

The office of German President Joachim Gauck said he was not going, while the French government said Hollande would not be attending. 

Obama named openly gay tennis legend Billie Jean King on the relatively low-ranking US delegation although she is now not going to Sochi for family reasons.

The president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach on Tuesday sternly warned against the politicisation of the Games, in an apparent swipe at Western states who have wanted to pressure Russia on its rights record.

In an unusually acerbic remark for the habitually cautious IOC chief, Bach told leaders to "have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes."

He even took a jab at those Western leaders who had publicly turned down non-existent "invitations" to the Games.

"In the extreme we had to see a few politicians whose contribution to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received," he said.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Italian Premier Enrico Letta -- both of whose countries have relatively good ties with Moscow -- are expected in Sochi for the Games.

But possibly the hightest profile guest at the opening ceremony will be UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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