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July 31, 2013

Russia to OIC: We Discriminate Against Our Gay Citizens, Guests Need Not Worry

By Innokenty Grekov
Fighting Discrimination Program

Today a spokesman for a Russian deputy prime minister told the International Olympic Committee that a controversial law will be “suspended” for the Winter Olympics. “Russia is not interested in hindering its guests in enjoying the games or in limiting their rights,” said Ilya Dzhus, a spokesman for deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak (emphasis mine).

Yes, Russia is not interested in limiting the rights of Olympic guests—only its citizens. Human rights conditions have deteriorated sharply in the two years since Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency, and criticisms is flowing from a variety of places—from the White House to the CEO of Stolichnaya Vodka. All voices count in this struggle, all are important.

Putin signed legislation banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” in June, and human rights activists in Russia have yet to see its full impact. They expect the law will be used selectively to prosecute outspoken activist and LGBT human rights defenders. In the northern city of Murmansk, four Dutch filmmakers were briefly detained on suspicion of promoting homosexuality to minors. Although a court quickly dismissed the charges, the episode shows how the antigay bill could be used by the police. We likely won’t see this in Sochi because, in essence, we will have a special two-week discrimination-free zone so that everyone has a grand time.

The New York Times this week pegged Russia’s homophobic practices as Mr. Putin’s “War on Gays.” Ironically, the best arguments against the adoption of this the anti-gay legislation come from none other than the Russian government. In 2004 and 2006, the government resisted attempts to introduce similarly ambiguous bans on “the propaganda of homosexuality.”

On February 20, 2006, then-Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov (currently serving as a Deputy Speaker of the State Duma and the President of Russia’s Olympic Committee), submitted an official recall (federal document №АЧ-5/632) to a tabled antigay law, arguing that the bill contradicted Russia’s criminal code that doesn’t allow to criminalize the propaganda of noncriminal behavior, contains “a row of mistakes and judicial-technical inexactitudes,” and relies on definitions that do not allow to clearly formulate corpus delicti. The May 20, 2004, rebuttal from Mr. Zhukov (№ АЧ-5/91) was even more forthcoming, pointing out that the bill “contradicts article 29 of the Russian Constitution, as well as articles 8, 10, and 14 of the European Convention on human rights.”

When he signed the bill, Mr. Putin knew that the bill was ambiguous, ineffective, discriminatory, and unconstitutional. His government had said so. The ongoing violations of the fundamental rights of Russia’s LGBT persons are thus a part of a populist campaign that uses scapegoating to avoid a serious conversation about Russia’s problems.

Putin’s political play is undermining the safety of Russia’s gay citizens and their supporters. BuzzFeed’s “36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs To See” illustrate this.

The Russian government has continuously refused to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination and violence against its gay citizens. Russian diplomats are fond of saying that since the country’s constitution prohibits discrimination on any grounds, there is no state-sponsored discrimination. Yeah, and since bribery is outlawed, there’s no corruption in Russia.

As the world prepares for Sochi 2012, the International Olympic Committee as well as foreign governments shouldn’t rest with Russia’s reassurances and work together to establish plans of action should a Murmansk-like detention fiasco occur.  At the same time company sponsors should promote their inclusive and gay-friendly policies to the Russian public. And St. Petersburg will host the G20 Summit in September. President Obama and the leaders of other countries should use this opportunity to stand up for human rights.