"Mr Putin, tear down this law," June 22, 2013 (photo credit: Adam Lederer, Creative Commons)

“Mr Putin, tear down this law” – The Russian president’s war against gays

Published On August 6, 2013 | Blogs, Uncategorized

By: Brandon Tensley


In light of a large part of the rest of the world’s steadily increasing support for gay rights, Russia, with its apparent “war on gays,” seems stuck in another century. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws are myriad: in June the parliament passed a bill that imposes a fine for propagandizing what it calls “non-traditional” sexual relationships among minors (which, colloquially, connotes gay relationships); that same month Putin signed a law that permits police officers to arrest foreign nationals, including tourists, who are suspected of being homosexual or “pro-gay” and detain them for up to 14 days; and in July Putin signed another law that expressly prohibits the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples, as well as to couples and single parents of any country where marriage equality, of any form or shape, exists. Clearly, it is not easy, and it is actually becoming more dangerous, to be gay in Russia.

Now, as an initial matter, this article does not intend to imply that homophobia is new to Russia. Encouraged by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, anti-gay sentiment has been growing in the country for some time. Putin, however, has bred a much more virulent strand of homophobic nationalism by legitimizing it in legislation. Though Putin has stated various reasons for his crackdown on homosexuality, including defending supposed traditional values, his true motives are probably not so altruistic: “Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia”. To be sure, Putin is not only attempting to garner and secure support from conservative religious bases, but he is also illustrating once again that the country’s faux rule of law trumps human rights.

What can, or should, be done, then? An earlier EUspeak article, “The Power of Persuasion: the EU’s Future Role in Russia,” examines how the European Union, “by virtue of both history and political present, is in a unique position to call would-be super powers to place a higher value on being a respected part of the international community”. This, despite the fact that the EU’s power no longer lies in its purse. Conversely, the article goes on, the UK and the US are unlikely to be meaningful interlocutors in Russian affairs because their relationships with Russia are still troubled by the Cold War mindset of the latter half of the twentieth century. However, with the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Sochi, Russia, perhaps the UK and the US, along with the EU, can play significant roles in pressuring Russia to take a harder look at its penchant for flouting civil liberties.

The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, accelerated a change of values. Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s strongman dictator, hoped to use the Games as a sort of “coming out” ceremony through which to display the legitimacy of South Korea on the international stage. In the years prior to the Games, Chun threatened popular democratic movements for free and fair elections with brutal government suppression. In 1987, however, the US announced its support of South Koreans’ calls for a full democratic government. Chun thus saw no other option than to concede: “If it stuck to its guns, the South Korean government faced the prospect of losing its bid to host the Olympics, which in turn could very easily bring down the government.” Because further repression was impractical, the government worked with opposition parties to introduce a reform program. This, for sure, was a poignant historical turning point.

After Beijing, China, won its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, it faced an enormous amount of outside pressure before the event began. Specifically, the international community cast a critical eye to China’s poor environmental record, business with the Sudanese government despite its involvement in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur, and overblown crackdown on peaceful Tibetan protests. Though the jury is still out on the extent to which outside pressure encouraged change within China, studies show that there was, indeed, change. For instance, through the “Green Olympics,” China recalibrated standards for Beijing air and water pollution. And, as a result, in the years leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, air quality improved each year in Beijing, and the city closed factories and relocated chemical and steel plants in an attempt to ameliorate air pollution.

This is not to say that Russia would undoubtedly react as China did to criticism from abroad, given that there has been little change in Russia’s legal system over the past couple of decades. Yet, Putin surely wants to use the 2014 Winter Olympics as an opportunity to show off Russia, and so it is not completely outside the realm of possibility that the country is open to pressure: “If nothing else, there is pure self-interest for Mr. Putin in this. Gay athletes and supporters of gay rights could decide not to attend the Games, or nascent calls for a formal Olympic boycott could gather steam. That will not produce the self-congratulatory showcase event over which Mr. Putin is so eager to preside” (see NYT opinion article “Mr. Putin’s War on Gays”). Western society, as a whole, has made great strides in furthering gay rights. Perhaps now is the time for it to use the power of persuasion to take Russia to task on its brazen trampling of human rights.