What can we do?...Responding to developments in Russia

The last years have seen widely recognised negative developments for the LGBTI community in Russia. At the forefront of damaging developments we see the adoption of the so-called homosexual propaganda laws. First rather silently in a number of regions since 2010, but in June 2013 sadly also at the federal level. International human rights organisations, LGBTI groups across the world and a number of governments have responded immediately to these negative developments in an outcry to stop these laws.

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 organisations 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. The current situation is, sadly, not going to change anytime soon. What we need to do is responding to violence and human rights violations on the ground and take time 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 website.

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 organised 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 penalised 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 organisations. This demonstrates that it is likely the nest of laws that is going to impact civil society organising 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.

Time for bold statements?
In dialogues, both public and privately, governments should of course continue to raise concerns. But this alone is not effective. Russia is notorious for its behaviour at EU-Russia Human Rights consultations. Russia’s standard response to concerns raised by EU member states is posing back a list of human rights issues in EU countries. There is no real dialogue. For a moment, when visiting Amsterdam, Putin seemed to be willing to talk about LGBTI issues, saying that LGBTI people live the same life as other people. After the adoption of the federal law, these words seem rather hollow.
And at the UN, Russia over past years is increasingly cooperating with other countries to advance conservative agenda’s on family and traditional values. All this together demonstrates that Russia is just using the way it is positioned by the west to build new conservative coalitions elsewhere. Out of principle western leaders will likely continue to make statements on the human rights situation in Russia (which are rightly so based on human rights principles that are –technically- supported by Russia). But the real dialogue perhaps needs to take step further and move deeper into society. The engagement with critical voices in society, opinion leaders, groups of professionals such as doctors, psychologists, lawyers and journalists, is necessary to create real impact.

Time for boycott campaigns?
Several cities in recent weeks announced to cancel their twinning-relations with sister cities in Russia. Calls to stop drinking Russia Vodka have been made and an increasing number of groups call for athletes to stay away from the Sochi winter games next year. Such campaigns may definitely help raise awareness in the countries where they are organised, but it is much harder to achieve impact on the ground in Russia with such campaigns. There is a danger that boycotts will be used by Russian opinion leaders or politicians to further scapegoat the LGBT community. In particular when these campaigns concentrate solely on the LGBTI cause, it will give Russian politicians new ammunition to feed the public sentiment that is already anti-LGBTI. It will be the LGBTI community which will be held responsible for an decrease of export, the end of twinning relationships and the failures of the Sochi games. We have seen similar situations occur when western governments threated to stop development aid to some African countries. So whilst well intended, such campaigns may have a reverse effect.

The OIC this weekend boldly came out by saying that it got guarantees from the Russian government that the laws will not affect participation in the Winter Games. This made the OIC fully confident that the Olympics can go on, as there are no obstacles for LGBTI participants. The OIC didn’t refer to the broader human rights situation in Russia. Which is not so different from their position during other Olympic games. So the question is, if groups plan to focus on Sochi, how this can lead to real impact on the ground as opposed to raise awareness in countries outside of Russia? On 30 July the Russian LGBT Network provided some useful answers to this question in their statement on the Winter Olympics. The key of this message: use the Games to speak out, but don’t walk out.

So what can we do?
First, we need to give the Russian LGBTI movement the time to sort out how they can continue their work. The Foreign Agents law makes it impossible to continue working. Discussions on how to continue working, for obvious reasons, take place behind closed doors. But these discussions are extremely important to ensure that the important work can carry on. These laws are not going to disappear anytime soon, so let’s allow ourselves the time to plan effective campaigns.

Second, we need to work on our messaging. Isolating the LGBTI cause in criticising Russia is not effective. It will even harm the LGBTI community more. The developments need to be considered and presented in the context of the wider clampdown on civil society and fact that a variety of minority groups is falling victim as a result of the current government policies. It is important that governments, politicians and media start looking at the situation in a holistic manner.

Third, it is time to build wide alliances in civil society to strategise around the general deterioration of human rights issues in Russia. We need to work hand-in-hand to ensure that the work of civil society in Russia can continue, and continues to be supported.

Fourth, our approach and those of our governments will need to change. Instead of limiting ourselves to criticising the Russian government, we need to focus on developing mid and long strategies. Over time, real change can only be achieved if the critical mass in society that views these developments as negative grows. Educational and awareness raising activities need to be supported and such activity needs to fit into the cultural context of Russia.

Fifth, it is necessary to build alliances with critical voices in society. The whole range of laws doesn’t only affect the life of minorities. It also affects the lives of many professionals who longer can't exercise their profession up to the standards required. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, journalists, authors and many other groups of professionals are all affected by the current deterioration of rights. Western countries need to support representatives of these groups when they stand up and speak out.

Sixth, other governments should study serious sanctions against Russia. The developments that we are currently observing in Russia are signs of a return to a long bygone era. Whilst dialogue is crucial, this is clearly not sufficient.

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