Responding to developments in Russia

Published: July 31, 2013

Fundraising campaigns, boycott campaigns, silent and vocal diplomatic actions, as well as a variety of other creative interventions have already surfaced. The Russian LGBT Network, but also ILGA-Europe currently are flooded with questions from organizations and individuals about what they can do to help stop these barbaric developments. It is empowering to see how so many people stand in solidarity with the LGBTI community in Russia.

At ILGA-Europe we have been closely following developments in Russia. In close cooperation with our members in Russia we are currently developing our own strategy. In this short piece we aim to put together some critical factors in our current thinking. In the aftermath of the adoption of the federal law banning ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’, we have started asking ourselves many questions about how we can best respond strategically to the current situation. What kind of response results in real positive impact on the ground in Russia? How do we keep a good balance between raising awareness in the west –which is necessary to get public officials at home to act- and not feeding further negative sentiment in Russia itself? Our golden guiding principle has been to consult closely with the Russian groups before moving into action and not to rush into actions just for the sake of responding. Our thinking is that the current situation is, sadly, not going to change anytime soon, so why not allow ourselves a few weeks or months to develop a sound strategy that can hopefully create real impact over time.

We hope that this piece will contribute to further discussions about what kind of actions could be helpful. The Russian LGBT Network has also put some critical pieces of information in relation to this on its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/LGBT.Russia.

At the time that the federal homosexuality anti-propaganda law was discussed in Russia, LGBT groups in the country were clear about the need for public action against these laws. Many NGOs, governments and international organisations around the world responded to this by the delivery of statements and the developments of campaigns. The broad international responses seemed to be yielding responses as a number of regional ombudspersons’ offices started to establish dialogue with LGBTI civil society. There were also signs of the federal level ombudsperson willing to start a dialogue. And even President Putin in response to international pressure came out to say that LGBT people have the same rights as other people.

The massive international attention did not stop the federal level anti-propaganda from being adopted. In a matter of weeks any dialogue with public institutions has stopped. The little support the LGBTI community had, often from individual civil servants, has ceased. Cases of violence have increased, including organized violence by right-wing group setting up appointments with (often young) victims through internet sites. LGBTI groups no longer can carry out any public activity. Media outlets are now facing risks to be penalized for covering LGBT issues. And presumably, this is only the beginning. At this stage, nobody can really say what the real effect of these laws is going to be. But the first signs of impact are beyond horrible.

Why this witch-hunt on the LGBTI community?
So here comes the issue. In fact, the anti-propaganda laws are part of a much broader attempt to clamp down civil society. The laws are adopted in a period, coinciding with Putin’s third presidency, during which a number of laws have been adopted that clearly violate freedoms of assembly, association, expression and information. All these laws seemingly share one objective: rendering the work of NGOs impossible. There is the Treason law, which aims to make international advocacy difficult. Then there is the Foreign Agents law, forcing organisations to register if they receive foreign funding, putting them under extreme administrative scrutiny and thereby threating their mere existence. And there are also new laws regulating the internet. It is clearly the aim of the government to stop any organising that could create a threat to their leadership.

At the same time, the anti-LGBTI campaign plays well into the new way in which Putin likes to position Russia. A society that is hyper-conservative and pro-family values, close to the Orthodox Church and moving away from western values. The LGBTI community in that context is best place to become the symbol of everything that is un-Russian.

There are clear signals that the foreign agents law is disproportionately affecting LGBTI human rights defenders and organisations as the law has already been used to ‘inspect’ some organisations. St. Petersburg LGBT organisations Coming Out and Side by Side were challenged by authorities in front of court for breaking the principles of these laws, heavy financial penalties are currently pending for both organizations. This demonstrates that it is likely the nest of laws that is going to impact civil society organizing in Russia, with LGBTI organisations as front row victims.

Is this the result of the success of the LGBTI movement? At a time that the LGBTI community successfully managed to turn into visibility, claiming their space in society, public and political leaders are condoning the positioning of homosexuality as something non-native, non-traditional and against family values, thereby putting the physical safety and public existence of a big group of society at risk. This is where government policy and hostile views to the matter in society start to work symbiotically and create a downwards spiral of LGBTI-phobic sentiments, increase of human rights violations and the complete lack of opportunity to address LGBTI issues with authorities. The scapegoating strategy against minorities effectively rebuilds some trust of society in the government, and Putin knows it. The LGBTI community is forcibly pushed into invisibility again, whilst the trust in the authoritarian regime grows.

But then again, it is not just the LGBTI community that sees their position deteriorate rapidly. Various groups of ethnic and religious majorities also see their position weakened as consequence of a mix of the complete lack of protection by authorities, resulting in a silent approval of human rights violations targeted at them, and a rise of extremist activity. Sadly, such violations are widely on the rise, but remain largely under reported. So the question is, whether isolating the human rights violations targeted at the LGBTI community in international campaigning is the most effective way, or whether joining forces with other communities that face similar challenges, over time will be more effective.

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