The upcoming Sochi Olympic Games have shone an international spotlight on Russia’s treatment of dissent.
President Vladimir Putin initially proposed a ban on protests at Sochi. After pressure it was lifted, and a town 18 kilometres away from Sochi declared a “protest zone” for approved actions. Imprisoned members of the band Pussy Riot, and the Greenpeace “Arctic 30”, were given amnesty and freed from prison in January.
Some activists, politicians and celebrities, like Stephen Fry and Lady Gaga, have called to boycott Sochi over Russia’s new anti-gay laws. But opportunism and hypocrisy has driven Western leaders to jump on the bandwagon.
Last year the Russian parliament unanimously passed laws that ban people from distributing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children, with heavy fines attached. The laws are broad and apply to any individual or organisation that publicly acknowledges the existence of homosexuality—in the classroom, on the street or on the Internet.
One provision extends to foreigners travelling in Russia suspected of being “pro-gay”. They face arrest, 14 days of detention and deportation. In July four Dutch filmmakers working in Murmansk were detained under the law for “promoting homosexuality to children”.
Gay parents from other countries will be prohibited from adopting Russian children.
Singles and unmarried couples who live in a countries with marriage equality will also be barred from adopting.
In September Russian politicians discussed a bill to remove children from gay parents, but it was withdrawn until after the Olympics.
The laws have led to a spike in homophobic attacks. City council members in Saint Petersburg declared it acceptable to physically assault people at gay pride marches. A politician in eastern Russia proposed using Cossacks and paratroopers to publicly whip LGBT people.
Neo-Nazi and vigilante groups are using social media to lure young LGBT people and then film themselves abusing, humiliating and even torturing them. There are some reports of murders. One study found that 15 per cent of LGBT Russians experienced physical assaults in a 10 month period.
Opportunistically, French and German Presidents Francois Holland and Joachim Gauck are refusing to go to Sochi. Obama will not be attending and is sending two gay former athletes in a US delegation to the games.
Obama has given late rhetorical support to same-sex marriage, but it is still illegal in 37 states. In 29 states it is legal for bosses to sack people on the basis of their known or suspected sexual orientation.
Although the Cold War has ended Western countries still compete with Russia for influence. The boycott is an opportunity for Western rulers to strengthen their own imperialism while appearing progressive on LGBT rights.
The Russian LGBT Network has issued a statement against the boycott. Leading campaigner in the organisation, Anastasia Smirnova, says it would be more powerful to take a stand during the Olympics than boycott them.
We can show solidarity by offering support to the resistance in Russia, not to our own leaders.