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Everything You Need to Know About Russia’s Anti-Gay “Propaganda” Laws

The anti-“propaganda” law in Russia — known as the Russian anti-gay law — which targets non-traditional relationshipssparked international outcry this month. The federal law has not been applied in practice, though its regional precursors were used to fine activists and prevent public events since 2006. And yet very few understand what the law says or means — but the Russian judges and police will have to figure this out, somehow. Just this week, it was reported that the apartment of prominent activist Nikolai Alexeyev was ransacked because of a legal complaint against him made by the leading backer of the “propaganda” bill in the State Duma. 

Diplomats are deeply concerned; communities in the West are outraged and protesting, and the media can’t get enough of the story — which has the potential of carrying us through the Winter Olympics in February 2014. This week, Human Rights First released a report on the history and implications of the Russian law that banned the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations.

No matter how many news pieces you’ve read or seen on TV in the past week, there isn’t a simple way of assessing the new law and its potential impact without knowing its history, the government’s handling of it, and Russian activists’ reactions to such laws. The law must be put in context as part of the Parthenon of newly adopted restrictive legislative measures by a parliament whose very election — rather, concerns over its legitimacy — triggered the largest wave of protests that modern Russia has seen. 

Twenty years after the Cold War, the United States is dealing with a healthier, wealthier, stronger Russia that emerged from the past turbulent decade as the world’s fifth-largest economy employing a relatively stable cohort of megarich oligarchs-turned-bureaucrats-turned-oligarchs,  and an ever-growing middle class driven by the needs and wants of any middle class in the world: how to raise a family, what gadget to buy, what travel site to use, etc. This is the Russia that is hosting next week’s G20 summit of world leaders.

But what if life’s not all about keeping your head down and plugging away—but raising your voice and participating in political and civic action? The public protests that started in December 2011 have shaken things up, but the Kremlin responded with bold moves against dissent, prosecuting political activists and using repressive laws and law enforcement to try to weaken civil society. The trials of the “Bolotnaya defendants,” blogger-turned Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, and the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, are merely the most famous examples from the past two years — others under threat include government critics, human rights activists, independent journalists, and whistleblowers.

Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin has embraced the populist assault on LGBT rights. The crackdown is one part of the continuous denial of freedom of association, the lack of protection from violence, the discriminatory and ambiguous bans on “propaganda” that are designed to limit free expression and to infringe on the constitutionally-protected rights of Russia’s LGBT persons.  So what do you need to know? There were scores of regional bans that preceded the federal law signed by President Putin in June, and from the Russian government own opposed federal legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” in 2003, 2004, and 2006. 

The regional legislation shows just how illogical and ambiguous the bans really are, and the government’s rebuttals to the federal bills demonstrate a clear understanding by the Kremlin of the way “propaganda” bills undermine the constitution, the criminal code, and Russia’s international commitments. Unfortunately, in 2013 those were pushed aside in favor of populist scapegoating of Russia’s gays.

But there is also an American part of this story — what can the U.S. government and society do to stand in solidarity with people affected by Russia’s backslide in human rights? While the U.S. government must continue to stand up for Russia’s LGBT people, it should also be strategic because in a country where it’s widely believed that homosexuality is a product of the West, external opposition to the anti-“propaganda” law could harden support within. The central goal of U.S. policy should be to bolster those fighting for freedom on the frontlines and to protect LGBT Russians from persecution and violence. This will take a sustained effort — one that lasts well beyond the Sochi Olympics and needs the support of leaders of countries like Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, South Korea, and South Africa — and it should begin when President Obama travels to St. Petersburg for the G20 Summit on September 5 and 6.

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