August 6, 2013 at 11:12 am EDT | 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.

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