WHEN Russia hosts the 2013 G20 Summit in St Petersburg on September 5-6 this year, its leader, Vladimir Putin, is likely to experience the covert opprobrium of a number of world leaders in attendance over what is perceived as Russia’s persecution of gay men and women.
Already, the officially sanctioned push-back against gay rights activists in the country of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir IIyich Lenin and great Russian artists Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich has so inflamed passions around the world and in democracies known for their stout defence of human rights, that it has ignited calls for the boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the coast of the Black Sea.
Russia’s anti-gay law as a stratagem of cultural certitude has been a contentious global issue since the country’s Parliament passed the ruling in June of this year. It leads to heavy fines for anyone deemed to promote homosexuality to people under the age of 18 years of age. And reports suggest that Russians have been worried that come next year’s Winter Olympics, anyone found engaging in homosexual “propaganda” will be arrested.
But like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Putin, the Machiavellian politician that he is, has found a way, in the face of mounting pressure and opposition at home, of using homophobia as an additional political device for boosting his popularity and maintaining power.
With his popularity waning, especially in the urban conurbations, and the difficulty of winning over the opposition with progressive policies and programmes, Putin has resorted to repressive and anti-democratic measures to legitimise his position.
His Administration has introduced new sanctions for unauthorised protests, prosecuted Alexei Navalny — Moscow’s popular mayoral candidate, opposition hero, and a man with the best name recognition amongst all politicians in Russia, with the exception of Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev — and increasingly intimidates independent Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that accept money from abroad as “foreign agents”.
Much of this has taken place against the background of falling oil prices, which economic forecasters predict is bound to pressure the country’s already strained finances in the years to come.
In circumstances like these, however, a leader of Putin’s calibre and political savvy, who, significantly, holds the distinction of having given back to his country that sense of pride, greatness, and status it lost during the era of the Cold War, is not easily fazed by opposition to his policies and programmes, especially those directed against a potentially strong liberal western-oriented opposition.
Hence his bold signal to the world that he is determined to continue his campaign of ultra-conservative activism by promoting homophobia couched as a values and attitude campaign in defence of a supposedly ‘normal’ conservative and primarily rural Russian lifestyle, against those Russians with ultra-modern metropolitan leanings.
On closer examination, Putin’s ultimate objective is to become, once again, the ‘hero’ in the crowd in Russia, by convincing ordinary Russians that their country is under siege politically by hostile western forces, and, more importantly, culturally, by foreign attitudes and values that are designed to create a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah in the midst of Russian culture.
Significantly, there is some amount of evidence that the strategy is working. Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who as an idol of the Russian people, went on to claim her third world title at the recently concluded World Athletics Championships in Moscow and used the occasion to defend her country’s anti-gay law by criticising athletes who showed solidarity with gays.
“If we allow to promote,” she said in her customary broken English, “and do all this stuff on the street we are afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys. Everything must be fine. It come from history. We never had any problems... and we don’t want to have any in the future.”
Isinbayeva’s broken English aside, her intervention can be construed as supporting Putin’s attempt to stigmatise and criminalise same-sex relationships; the impact of which is similar to that emanating from the heavy prison sentences given in February this year to seven of the 11-member Russian feminist punk rock protest group with the provocative name, Pussy Riot, for staging a protest performance on the soleas of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Looking to the future of which Isinbayeva speaks, just how far can President Putin take his homophobia and pro-Russian values and attitude cultural campaign? Is he prepared to risk western opprobrium over his country’s right to pass laws it considers in the ‘best’ interests of its people?
For the time being, at least, Putin can enjoy basking in the limelight of being a leading member of the international community while violating what some see as human rights norms, and encouraging anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He faces, after all, no discernible or credible international pressure to change course.
But his country is not in the best economic shape. It is desperately in need of massive foreign investment to stimulate new areas of economic activity, modernise its rapidly declining energy sector, and transform an environment of net capital outflows. As such, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it will not be anti-gay legislation that will allow the Russian leader to make good on his election promise to finance the social transfers to conservative-minded pensioners and public sector workers.
Going forward, he needs to find some US$50 billion to plug the deficit in the country’s pay-as-you-go pension system which boasts 38.7 million pensioners. What is worse, tax revenues are not enough at present to pay decent pensions in a context where pension expenditure makes up only six per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, compared with seven per cent to 15 per cent in other European countries, according to the World Bank.
So while Putin dances to the beat of homophobia, it is the performance of the Russian economy capable of delivering to Russians a lifestyle of privilege and global mobility, and the attitude of western leaders and governments towards his country, that will ultimately determine how long his peculiar politics of homophobia in Russia will last.