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Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws Are Part of Larger National Crackdown on Dissent

August 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to the growing criticism of anti-gay laws in Russia. They’re generating protests around the world, just as the Russians gear up to host next year’s Winter Olympics.

PROTESTERS: Gay rights in Russia! Gay rights in Russia!

GWEN IFILL: The refrains have been similar at demonstrations across Europe and the U.S.

PROTESTER: Hey, hey, ho, ho!

PROTESTERS: Homophobia’s got to go.

GWEN IFILL: On Saturday in London, British comedian Stephen Fry didn’t mince words in describing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s new laws.

STEPHEN FRY, comedian: It’s just a very convenient way of uniting brutal people, neo-Nazi people, to be your brute squad. And that’s what I’m afraid Putin is doing and has done.

GWEN IFILL: Putin signed a measure in June banning public expression of homosexual identity and affection. Supporters said it’s to protect the young.

ELENA MIZULINA, State Duma Deputy (through interpreter): It outlaws the spreading of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual attitudes among children, attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, and a distorted perception of social equality between traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.

GWEN IFILL: Gay rights activists argue it gives Putin’s government free rein to suppress speech.

MARCIA POELMAN, protest organizer: Well, I think that the law is so vaguely formulated that you can use the law to criminalize every expression of being gay or lesbian. And I think, that way, you erase the homosexuality out of the minds and out of the street. You make it invisible.

GWEN IFILL: Another measure prohibits the adoption of children by foreign couples who are gay or lesbian.

MAN: No more Russian vodkas.

GWEN IFILL: Some opponents of the laws have taken to dumping Russian vodka to make their point. Others are urging a boycott of the Winter Olympics, set for February in the Russian city of Sochi along the Black Sea.

But, so far, there’s no sign that appeal is gaining much traction. President Obama said Friday a boycott hurts the wrong people.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics. We have got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, the president of the International Olympic Committee says he’s asked Russian officials to clarify how the law banning homosexual expression will be applied during the Games.

JACQUES ROGGE, International Olympic Committee: The Olympic charter is very clear. It says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. And the Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination. So our position is very clear.

GWEN IFILL: The Russian ambassador to the U.N. answered Thursday, speaking to protesters outside his residence in New York.

VITALY CHURKIN, Russian Ambassador to United Nations: All athletes, I can tell you, are going to be just fine — going to be just fine. But we do expect everybody to respect our laws as well.

GWEN IFILL: Russian police are already reinforcing that point, arresting protesters opposed to the laws.

With me now is Miriam Lanskoy, director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Tell me, how did this come to a head right now?

MIRIAM LANSKOY, National Endowment for Democracy: There’s more than one thing going on.

The law itself is part of a general crackdown. There’s been several pieces of legislation, laws against, NGOs against public protests.

GWEN IFILL: Non-governmental organizations.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Non-governmental organizations against different forms of public protests, new restrictions on the Internet.

It’s come to a head because to remain in power and to remain the dominant party at all levels, Putin’s government needs to clamp down and it needs to find internal enemies and try to change the subject away from things like transparency or elections or government accountability.

GWEN IFILL: Is this a sentiment that runs deeper than the Moscow elites or the government? Is this something that is speaking to an underlying general feeling within the Russian population?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: There’s polling that finds — Russian society is very homophobic still.

They find that most Russians still consider homosexuality to be a disease or a perversion. It’s trying to show it as a — kind of a type of foreign influence. And what Putin has done is to try to use — to try to create a narrative of what is truly Russian and to use very primitive, nationalist, homophobic, xenophobic attitudes against critics.

GWEN IFILL: Does the Russian Orthodox Church play a role in that?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Yes, the church plays a role in that.

There was a very famous case of the Pussy Riot, a punk band that performed a song in a church that was against Putin, got three years in jail. Subsequent to that, there were laws to protect Russian values and Russian church.

So the part — what is really a horrible campaign against gay activists and increasing in violence against gays is part of this larger picture.

GWEN IFILL: Is the debate happening just within Russia? Obviously, we heard the president of the United States speak on it, but are there other people weighing in internationally on this?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: There have been protests. Whenever Putin goes to Europe now, there are protests.

There are protests in Belgium, in Netherlands, in Germany, so it’s definitely gathering steam. We have seen that with other types of human rights movements when there’s a strong movement in Europe and the U.S. They start to express solidarity with other parts of — with other parts of the world.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there used to be a law that banned — outright banned gay sex that was repealed in, what, 1993.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: It was a Soviet law.

GWEN IFILL: It was a Soviet law. So why isn’t this — why aren’t they making progress in some ways?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: They were making progress in — and it became possible. Slightly more space was there. There were underground nightclubs that then became a little bit more open.

But, overall, the society, if you compare it to five years in prison for homosexuality, which was the Soviet standard, it made progress. But, still, a news anchor was fired for coming out publicly. What you also have that is very important in Russia is just heightened activism and the sort of — a man who found that he couldn’t report the news and keep talking about it as though it was happening to someone else, so he came out publicly, which is extremely, extremely rare.

So there is a new generation that’s out there that is trying to speak up more and kind of assert ability to come out. 

GWEN IFILL: How much would we be paying attention to this in the broader world if it weren’t for the Olympics, and how much is the coming Olympics in February driving some of this international debate?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: I think the Olympics is an obvious kind of rallying cry for people.

I think we would be paying attention to it regardless, because there was a terrible killing in May, where a man was tortured and killed. There are Russian groups that have become better at getting their message out that use social networks and kind of get traction abroad. There’s a more confident international gay rights movement.

The Obama administration has made gay rights a priority. And that’s something that is — from 2011, they have asked the State Department to start reporting on instances of abuses against LGBT. So there are a number of different things that are coming together, but the Olympics is a focal point for this.

GWEN IFILL: And is this also a focal point? Is this an important central issue for Vladimir Putin himself or is this something…

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Of course, yes. This is his prestige. It’s extremely important, both in terms of being a leader on the global stage, in financial terms, and it’s a point of pride for him. It’s extremely important.

GWEN IFILL: Miriam Lanskoy of the National Endowment for Democracy, thank you so much.