Why Western Outrage Could Make Things Worse For Russia's Gays

One of the most troubling events in 2013 was the deteriorating situation for Russia’s LGBT community. In a few short months, the government passed laws banning “gay propaganda” and gay pride marches in Moscow for 100 years. Viral videos of disturbing homophobic abuse seemed to show a growing lack of tolerance in the country.

It didn’t take long for a backlash to form in the Western press; a New York Times op-ed on “Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown” appeared in July, and shortly afterwards a boycott of Russian vodka by American bars gained serious traction. At the tail end of the year, the relatively low-profile U.S. delegation to the Russia’s 2014 Sochi Olympic Games — which notably included two out lesbians — was widely viewed as a signal of the White House’s disapproval.

There’s no doubt a Western backlash was justified, but a bigger, more worrying question is whether such action had any positive impact in Russia. Months later, not only does the restrictive Russian LGBT legislation stay in place, but things actually look a little worse. Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church is now proposing a referendum that could revert the country to a Soviet-style ban on all homosexual relations.

Worse still, prominent supporters of the ban specifically point to Western interference as a justification for more discrimination. “There is no question that society should discuss this issue since we live in a democracy,” Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin told the pro-government Izvestia daily, while talking about the proposed anti-gay referendum. “For this reason, it is precisely the majority of our people and not some outside powers that should decide what should be a criminal offence and what should not.”

At the very top of the Russian leadership, President Vladimir Putin holds approval ratings that would be the envy of any Western leader. Part of his success comes from his success at turning Russia’s Christian conservatism into a rallying cry against European-style moral decadence.

“Putin wants to make Russia into the traditional values capital of the world,” Putin biographer Masha Gessen told the New York Times’ Bill Keller last month. It’s a movement that even has some support amongst American conservatives.

One interesting insight into Putin’s strategy comes in the form of a recent interview given by Angus Roxburgh, a British journalist who formerly worked for the Kremlin-linked Ketchum PR-agency (the interview with Russia’s New Times has been translated by the Interpreter website). In his interview, Roxburgh argues that Western condemnation only emboldens Russian conservatives — and that the situation has been getting worse for years.

While Roxburgh’s closeness to the Kremlin may make some balk, it’s hard to deny that he might have a good idea of how the Russian political elite thinks [emphasis ours]:

It’s possible that Putin was in fact more liberal 10 years ago. Western politicians, who had to deal with him, argued that, despite some authoritarian habits that already started to manifest themselves (shutting down media critical of him, the case of Khodorkovsky), Putin still considered Russia part of the West, or at least, considered the West an ally, sharing his core values. And many times he would make gestures that, in his view, should have prompted the West to accept Russia as an equal partner. But Western leaders were not really in a hurry to do that. Kremlin’s autocracy was becoming increasingly alarming for the West, intensified critical attitude toward Russia and prompted measures that Putin considered anti-Russian (NATO expansion, flirting with Ukraine and Georgia, deployment of missile defence systems in Eastern Europe). As a result, Putin felt rejected, began looking for a way to protect himself and opted for a strategy of self-isolation. The result was a vicious circle: the more outraged the West was getting by Putin’s actions, the more it offended Putin who acted even more sharply. Instead of trying to find a common ground with the West and the Russian intellectual elite, he seems to have concluded that he should rely on conservative forces, that is, the church, the security services and not too politically sophisticated masses who do not care about Western values.

Roxburgh argues that not only does the state ignore Western outrage, but the “constant Western moralization and lecturing irritates most Russian citizens.” It’s a sad fact that many of these citizens agree with Russia’s anti-gay actions. 40-two per cent of respondents to a recent poll from the independent Levada Center fully support the ban on “homosexual propaganda,” while just 2% fully oppose it.

“Of course, the West should criticise human rights violations (not forgetting, however, about its own shortcomings ),” Roxburgh explains, “but sanctions, penalties and lecturing are invariably counterproductive.”

In many ways, the LGBT issue represents a microcosm of Russia’s relation with the West: The more we apply pressure to Moscow, the more Moscow doubles down. Despite outrage in the West, government critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot were kept in jail for years and only released at a time convenient for the Kremlin, while other opposition leaders such as Alexey Navalny continue to face prosecution. Even in cases where there has been direct, unequivocal Western action — such as the “blacklist” of Russian officials believed to have been involved in the death of Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky — there has been no capitulation from the Kremlin, only retribution.

The only other option for the West seems to be some kind of soft power — incremental policy less likely to cause a backlash from either the Russian elite or the Russian public. That idea seems to chime with Roxburgh’s thinking too, as he argues that change in Russia is inevitable, but it seems more likely to come from inside of the Kremlin’s power structure than outside. The big question is how that be influenced.

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