August 6, 2013 | by Staff reports
Boycotting Russian vodka, Olympics is wrong approach

By J. JAMES ZIMMERMAN

A recent string of anti-LGBT legislation in Russia has provoked outrage in the United States and inspired calls for a boycott of Russian goods, or even the 2014 Sochi Olympics. One such call to action has come from advice columnist Dan Savage, who has launched a campaign to boycott Russian vodka. This sense of outrage is more than warranted; however, boycotting Russia is not the most effective course of action and is unlikely to change Russian laws.

First of all, a boycott of Russian products would hurt innocent parties the most. This includes the hundreds of ordinary farmers and workers employed by SPI Group, the parent company of vodka brand Stoli. A boycott would cause these people financial hardship at precisely the moment that Russia needs a strong business class to counterbalance Vladimir Putin and his vast oil wealth.

Furthermore, boycotts are rarely effective. Businesspeople and countries always find creative ways to work around them. In the case of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil, Iran has been able to adapt by finding other markets and by diversifying its economy away from oil production. Russian vodka manufacturers may suffer a short-term slump from a boycott, but should be able to find willing drinkers in China and elsewhere.

There has also been talk of boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Yet, one of the best ways to open people’s minds is to expose them to the outside world. A boycott of the Olympics would deprive Russian citizens of the chance to interact with tourists and gain exposure to more cosmopolitan influences. Moreover, what better way to stick it to Putin than to have U.S. athletes festooned in equality symbols, competing and standing on the podium?

In summary, as long as Putin retains his iron-fisted grip on power, there is little that we can do to influence policies in Russia. Even official statements of condemnation from U.S. officials lack credibility given our own track record on LGBT rights here at home. Therefore, the best way to channel our energy is to focus on improving equality here in the U.S. In spite of recent progress, there is a lot of work that remains to be done, including bringing marriage equality to the 37 states where it does not exist.

In terms of specific steps, start local. Volunteer for your local human rights organization. Look up your congressperson’s record on equality, and if it is poor, support their opponent in the next election. Even on a daily basis, you can step up and call out your friends and colleagues on their use of homophobic language.

Cleaning up our act at home allows the U.S. to set a better example for human rights abroad. It sends a clear message that LGBT discrimination is not tolerated by civilized societies. We may not be able to counter Putin directly, but at the very least we can make sure his policies are anathema to the international community.

J. James Zimmerman is a graduate student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He specializes in trade and investment issues in emerging markets. Follow him on Twitter @ZimmerMandarin.

7 Comments
  • Phil Houldershaw Antony Masters

    There's a slightly bigger picture here which isn't being fully addressed. The Russian state is not only being lead by the Russian Orthodox Church in it's new rules to stamp out the 'Western' disease of 'Equality' and 'Free Of Expression', but also the Russian state is supporting Neo-Nazi groups, such as 'Occupy Pedofilyaj' in their attacks and now murders. The latest murdered victim was an young Uzbek man, who the Neo-Naz only seen as something to destroy in their quest to purify Russia… this should send shivers down your spine, it's 1936 again and unless the world calls Russia out on this, other minorities groups will feel the jackboots of the Russian Neo-Nazi stomp… Boycotting is a strong message and not just the Olympics, but also products; to do nothing is a sign of weakness and the Russians are not scared of anyone at the moment – look at Syria. Boycott Sochi & Boycott Sponsors #notosochi2014.

  • Money talks especially in the "new" Russia. Hit them where it hurts the most – their pocketbooks and their pride. Putin is courting the extreme right and religious demagogues to hold onto power much like the Republican Party here in the good old USA.

  • Michael Andres Palmieri

    Don't boycott the Games, move them. By moving the Olympics out of Sochi to a country with strong LGBT rights would send Russia, organized religions' zealots and their followers, along with the rest of the world a far more powerful message than parading LGBT media crews, athletes, visitors and LGBT ally visitors in Russia.

  • Nicholas de Wolff

    I'm afraid it would actually have the opposite effect. Bigots and other prejudiced types have a long history of becoming even more firmly entrenched in their beliefs when they are criticized directly. Simply moving the Games would likely result in a "Us versus Them" collective mentality, and the victims would be LGBT individuals and groups "left behind" in Russia to deal with the fallout. Instead, economic and social imapcts on a longstanding basis would work: when the functional difference is marginal, do business with a Russian LGBT business instead of otherwise; pre-identify and commercially boycott Russian businesses known to support (either via individual leadership or as a brand) the Russian stance on their LGBT citizens, as well as visitors and allies; yes, move the Games away, but in a manner designed to impact the economy more than the ego. Hitting the Russian Mother Bear in one place will only wound her, and a wounded bear is even more dangerous than a stupid one.

  • Michael Andres Palmieri

    Nicholas de Wolff – As I see it – Russia is winning regardless of the actions the IOC takes. Infusing the Russian economy with billions of dollars wont make Russians think differently of their fellow LGBT citizens. Moving the Olympics to another country would send the world a message. It may increase polarity in the short term – but in the end, it may finally begin the process of lining up other organizations and business to do the same. Think of the message it would send Evangelicals who are pushing laws in Africa to kill LGBT people? Think of the message it would send all of organized religion and other governments with similarly arcane laws? In the end, it is money that talks. Lining the pockets of hate mongers does not change their minds, it just makes them richer and empowers them to continue doing what they are doing.

  • Travis Brooks Stewart

    Ooops- I'm gonna have to agree with Nicholas on this one. I think it is EASY to avoid bigots…HARDER to teach them.

  • Somebody ALWAYS gets hurt when people fight the good fight. So what? Silence = Death. I'm disgusted by all the vapid mewling and whimpering fear people use to justify their acquiescence. The faster everyone stands up and refuses to support or participate or tolerate such events, the faster things will change.

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