Anti-gay campaigners clash with gay rights activists during a rally in Russia
As Vladimir Putin steps up the construction of his new empire, predicated on repression, suspicion and intolerance, one group of people is clearly in his sights. Russia's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community is feeling the squeeze from Rutin's repression more than any other minority group; now that the president has signed into law a measure outlawing "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," effectively strangling the voice of the LGBT community, the space for free expression is shrinking before our eyes.
It is important to understand that there is no rule of law in Russia. The legal code is full of contradictory laws conveniently used by corrupt officials to threaten and jail both political and business opponents. Thus it is highly likely that the new anti-LGBT laws will be used to punish unwanted individuals, and behaviour, by the regime.
The LGBT community has been chosen by Putin's regime to serve as a scapegoat. There were several reasons for this choice; it is a relatively compact group, and a common enemy for the many religious groups that reside in Russia. A massive campaign of hate against this vastly outnumbered community will serve to distract Russian citizens from the real social and economic problems they face.
The general population in Russia has very little information about the LGBT community, thus the government has no difficulty in making them believe that gays are responsible for the demographic crisis, HIV epidemic and even paedophilia. In fact, the average Russian believes that every gay person is a paedophile, regardless of age.
Ultimately, it is much easier to fight the LGBT community than it is to fight drugs, alcoholism and the decades-old problems which continue to blight Russian society.
It is also important to understand that Putin comes from a solid KGB background and likes to position himself as a macho dictator - riding horses, driving racing cars and shooting down 200kg polar bears. This desire to be strong, and to be seen as such by other world leaders, also makes him vulnerable; one LGBT activist suggested that, if the G20 leaders actually told Putin how ridiculous and embarrassing his gay-bashing initiatives actually are, he might abandon them.
One thing is clear though. We won't see any changes in Russia until the Western world applies enough economic and political pressure. A boycott of goods such as Russian vodka won't produce any tangible results - the economic impact would be insignificant.
Banning the supply of information technology, software and hardware to Russia would cause an immediate impact as the country depends on it, especially in the government sector. Another powerful move would be to enlarge the existing Magnitsky Act list and strip the corrupt Russian officials of their visas, while seizing their assets abroad.
Putin's elite trust him with their affairs. They enjoy freedom of travel and foreign investments, with their children and grandchildren happily ensconced in Western countries. If anything interrupts or jeopardises their way of life then most likely they would remove Putin from power.
I certainly don't think that the Western world should go to the forthcoming Winter Olympic Games in Russia and so validate Putin's ego while condoning the persecution of gays and political dissidents. In fact I was shocked to read an article published by the Huffington Post, in which the IOC stated they are planning to apply rule 50 of their own charter to the situation in Russia.
Rule 50 stipulates that "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas", so, essentially, any kind of protest against Russia's gay laws will be prohibited.
Considering the IOC did not enforce the same rules during the Games in Canada, for example, one can wonder why the Olympic governing body chooses to use its rules so selectively. The IOC should also keep in mind that the Russian legal system is designed to punish and reprimand the people arbitrarily and selectively, at the mercy of the corrupt local government officials who choose to remove political and/or business opponents.
The anti-gay laws were written in the same arbitrary manner, and widely open to interpretation. So, any athlete can be accused or suspected of a "non-traditional" sexual behaviour, or promoting such behavioir, and punished accordingly.
These "games" will be the Gulag Olympics - yet another black spot in Russia's recent history.
Larry Poltavtsev is the founder of Spectrum Human Rights, a non-profit organisation dedicated to fghting for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.
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