Saturday, August 24, 2013

Russian Olympics: Anti-gay propaganda law embarrasses Putin

All the pieces of despotic rule are being set in motion in Russia right now. The ruler of Russia, Vladimir Putin, already has power to do whatever he wants. He has silenced his opposition by arresting or removing them from office. And he has subverted the Constitution by retaining power after the Constitution dictated that he relinquish it—he found a stooge to keep his chair warm for four years, and arranged to have the Constitution changed, so that he could be re-elected for a six-year term.

Another component of despotism is a fiercely loyal power base. Stalin had the Communist Party. Putin has the Orthodox Church. The Church is a good base of support for a totalitarian despot because believers are not supposed to question authority. The Catholic Church provided support for fascism in Spain and Italy. Islam has provided support for the Ayatollahs in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Putin has also organized a youth movement to act as the spearhead of his regime. Young people act impulsively and energetically. They follow leaders without question. Hitler used the Hitler Youth. Mao used the Red Guard. For over a decade, Putin has used a youth group called Nashi. The movement is primarily an ultra-nationalist group that wears white t-shirts emblazoned with a stylized red cross. Nashi's webpage leads with a picture of Putin and its own leader. Nashi apparently specializes in dirty tricks against Putin's rivals, like Ksenia Sobchak, a young socialite woman. Sobchak makes fun of Putin and his prudish supporters. She is more an annoyance than a threat.

Another group that identifies itself with Putin's goals—though not with Putin himself—is the National Socialist party. This party declares itself to be Christian, violent, Aryan, and nationalist. Its similarities to the German Nazi party are obvious. The National Socialist Party has little support in Russia. Its newspaper has not been posted online since 2001. The National Socialist Party attacks ethnic minorities, who have migrated to the big cities in recent years. It is reputed to have made a video showing two murders in 2007.

A key component of any despotism is an enemy. The enemy unifies the leader's followers in attacking a common opponent and serves as a scapegoat--the leader can blame all the nation's troubles on the enemy. Putin's obvious choice would have been to attack the Jews or another ethnic minority, but the Jews have many supporters in the world right now. European countries, whom Putin needs to buy Russian gas and oil, would be likely to object strongly.  

Instead, Putin chose to attack gays. He apparently believed this would not be a problem with foreign countries, and he knew the orthodox Christians would support him, particularly in view of the church leadership's position on gays. The Russian Orthodox Prelate, head of the Russian church, has declared that foreign countries that recognize same-sex marriage are a sign of the apocalypse. The Prelate supports the ban on “homosexual propaganda” recently signed into law by Putin.

Numerous groups in Russia have been formed to attack and harass gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Russians. The largest of these, Occupy Pedophilia, claims 75,000 followers on VK, the Russian Facebook. Occupy posts videos of its members taunting and assaulting suspected LGBT youth. The Russian authorities do not seem much interested in investigating these videos.

The anti-gay-propaganda law declares open season on LGBT Russians. Being gay is technically still legal, but the anti-gay-propaganda law forbids anyone to spread homosexual “propaganda” to Russian youth. This crime is so vague that it could cover almost anything a LGBT person might say about his/her sexuality or social opinions.

Putin has had the misfortune to sign this law just as Russia is preparing to host the Winter Olympics, and has received much criticism. Western celebrities have been slamming the law for weeks. The attacks will likely continue until after the Olympics.

The internal Russian LGBT movement itself has welcomed the new anti-gay-propaganda law because the law has finally succeeded in attracting the West's attention:  gays have been living with the regional versions of this law for years and this is the first time the outside world has noticed. The first anti-gay-propaganda law was passed in Ryazan province in 2006. Subsequently, in October 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled the Ryazan law discriminatory  and called on Russian authorities to repeal it.  The Russian gay community is still waiting. 

A spokesman in Russia, Nikolay Alekseyev, ridicules activists outside Russia who urge a boycott of the Olympics; he claims such boycotts are always ineffectual, and only harm the athletes. Alekseyev has sponsored numerous Gay Pride parades inside Russia, but these events had to be kept secret so they would not be disrupted by anti-gay skinheads. He and several LGBT activists have appealed their convictions under Russian law to the International Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France. Their convictions were reversed and should be recognized by Russian authorities, eventually. 

Olympic authorities have announced that they will tolerate no political demonstrations from participants. The Russian government has explained that the anti-gay-propaganda law is not discriminatory, since everyone is forbidden to spread gay propaganda. Essentially, this means a heterosexual can talk about his/her sexuality, but a gay person cannot. This situation is hardly non-discriminatory, and conflicts with the Olympic charter. It also conflicts with the ruling of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Putin moves to consolidate power

Putin received a shock after demonstrations greeted his last, rigged election in 2012. Thousands of demonstrators went into the streets to protest documented reports of carousel voting—fraudulent voters going from one polling place to another, voting at each one—and large dumps of absentee ballots. Observers also reported voters being paid a dollar each to vote for Putin.

These demonstrations alerted Putin to his precarious position. The previous government had been destabilized and overthrown by street protests. Putin started consolidating his power with a swing to the right. His supporters proposed and he signed the anti-gay-propaganda law attacking rights of expression. Putin also stepped up attacks on the internet by passing the Russian anti-piracy law, which permits courts to shut down websites that violate copyright laws.

Putin's allies in this push for internet purity are the League of Safe Internet, which attacks informational sites (like Wikipedia's article on cannabis) as well as those with sexual content. Russian authorities have also used an anti-extremism law to crack down on bloggers, including nationalist radicals and opposition pundits. Authorities brought 103 cases against bloggers and internet commentators in 2012, a 3-fold increase over 2011. The true importance of these legal cases is not their number but the menace they signal for others. One Russian internet industry spokesman believes the bloggers brought the repression on themselves, because they had used the internet to attack the government too freely, believing they would never be caught. This is nonsense, of course. The bloggers were exercising their rights of free expression, guaranteed by Article 29 of the Russian Constitution. There appears to be some conflict in Russia about exactly which rights the Constitution guarantees and which ones should only be exercised sparingly.

Putin has only a short while to consolidate his power. The 2012 election controversy hurt his popularity. If Putin wants to try a coup against the Russian government, he must move quickly. If he fails, his window of opportunity may be lost, and the Russian Federation will continue without him.

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