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Agenda: Protest against Russia's anti-gay stance can play into Putin's hands

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has urged athletes in Sochi to speak out against homophobic prejudice and we are likely to see gestures of solidarity and protest over the Winter Olympics.

However, despite widespread international protest since the "gay propaganda law" was introduced in June last year, the Russian Government shows no signs of giving in to pressures from abroad.

The law is similar in spirit to the infamous Section 28, under which same-sex relations were described as "pretend family relations". The Russian law says minors should not be exposed to neutral or positive portrayals of same-sex relations, which may impair their "normal" development. However, the remit of the Russian law is much broader.

It justifies restrictions to the activities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community organisations, and censorship of open discussion in the media.

It has inspired a recent rise in homophobic crime, sometimes committed by self-appointed patriots in the name of Russian traditional values, and often condoned or overlooked by law- enforcement agencies.

The domestic context is important for understanding widespread support for or indifference towards the law, and the rise in homophobic crime. Russia has wider problems with human rights violations and the rule of law.

Sochi, the most expensive Olympic Games in history after Beijing, may be remembered for reasons other than protests about gay rights in a country where an estimated 13% of the population lives below the poverty line.

As the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin and his Government declined, nationalist rhetoric about Russian traditions and values has gained political currency, both domestically and internationally.

The "gay propaganda law" is just one of a series of policies and laws aimed at promoting conservative family values and gender roles within Russia, and Russian national identity is increasingly defined in opposition to both western influences and the traditions of Russia's own ethnic minorities.

Are international solidarity campaigns having an effect? It may be too early to tell: after all, it took 14 years for Section 28 to be repealed in Britain. Campaigns have drawn criticism for misrepresenting the situation in which gay people live in Russia, and for using Russophobic rhetoric unlikely to move the Russian Government or to win the hearts and minds of the silent majority in Russia.

The international response to the introduction of the law was very emotional, and not always well informed. There were calls to strip Russia of the winter Olympics, and to boycott the games; yet these measures were opposed by the major Russian LGBT organisations which argued this would only scapegoat the gay community even more.

Not all protests may be productive, no matter how well-intentioned. UK Culture Secretary Maria Miller has recently pledged UK aid to Russian LGBT organisations; yet the recent introduction of a law requiring any NGO receiving funding from abroad to register as a "foreign agent" complicates matters. This law has been used against many civil society organisations, LGBT organisations among them, and is indicative of a more general crackdown on civil liberties in Russia.

It is a way to monitor the activities of ideologically suspicious organisations and tarnish their reputation through their association with "Western", anti-Russian values.

This creates a Catch-22 situation, in which international solidarity may unwittingly play into the hands of the Russian Government by reinforcing the notion that homosexuality is a "Western" lifestyle, alien to Russian values.

This will be discussed at a series of events "LGBT lives in Russia and Lithuania" in Edinburgh and Glasgow, between February 11 and 23, organised by the University of Glasgow, Edinburgh Film Guild, Scotland-Russia Forum and the University of Edinburgh Amnesty International Student Society.

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