When Vladimir Putin returns to the Group of Eight leaders summit in May, he’ll be alone at the table in representing a country that’s curbing rather than expanding the rights of sexual minorities.
Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, Europe’s fourth-largest city, banned this month homosexual ”propaganda,” defined as the distribution of information that could harm “the health and moral and spiritual development of minors.” Violators face fines of as much as 500,000 rubles ($17,000).
The clampdown by Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, a Putin ally and former KGB officer, runs counter to legislative trends in the developed world. In the U.S., which is hosting the G-8 summit at Camp David, Maryland, freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution and same-sex marriage has been approved by lawmakers in eight states. Japan, the G-8’s second-largest economy, has no laws curbing homosexuality and the U.K. repealed a ban on promoting it a decade ago.
“This is a worrying trend that goes against the grain,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said by phone on March 21. “In large parts of the world in the last couple of decades, in Europe, the U.S., part of Asia, they have moved in a very progressive direction, becoming more open, accepting and tolerant.”
Putin, who will start his third term as president in May after serving four years as prime minister, has linked his position on gay rights to the birth rate in Russia, where the population shrank to 142.9 million in 2010 from 145.2 million in 2002, according to the Federal Statistics Service in Moscow.
“As for same-sex marriages, they do not produce offspring, as you know,” Putin told CNN’s Larry King in December 2010. “We are fairly tolerant toward sexual minorities, however we think that the state should promote reproduction, support mothers and children.”
That contrasts with movements toward equality for gays in Europe, where at least 20 countries either allow same-sex marriages or accept some form of civil partnership. India repealed its colonial-era code criminalizing gay sex between consenting adults in 2009.
South Africa became the first country on the continent to allow same-sex marriage in 2006. Argentina did the same last July, a first in Latin America, which is predominately Catholic. Israel is the most liberal country in the Middle East on gay rights, extending spousal benefits to partners, allowing same- sex couples to adopt children and openly gay soldiers in its military.
‘Targets of Violence’
In Poland, which borders Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, the government is working on a partnership bill that would give common-law couples, including gays, rights including inheritance, hospital visitation and alimony.
St. Petersburg is the fourth administrative district to ban gay “propaganda” in a country that has been criticized for the intolerant laws by the U.S. Canada, also in the G-8, issued a warning March 19 to its citizens who plan to travel to St. Petersburg to avoid “displaying affection in public, as homosexuals can be targets of violence.”
St. Petersburg, a host city for soccer’s World Cup in 2018, was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a window to the west. The former imperial capital, home to almost 5 million people, is now Russia’s top tourist destination for foreigners and is located less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Finland, where civil unions for same-sex couples were legalized more than a decade ago.
The U.K. Foreign Office warned Russia that the new laws violate its obligations as a member of the 47-nation Council of Europe, a Strasbourg, France-based group representing 800 million people that promotes democracy and human rights.
The U.S. is working with the EU to pressure Russia to abandon the legislation, which “would severely restrict freedoms of expression and assembly” for sexual minorities, the State Department said on its website Feb. 9. “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
There are “concerns” that the Russian authorities may opt to adopt a similar law at a national level, said Human Rights Watch’s Williamson.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov countered in a radio interview March 20, saying western countries are seeking to impose their cultural values on the rest of the world.
“There are different civilizations, non-European civilizations, which have their own values,” Lavrov said. Most Russians follow Orthodox Christian traditions and introducing foreign moral standards will only provoke a “negative reaction,” he said.
‘Is That Propaganda?’
The Russian Orthodox Church, the dominant religious body in in the world’s largest country by landmass, considers homosexuality a sin and supports curtailing its promotion.
“There’s lots of criticism from the media community about this law, but somehow most of the media forgets about this crucial word — minors,” said Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, by phone. “It’s about propaganda among minors, not about banning homosexuality itself.”
The biggest problem with the law, though, is that it’s so vague that almost any gay activity can be interpreted as a criminal act, said Vitaly Lobok, co-founder of the Blue Oyster gay bar in St. Petersburg’s historic city center.
“We have a rainbow flag outside of the bar — is that propaganda for homosexuality?” Lobok said by phone. “Who is going to decide that?”
About 69 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, according to a poll last August by the Moscow-based Levada center. An even greater majority, though, 74 percent, believes that homosexuality is a perversion of human nature, according to a Levada poll conducted in July 2010.
‘Me, You and Madonna’
Homosexuality was a crime during the Soviet era and wasn’t decriminalized until 1993. Seventy-six of the 193 members of the United Nations deem it illegal, according to Human Rights Watch. At least five countries, including Iran, impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations.
Opponents of the legislation have gained a high-profile supporter in the pop star Madonna, who told Bloomberg News that she’ll protest the law when she performs in Russia in August.
“I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community,” Madonna said in an e-mail March 20. “I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity,” she said. “I’m a freedom fighter.”
Madonna’s first show in Russia six years ago was marred by protests by Russian Orthodox activists who objected to her performance of the song “Live to Tell,” which she sang while wearing a crown of thorns and dangling from a cross.
If the celebrity does promote homosexuality at her St. Petersburg concert she’ll probably be fined because at least one person under the age of 18 will be in attendance, according to Vitaly Milonov, the local lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party who drafted the bill.
“The law is called the law because everyone has to comply with it,” St. Petersburg Vice Governor Vasily Kichedzhi said by phone. “Me, you and Madonna.”
Henry Meyer, Stepan Kravchenko and Anastasia Ustinova