8-13-2013By Innokenty Grekov
Fighting Discrimination Program
More conflicting news is coming out of Russia this week. Just yesterday, Russia’s Interior Ministry announced that the government would, in fact, be enforcing the infamous antigay law during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Yet this directly contradicts another senior government official’s statements earlier this week. “People of nontraditional sexual orientations can take part in the competitions and all other events at the Games unhindered, without any fear for their safety whatsoever,” said the head of Russia’s National Olympic Committee Alexander Zhukov.
Zhukov is a seasoned bureaucrat: in addition to leading the country’s Olympic Committee he is currently serving as the State Duma’s first vice-speaker. The International Olympic Committee has been under tremendous pressure to reassure the world that Russia will adhere to the Olympic Charter, which bans any type of discrimination.
As parliamentarian, Zhukov joined his Duma colleagues in approving the bill banning the propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation to minors. As chair of Russia’s Olympic Committee, he is tasked with defending the law and protecting Russia’s image in the world’s eyes. Yet half a decade ago, Zhukov was responsible for preventing this law from passing.
That’s right. And he did it very well.
While serving as Russia’s deputy prime minister, Zhukov submitted official Russian Government recall to a proposed antigay law, arguing that the bill contradicted Russia’s criminal code, which doesn’t allow for the criminalization of propaganda for noncriminial behavior, that it contained “a row of mistakes and judicial-technical inexactitudes,” and made it impossible to clearly define the body of a crime. A May 2004 rebuttal from Zhukov was even more forthcoming, as he pointed 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.”
Since 2006, the bill’s ambiguous nature changed from “the propaganda of homosexuality” to “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation,” yet the document signed into law by President Putin in June 2013 still contains the “judicial inexactitudes”—how do you define “nontraditional sexual relations” or “propaganda”—and violations of Russia’s constitution and international obligations, so scrupulously pointed out by Zhukov in 2004 and 2006.
President Putin knows how ambiguous, discriminatory, and simply ludicrous the banning of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” is—because his own government said so in the past. The law is a part of a populist campaign that uses scapegoating to avoid a serious conversation about Russia’s problems. The law is a cornerstone piece of the “War on Gays” and fits nicely into the overall clampdown on civil society and dissent in Russia since Putin’s return to the presidency.
Given the contradictory messages from Russian officials about the law’s possible use during the Sochi Olympics and the lack of a test cases, Putin is the only official who can explain to the world what “propaganda,” “nontraditional,” and “sexual relations” mean to Russia’s judges, prosecutors, and police. World leaders preparing to travel to Strelna, outside Saint Petersburg, for the G20 Summit in September should use the opportunity to get a clear answer from the Russian president, because the discriminatory and ambiguous law—on paper—allows foreigners to be detained and deported for the “promotion of nontraditional sexual orientation.”
President Obama has already voiced dissatisfaction with the Russian law twice; he should now direct the State Department to ensure that Americans are protected from the law’s application. Sure, foreigners must abide by Russia’s laws when traveling there. But the government must first explain the law, to citizens and visitors. For this purpose, Zhukov’s official rebukes from 2004 and 2006 are golden.