Russian activists who attended a meeting last week with President Obama in St. Petersburg came away with mixed feelings about the event, with one claiming Obama told them he couldn’t make human rights the lone priority in U.S.-Russia relations.
Both LGBT activists who attended the meeting with Obama on Friday spoke to the Washington Blade and said they were pleased the meeting took place, but disagreed with some of what Obama said. They were among nine civil society representatives who took part in a roundtable discussion with Obama as part of his visit to Russia for the G-20 summit.
Igor Kochetkov, director of the LGBT Network in Russia, spoke with the Blade in a phone interview through a translator from Human Rights First and said Obama told activists he had to prioritize issues other than human rights.
“Obama said that his agenda is quite extensive and he cannot approach U.S.-Russia relations through the prism of human rights alone,” Kochetkov said. “He said there’s economic partnerships, military/strategic cooperation, and in order to achieve consensus on those subject areas, he has to compromise and find a balance in discussions about human rights.”
Kochetkov said he disagrees with Obama on this view of human rights issues.
“I think this approach does not have a future because in Russia, racist and homophobic attitudes are proportional to the growth of anti-Americanism and anti-Western attitudes,” Kochetkov said. “And the West won’t be able to get what it wants in the economic or military realm while being silenced on human rights.”
Still, Kochetkov said he wouldn’t characterize himself as disappointed in Obama’s remarks and noted he was “pleased” the meeting took place.
“I think it’s very important that Obama invited human rights activists, including specifically LGBT activists from Russia,” Kochetkov said. “It was a serious signal to the global community, a signal that it’s impossible to discuss human rights in today’s world without a conversation about the status of gay rights. Not everyone, especially in Russia, understands that.”
Olga Lenkova, communications director for the St. Petersburg-based LGBT group Coming Out, told the Washington Blade via email she was also satisfied with the experience.
“We did not have any particular expectations from the meeting, other than hoping for a good exchange of ideas, which has in fact taken place,” Lenkova said.
Lenkova said the focus of the meeting was on human rights in general, and the “complicated situation” for civil society leaders in Russia in addition to global challenges such as the “relative ineffectiveness” of the United Nations and global warming.
“President Obama tried to respond to all questions raised despite our obvious disagreements on Syria for example,” Lenkova said. “He mostly talked about the U.S., highlighting that there are many challenges and problems, the ones we mentioned — death penalty, Guantanamo, surveillance, etc. — and others that can’t be easily overcome by a president, but where the active civil society plays the key role.”
According to Lenkova, Obama concluded the session by saying, “Any state has to guard itself from protecting itself instead of its citizens. You’ve challenged me to do more and I will. And sometimes I will succeed and sometimes not.”
Which LGBT issues came up during the meeting? Kochetkov said he urged Obama to be more open and vocal in his criticism of what’s happening in Russia. He also urged Obama to build international awareness of LGBT issues.
“I also asked President Obama to consider ways of monitoring hate crime incidents through the international community,” Kochetkov said. “Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity bias are not totally investigated or investigated at all sometimes, so we need an international mechanism to look into those cases as well.”
Amid growing international attention, the activists said they also raised concerns with Obama about a controversial anti-gay law that prohibits pro-gay propaganda to minors in Russia.
Dmitri Makarov, a member of the Russia-based International Youth Human Rights Movement who was a non-LGBT participant at the meeting, told the Blade via email the anti-gay law took up a significant part of the discussion.
“The Russian anti-gay laws were brought up and were a significant part of the discussion,” Makarov said. “There was a press briefing also at the end of the meeting by LGBT Network.”
Kochetkov said he raised the anti-propaganda law with Obama, but the president declined to comment on it.
“He made no comment, but he was there to listen to the situation in Russia,” Kochetkov said.
Lenkova said the measure did come up during the discussion, but LGBT rights weren’t the main topic of the meeting.
“Regarding LGBT issues he said that he had already been quite explicit about what he thinks about discrimination against LGBT people,” Lenkova said. “He also referred to the changes that took place in the U.S. in this regard within the last 10 to 15 years, when he was saying that though problems in the U.S. are still many, the system is capable of change.”
Some LGBT activists said prior to the meeting they hoped Obama would take his opposition to the anti-gay law directly to the Russian government and media during his trip to St. Petersburg.
A video report on Saturday from European television station Euronews claimed gay activists left the meeting with Obama feeling “disappointed.” It based that conclusion on an interview with Kochetkov, who talked through a translator.
Kochetkov responded to the report by reiterating he wasn’t disappointed in the meeting, but said he disagrees with Obama on some issues.
“It’s more nuanced,” Kochetkov said. “I’m not disappointed. I said that I disagree with President Obama on certain things.”
Nonetheless, International Youth Human Rights Movement’s Makarov said he thinks the report is “quite accurate” — or at least “as much as a one-minute report focusing on just one aspect can be accurate.”
“I would have liked to hear a more decisive stance, but I do understand the argument that there are other issues that the president has to care about,” Makarov said. “Yet, as a human rights defender I would push for human rights to be prioritized in relations with Russia in particular.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the report or reactions from the activists.
According to a transcript of remarks provided by the White House after the event, Obama talked about freedom of the press and assembly with activists.
“I think it is important for us to remember that in every country — here in Russia, in the United States, around the globe — that part of good government is making sure that we’re creating a space for civil society to function effectively: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, making sure that people can join together and make common cause around the issues that they care deeply about,” Obama said.