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November 26, 2013

Convenient Targets: The Anti-“Propaganda” Law and the Threat to LGBT Rights in Russia

In 2004, State Duma parliamentarian Alexander Chuev reintroduced a bill to ban “homosexual propaganda.” On the same day, the Duma received a statement opposing the bill. It was sent by the Prime Minister’s office, which pointed out that the legislation would violate both the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Three times (2003, 2004, and 2006) when Vladimir Putin was president, Russia’s executive branch opposed “homosexual propaganda” bills. Its enlightened stance mirrored the expanding freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia, which had decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. While homophobia and antigay hate crime remained serious problems, LGBT people were beginning to be able to live more openly, especially in cities. As the middle class grew, so did the level of personal freedom for Russians, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. The growth of freedom from government interference—“negative liberty”—was accompanied by targeted government efforts to undermine the “squeaky wheels” embodied by independent civil society, media, and opposition voices.

Flash forward to June 2013 when Putin signed into law the latest incarnation of a “propaganda” bill, which had passed both houses of parliament virtually unanimously. Alexander Zhukov vividly embodies the rapid regression of Russia’s political class on LGBT rights. In 2004, as deputy prime minister, he signed the statement opposing the bill. Now as both deputy speaker in the Duma and head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, he has voted for the bill and defended it before the international community in anticipation of the Sochi Olympics in February.

The pushback against gay rights is part of a broader crackdown on “positive liberties” and dissent that has its roots in the massive anti-government protests born in December 2011, when Russians took to the streets to protest alleged fraud in the parliamentary elections. The unrest sent shockwaves through the political establishment and prompted President Putin, when he returned to the presidency in May 2012, to use repressive laws and law enforcement to try to weaken civil society. The “Bolotnaya trial” defendants and the members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot are merely the most famous victims of persecution, who include other government critics, human rights activists, independent journalists, and whistleblowers.

And now in a populist move designed to strengthen his domestic political standing and divert attention from other topics, Vladimir Putin has embraced the assault on LGBT rights, which began years ago at the local level and encompasses an array of regional laws and assaults on free expression and association, and now even extends to Russia’s diplomacy on the world stage. Perhaps most importantly, the suppression of freedom for LGBT citizens comes amid—and will only exacerbate—Russia’s persistent problem of anti-LGBT violent hate crime perpetrated largely by ultranationalist groups.

This report examines different aspects of the assault on LGBT rights in Russia:

  • Violent hate crime against LGBT Russians
  • Local laws banning homosexual “propaganda”—precursors to the federal law
  • Prominent court rulings on LGBT rights
  • Russia’s support for “traditional” values in the international arena
  • The evolution of the federal ban, including the history of the executive branch’s prior opposition
  • The 2013 Federal Anti-“Propaganda” Law
  • The Anti-“Propaganda” law & the Sochi Olympics

It also includes recommendations for the Obama administration as it opposes Russia’s crackdown on gay rights in the context of mounting tensions between the two countries. Indeed, Russia’s support for the 2013 federal anti-“propaganda” law is, among other things, a politically popular rejection of “Western values.” In an appearance on the Tonight Show in early August, President Obama condemned the law, saying, “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.” His words were consistent with his effort to lead internationally on LGBT rights. Beyond denunciation, however, it’s not clear what he intends to do. What does “no patience” mean?

While the U.S. government must continue to stand up for Russia’s LGBT people, it should also be strategic because in a country where it’s widely believed that homosexuality is a product of the West, external opposition to the anti-“propaganda” law could harden support within. The central goal of U.S. policy should be to bolster those fighting for freedom on the frontlines and to protect LGBT Russians from persecution and violence. This will take a sustained effort, one that lasts well beyond the Sochi Olympics, and it should begin when President Obama travels to St. Petersburg for the G20 Summit on September 5th and 6th.

President Obama should:

  • Meet with human rights activists at the G20 Summit. Such a meeting would exhibit U.S. leadership and enable the President to hear first what forms of support activists seek.
  • Direct the State Department to Seek Clarification on Anti-“Propaganda” Law. This vague law has yet to be used. Its ambiguity could allow for discriminatory, targeted use against Russians and Americans traveling to Russia.
  • Lead a Multilateral Coalition to Oppose Discrimination and Violence against LGBT People. The U.S. should work to oppose the law not just with European allies but also with leaders of countries like Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, South Korea, and South Africa.
  • Use the Russian Government’s Own Words to Oppose the Law. By using the Russian government’s own words in its public messaging, the U.S. would make a strong case against the law and expose the cynicism of its about-face on this issue.
  • Call for Leadership from U.S. Olympic Committee within the International Olympic Community. The IOC has meekly accepted Russia’s defense of the law, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, while condemning the law, has urged American athletes to comply with it.

A full list of recommendations appears at the end of the report.

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