Russia’s losing game against gays and human rights
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week pardoned a dissident group that insulted him and an environmental group that targeted the country’s energy industry in what some human rights activists call a desperate attempt to improve the image of Russia and secure the investments of its partners in the Olympic Games in Sochi in February.
But Putin will not budge on recent anti-gay legislation, and activists say it will cost Moscow some of the soft power he hopes to gain by hosting the Olympics.
The head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, told Russian journalists this week that the absence of President Barack Obama and a large number of European heads of state will not affect the games. But Nikolai Polozov, a famous Russian civil rights lawyer who represented dissident punk rock band Pussy Riot during their trial in 2012, told Al Jazeera that two high-profile pardons indicated that Putin was eager to make money from the Olympic investments of its allies.
“It’s a Putin tactic, only for the good face, where he played very poorly,” Polozov said.
Russia on Thursday dropped charges of hooliganism against all but one of the 30 Greenpeace activists involved in a September protest against an oil rig off Russia’s Arctic coast, and on Monday two jailed members of the Pussy Riot were released. Pyotr Verzilov, husband of released Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told Al Jazeera he was delighted.
Still, Polozov, Tolokonnikova’s former lawyer, said Putin’s pardons indicated that the Russian head of state had carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the human rights situation in the country and its ramifications for Sochi.
Putin “doesn’t think about freedom, not about human rights. He only thinks about his money and his team’s money. He is afraid that no one is going to the Olympics, not Obama, not (British Prime Minister David) Cameron or other leaders, ”Polozov said.
The Sochi Olympics are expected to cost Moscow between $ 60 billion and $ 65 billion, more than 30% more than the Beijing Olympics in 2008. For the financial investment to be worth it, Moscow has to recoup something, and it’s unlikely to be a financial return.
“More than half is spent by Putin’s friends, the oligarchs,” said Andrew Zimbalist, sports economist and professor at Smith College. “They complained, saying the government promised they would offer more subsidies. They want the government to buy back the hotels they are building.”
“They are very worried about the legacy after the games are over,” he said.
Winning an Olympic bid – at least financially – is almost always a loss, Zimbalist recalls.
“The Olympics are a very problematic investment to make, even under the best of circumstances,” Zimbalist said. “The odds are overwhelmingly against them.”
Even in soft power, the effect on Russia’s position in the world “could be negative instead of positive. There is a very viable threat to terrorist activity. … You can have anti-terrorist activity. gays … No one will say, “Look at Putin, he’s a nice man now.”
Gay rights advocates in the United States say the community is divided over its response to holding the Olympics in a location where legislation banning what the Moscow Duma calls “gay propaganda” has led to an increase in homophobic violence.
“When there is persecution (against homosexuals) as you see in Russia, people want to respond in one way or another, whether by assisting or by expressing their displeasure,” Ross said. Murray, spokesperson for gay rights group GLAAD.
Obama seems to have chosen for the gay community that participating in protest is the right course, announcing a delegation of representatives that includes three openly gay athletes and no elected officials.
Some plan to attend and say nothing at all. Retired Olympic figure skater and self-proclaimed Russophile Johnny Weir announced in October that he would attend the Olympics as a commentator, but vowed not to comment on this year’s anti-gay legislation.
The community-wide conversation about a boycott “has been going on for months and (a boycott) has not happened,” GLAAD’s Murray said.
But international companies began to face ramifications for their participation in the event.
“There have been protests outside (the headquarters of Olympic sponsoring companies like) Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa,” Murray said.
“A lot of these companies are kind of proud of their friendliness (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) – that puts them in a tough spot. They have a community they want to engage, but the Olympics are a huge commitment and a product placement opportunity for them. “
Duncan Osborne is a member of the gay rights group Queer Nation, which has engaged Coca-Cola in protests for failing to adhere to the same anti-discrimination policies for gay employees in Russia as in the United States.
“We are not rejecting their pro-gay policies here. We want them to implement these policies in Russia and around the world,” Osborne said.
“It’s easy to be a friend when it’s easy. It’s easy in the United States Friends intensify when times are tough,” he added.
Coca-Cola did not respond to an interview request at the time of posting. Osborne said gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign generally ranks Coca-Cola very high in its corporate equality index.
“Our point is that they should do it in Russia. They don’t do it in Russia. They should do it publicly. That would be a very powerful statement.”
And it is a statement that could damage the image of Russia that Putin is trying to project as an independent and reborn power actor.
The impact of the absence of LGBT spectators considering boycotting Sochi remains unclear, Osborne and Murray say, but it could further hurt the results.
A study published late last year by Prudential Financial reported that the median income of the average LGBT American household is $ 11,500 higher than that of their heterosexual counterparts. The study cited “a diverse group” of 1,401 LGBT Americans, aged 25 to 68.
Osborne pointed out that the purchasing power of the gay community is a controversial issue, as a number of previous statistics have polled specific and wealthy subgroups of the American gay community.
But Osborne said the argument that alienating the LGBT community will hurt Moscow’s Olympic income is morally questionable.
“These are not my favorite arguments. You shouldn’t say you are nice to gay people because they spend money or they will pay X dollars in taxes if you allow them to marry or forbid discrimination.”