President Obama said the work of Russian activists is “critically important” to maintaing an open society during a roundtable he held with civil society leaders in St. Petersburg.
Obama met with leaders of two Russian LGBT groups — Igor Kochetkov, director of the LGBT Network, and Olga Lenkova, spokesperson for Coming Out — as part of a discussion he had with a total of nine activists, according to the White House pool report from the New York Times’ Peter Baker. The meeting took place as part of Obama’s visit to St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit.
The work of these activists, Obama said, is “critically important” because they help maintain a free society, according to a transcript of his remarks from the White House.
“So the kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia’s development, and I’m very proud of their work,” Obama said.
Obama makes the remarks as Russia has been under scrutiny because of anti-gay violence in the country and passage of a controversial law that bans pro-gay propaganda to minors.
Additionally, Obama drew on his own history as a community activist, saying his engagement at the grassroots level is what helped him win the White House.
“I’m now in government, but I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community,” Obama said. “And the work I was doing was helping poor communities have a voice in what was happening in their lives. And I got elected as president by engaging people at a grassroots level.”
Obama didn’t make a direct reference to the anti-gay propaganda law in the remarks provided by the White House, but talked about importance of freedom to the press and assembly.
“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.
Obama was seated at tables set up in a horseshoe shape with National Security Adviser Susan Rice to his right, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul to his left and the nine Russian activists on either side of them, according to the pool report. The president arrived for the meeting at the Crown Plaza at 7:23 p.m. and wrapped up the discussion slightly more than an hour later at 8:45 p.m.
None of the civil society groups listed in the pool report — including the LGBT Network and Coming Out — immediately responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the meeting.
Based on the pool report and information provided by the White House, it’s not immediately clear whether the anti-gay propaganda law came up in a direct way during the meeting. U.S. LGBT activists who work on international issues said they were hoping Obama would continue to express his opposition to the law while in St. Petersburg — a position he’s already articulated.
Innokenty “Kes” Grekov, an associate who covers Russia for the international group Human Rights First, didn’t take part in the meeting, but said activists brought up the anti-gay law among other issues. Grekov said the activists, in turn, were mostly asked to address the backslide of the situation in Russia.
In a statement, Grekov praised Obama, saying “engaging civil society has been a hallmark of this administration.” Still, Grekov added there’s more work to be done.
“Today’s meeting was a terrific first step,” Grekov said. “Now, as President Obama returns home from this trip, he should double down on U.S. efforts to address the concerns of civil society and LGBT activists, and continue to raise these issues in the administration’s bilateral engagement with Russia.”
Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, commended Obama for meeting with human rights activists, but said initiatives against human rights abuses in Russia are happening across the globe.
“On Tuesday at least 33 events in 21 countries were planned to urge world leaders to speak out against Putin’s human rights crackdown,” Banks said. “In addition to Obama’s meeting with leaders from the community, David Cameron met with Putin and brought up Putin’s human rights crackdown. We hope other world leaders will step up and speak out.”
Concern about the anti-gay atmosphere continues as, according to the Associated Press, Russian lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlev has published a bill that would deny gay parents custody of their children in Russia. Other grounds for denying custody include alcoholism, drug use and abuse.
Notably, Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev wasn’t listed as among those attending the meeting. He stirred controversy earlier this week after making a series of Facebook posts accusing the “American Jewish mafia” of blocking him from taking part in a phone conference with Human Rights First on Russia’s anti-gay law.
Obama also held a 20-minute meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin while in St. Petersburg. Obama had previously cancelled a formal bilateral summit that was supposed to take place between him and Putin as part of the G-20 summit. At the time, an administration official told the Blade part of the reason for canceling was the anti-LGBT atmosphere in the country.
During a news conference earlier in St. Petersburg, Obama said the potential military operations in Syria was the primary topic of conversation between the two leaders. Obama didn’t say whether the anti-gay propaganda law came up.
“But what I did say is that we both agree that the underlying conflict [in Syria] can only be resolved through a political transition as envisioned by the Geneva I and Geneva II process,” Obama said. “And so we need to move forward together. Even if the U.S. and Russia and other countries disagree on this specific issue of how to respond to chemical weapons use, it remains important for us to work together to try to urge all parties in the conflict to try to resolve it.”
Other White House officials had their own meetings in St. Petersburg that were relevant to Russia LGBT issues.
National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Rice affirmed U.S. support for the Olympics with Russian Presidential Foreign Policy Adviser Ushakov amid calls by some, including U.S. actor Harvey Fierstein for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Russia over the anti-gay law.
“NSA Rice reaffirmed U.S. support for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, underscoring the importance of ensuring a secure event, in the spirit of the Olympic Charter,” Hayden said. “While acknowledging impediments in the bilateral relationship, NSA Rice welcomed a regular exchange of views and cooperation on areas of mutual interest.”