Putin Plays Homophobia Card

Draconian anti-gay laws menace nascent Russian queer movement on election eve

In the run-up to the Russian parliamentary elections held this past weekend –– in which the country’s authoritarian strongman, Vladimir Putin, and his United Russia Party suffered large losses –– the Putin forces made crass appeals to homophobia by introducing a spate of anti-gay legislation to outlaw almost any expression of pro-homosexual sentiment.

Opinion polls in advance of the elections predicted a major drop in voter support for Putin’s party, and in a blatant appeal to conservative religious elements and supporters of ultra-right nationalist parties, the United Russia majority in the St. Petersburg city council quickly pushed through, to use an American formulation, a “no promo homo” law that equated homosexuality with pedophilia, outlawing any pro-gay “propaganda” that might be seen by “minors.” The viciously anti-gay bill passed overwhelmingly, 27-1, with one abstention, in its first reading.

The bill would include fines for gays and lesbians who openly professed their sexual orientation.

Less than 48 hours later, Putin’s stooges in the Moscow city council announced they planned to introduce a similar bill there. According to Ekho Moskvy, a Moscow-based radio station heard nationally, the speaker of the Moscow City Duma, Vladimir Platonov, said that the capital was ready to follow St. Petersburg’s example.

And the party’s leaders, including Russian Duma Speaker Valentina Matvienko, have said they’ll introduce a similar law at the federal level.

“Homophobia is a part of the ruling United Russia's ideology and of the other three parties represented in the national Duma as well,” veteran gay activist Nikolai Baev, a key organizer of Moscow’s perpetually-banned Gay Pride, told Gay City News from Moscow.

Baev added, “All of these parties are social conservative parties, even the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. Communists are leftists in their economic program only. Indeed, they are as conservative and homophobic as Putin's party.”

The Communists came in second in the weekend’s elections, increasing their share of the vote to 20 percent from just 12 percent two years ago, while Putin’s United Russia lost its more than two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, seeing its number of seats decline from 315 to 238 in the 450-member body.

“Of course United Russia decided to play a homophobic card, as well as a nationalist one,” Baev told Gay City News. “They understand that their popularity is dropping. Therefore, they are looking for the basest electoral instincts, like xenophobia and homophobia.”

He continued, “Homophobia is always used in Russian political campaigns because this is a very good tool against political opponents, from both sides –– from government and from opposition. Accusations of homosexuality are very frequent in Russian politics in order to sully the image of the political opponents. United Russia calls its opposition gays, while the anti-Putin opposition calls United Russia fags.

“For example, the KPRF –– a very homophobic party, which advocates re-introduction of Soviet-era criminal penalties for homosexuality [repealed in 1993] uses in its campaign the slogan ‘better to be red then blue.’ The double meaning of this phrase is that blue is the party color of United Russia, and at the same time the word blue (in Russian, goluboi) means also a slang word for gay men. So, this is not a surprise that United Russia has used homophobia in this campaign. It was predictable.”

Baev recently succeeded Nikolai Alexeyev as leader of the Moscow Gay Pride organizing committee and of the Gay Russia Human Rights Project, which publishes the gayrussia.ru news website, a key catalyst in developing a positive gay consciousness among some Russian homosexuals, the overwhelming majority of whom remain firmly closeted.

Alexeyev recently withdrew from movement activity to write a book, but was driven back into the activist arena by the poisonous St. Petersburg anti-gay law.

The St. Petersburg legislation, Alexeyev wrote in the Guardian, a UK daily, on November 26, represents a return to “medieval barbarity” in Russia’s cultural capital.

“The city –– where the famous Russian gay composer Peter Tchaikovsky lived, worked, and died just days after conducting his ‘Sixth Pathétique Symphony,’ where the gay writer Nikolay Gogol wrote many of his classical works, and where a gay ballet dancer in the form of Rudolf Nureyev gracefully flew over the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre –– turned out to be in the hands of uneducated clericals,” Alexeyev wrote. “Will they ever be well known by the world, except for their anti-gay hatred?”

Russia’s gays are bereft of allies in the electoral arena to help them challenge Putin’s iron-fisted exercise of power—with one possible, tenuous, and tiny exception. As Baev explained to Gay City News, “There is not one single deputy in the Russian Duma who supports gay rights. All four parties represented in the last Duma, and which will be represented in the next, are homophobic. It will depend if the liberal Yabloko party can win any seats in the next Duma. I doubt it, although today I voted for them.”

As it turned out, Baev’s handicapping proved correct: Yabloko got only three percent of the vote, well below the five percent necessary to win even a single seat in the parliament.

“With Yabloko, this is a special story,” Baev said, in explaining why he had voted for the party. “They were homophobes just a year ago. There are a lot of homophobes in this party. However, Youth Yabloko –– the youth movement in the party –– is much more gay-friendly. And they lobbied during last year a lot in support of gay rights. As a result, Yabloko's leader, Sergei Mitrokhin, declared last October that gay rights should be respected. Five years ago, the same Mitrokhin called Gay Pride a ‘provocation.’ I see that the situation with Yabloko is getting better. I hope that one day they will publicly support us.

“As for Putin's power,” Baev added, ”you should remember that Russia is a super-presidential republic. It means that elections for the Duma don't mean a lot for political power in Russia. The Russian president has even the right to dissolve the Duma. All power is concentrated in the president and his administration. I think that even if Putin has less support in the Duma, he will propose his prime minister to the Duma and they will appoint him without any problem. He will not need to form any coalition.

“However Putin has called himself ‘a nationalist in the positive meaning.’ I think this formula contains his social conservatism, his clerical beliefs, and his neo-Soviet chauvinism. So he may very easily play a nationalist or far right card” –– as the Russian boss has indeed done with his party’s gay-bashing legislation in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Baev pointed to another reason for the blatant appeal by Putin’s party to homophobia –– the role of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The Church became under Putin a part of his political regime,” he explained. “Indeed all political parties represented in the Duma try to be friends of the Church. This is also a part of their social conservatism. Therefore, the ban on gay propaganda proposed in the St. Petersburg law is supported by all of the parties, and this is one of the clear demands of the Church –– to make gays and lesbians silent. The homophobic rhetoric of Russian politicians is very often based on clerical ideas about Russia as an ‘Orthodox’ country.”

Direct action and civil disobedience –– including attempts to go forward with Gay Pride demonstrations that have been banned as well as other “unauthorized” public gatherings (more than 300 in all) ––have drawn significant publicity at home and abroad, giving the nascent Russian gay movement visibility it never had before. Baev identified three other principal ways in which Russian queers fight back in a society whose cultural homophobia is institutionalized by religion and state power.

The first is legal, a strategy developed by Alexeyev, a brilliant young lawyer who initiated more than 130 cases challenging homophobic rulings and declarations by politicians. The strategy bore fruit with the European Court of Human Rights’ historic decision in April in a case challenging the multiple official bans on Moscow Gay Pride demonstrations.

St. Petersburg’s new “no promo homo” law is based on a similar enactment several years ago in the province of Ryazan. Under that law, Baev was prosecuted for holding a banner in front of a local school stating, “Homosexuality is normal.” He is the plaintiff in a case challenging Ryazan's “no promo homo” law for encouraging murderous hate speech, which has been slowly wending its way through the Russian courts, to date without success.

“We cannot find justice in Russian courts which are very homophobic and depend on the executive power,” Baev explained.

The possibility of another major gay rights victory was raised last week when, as gayrussia.ru reported, the United Nations Human Rights Committee's secretariat informed the group that Irina Fedotova’s challenge to her arrest in Ryazan for “propaganda of homosexuality to minors” would be heard during its July 2012 session in Geneva.

The website noted, “Some of you might know Irina Fedotova as she is one of our longstanding activists, but she is also the first Russian to challenge, together with her wife, Russia's ban on same-sex marriage at the European Court. The couple was able to officially register their marriage in Toronto in October 2009 but were denied to do it in Moscow. Their marriage was GayRussia's 2009 campaign.”

A second part of the activists’ strategy, Baev told Gay City News, is “our campaign against Russian homophobes abroad. A very good example is the Yabloko Party. Its branch in the city of Tambov supported Governor Betin after he said Russians should “tear homos to pieces to throw their pieces to the wind.” We wrote to the Liberal International and the European Liberal Party in the European parliament in Strasbourg because Yabloko is a member of these institutions. And we asked for a comment. European Liberals asked Russian Yabloko about it, and Yabloko made a statement that it did not support any denial of civil rights of LGBTs. Since then, Yabloko became much less homophobic.”

(One should remember that in Europe, a “liberal” is a devoted conservative advocate of an unregulated free market –– think economist Milton Friedman –– and Russia's Liberal Democrats have been described accurately by the New Yorker's Russian correspondent, Julia Ioffe, as “nationalist-crazypants.”)

Baev said their strategy’s third leg is “our monitoring inside Russia. We launched a huge data base of homophobes in Russian politics with a big list of names and political organizations and authorities which made homophobic statements or homophobic policy. We monitor all homophobic statements of Russian politicians every day.”