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Putin Sent a Syria Apologist to Carry the Olympic Flag

Sure, not everything surrounding the Sochi Olympics has gone smoothly: The fifth Olympic ring failed to open during the opening ceremony, and there is the small matter of stray dogs and toxic water in the city's hotels. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make a political point, you've got to give him credit -- he nails it.

After Putin stepped to the microphone to declare that the Winter Olympics had begun, eight famous Russians carried the Olympic flag into the stadium. Most of them were well-known figures: There was the soprano singer Anna Netrebko, for example, and Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But there was one surprise: Journalist Anastasia Popova, who made her name cheerleading for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. (She's the third woman from the front in the photo above.)

Popova's team first traveled to Syria in August 2011 to film a documentary for the channel Russia 24. In an interview following her trip, she played down the extent of the unrest and praised the government for "respond[ing] to the peaceful demands" of the protesters, by changing laws and holding elections.

"Despite all our attempts, we didn't manage to find the thousands-strong demonstrations against the government so often talked about by the Western media," she said. (When she arrived in the country, the Syrian government was in the midst of its first bloody assaults on the cities of Homs and Hama.)

More recently, Popova's work has supported the Assad regime's claim that it was the rebels, not the army, that used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. She claimed in April to have been near the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the northern town of Khan al-Assal and said that she had compiled eyewitness accounts blaming the rebels for the strike.

U.N. officials, however, said the short videos she submitted as evidence were inconclusive. "It's like two seconds each picture," U.N. high commissioner for disarmament Angela Kane told Inner City Press.

Honoring Popova by allowing her to carry the Olympic flag is a striking statement about where Russia stands on Syria. But given some of the dismal coverage of Sochi so far, perhaps Putin would have been better served by letting her report on the Olympics.

Anastasia Popova

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