A veteran Russian journalist said the Kremlin’s LGBT rights crackdown stems from President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to maintain his grip on power.
Masha Lipman, who was previously the deputy editor of the Russian weeklies Ezhenedelny Zhurnal (“Weekly Journal” in English) and Itogi, said during a briefing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Northwest D.C. on Nov. 15 that then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s September 2011 suggestion that Putin, who was then prime minister, succeed him sparked criticism within the country. Putin faced “direct discontent from the people” later that year over allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections.
Tens of thousands of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities protested the contested vote.
“Putin realizes he needs to respond to that,” said Lipman, who edits the Pro et Contra journal the Carnegie Moscow Center publishes.
Russian voters in March 2012 elected Putin for a third term as president. Medvedev became prime minister.
Putin soon began to harass and repress his critics and propose measures that Lipman said were designed to send a message to the country that those who challenged him are “bad Russians, unpatriotic” and “immoral.” She added Putin also sought to define his critics as “undermining our traditional values.”
“He has to define what good Russians stand for because his adversaries, his enemies are modernized,” she said. “Of course good Russians are defined as conservative. It is political conservatism, but increasingly social conservatism as well.”
Lipman said the Kremlin in the middle of 2012 began to focus more on sex, faith, culture, art and school curriculum.
A law that requires groups that receive funding from outside the country to register as “foreign agents” took effect at the end of 2012.
Putin in June signed a broadly worded statute banning gay propaganda to minors that mirrors similar laws that had taken effect in St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk and other Russian regions. A second law that prohibits same-sex couples and any couple from a country in which gays and lesbians can legally from adopting Russian children took effect in July.
“Of course the anti-gay legislation comes as a natural element because it is the epitome of social conservatism,” said Lipman.
The Duma passed the anti-gay propaganda ban unanimously, while polls indicate nearly 90 percent of Russians support the law.
“This campaign, this shift to social conservatism, has worked well for Putin consolidating a conservative majority,” said Lipman.
Russian LGBT rights advocates with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in previous months shared similar observations.
Polina Andrianova of Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based advocacy group, said during an August interview she feels the ongoing anti-LGBT crackdown is part of a “much wider campaign” for the Kremlin to showcase its opposition to Europe and the United States.
“Gay people, non-Christian orthodox people, all of them are viewed as kind of dangerous to the traditional values of Russia,” Andrianova told the Blade. “So they’re viewed as non-Russian and [have] imported values from the West.”
Oleg Klyuenkov of the Arkhangelsk-based LGBT advocacy group Rakurs (“Perspective” in Russian) told the Blade earlier this month during his trip to D.C. that “interest groups” within the Russian government have “persuaded” Putin to sign the gay propaganda law and other measures.
“The government is simply trying to distract the public’s attention from our societal problems, our economic problems,” Kluyenkov told the Blade.
Lipman said it is not surprising that some Russian LGBT rights advocates seek to publicly downplay Putin’s role in the country’s LGBT rights crackdown.
“The gay community is very weak as is, enduring basically little or no sympathy from the Russian people,” she said. “Challenging Putin in and of itself is not a safe thing to do.”
The Kremlin’s LGBT rights record continues to overshadow final preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place in Sochi, Russia, in February.
U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine) and 46 other members of Congress concluded in a Nov. 21 letter to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach that Russia’s LGBT rights crackdown violates the Olympic charter. The Florida Republican and more than three dozen other lawmakers last month asked U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun to explain how he plans to ensure the safety of American athletes who compete in the Sochi games.
The Moscow Times reported Putin on Nov. 20 spoke out against discrimination toward “people of non-traditional sexual orientations.” He said last month during a Sochi press conference with Bach that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games.
The IOC has repeatedly said it has received assurances from the Kremlin that gays and lesbians would be welcome to attend the Sochi games, even though Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and other officials have said authorities plan to enforce the propaganda law. The Associated Press on Nov. 18 reported that Mutko told a Russian newspaper that lawmakers should have waited until after the Olympics to pass the controversial statute.
“When the Olympic committee asks for clarifications [on] just how this legislation will be enforced during the Olympics, the government is forced to respond,” said Lipman.