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When It Comes To Human Rights, Is Russia Moving Backward?


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: Unless you've been under a rock, you know the Winter Olympics are here. Vladimir Putin's government has committed massive resources to make this a shining moment for modern Russia. But for months, unwelcome stories have loomed in the background, casting Russia in a very un-modern light. Life is still dangerous for political dissidents. And a crackdown on gay rights has triggered outrage across the world.

BAN KI-MOON: We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or intersex people.

RATH: That's U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaking on Thursday. Vladimir Putin has been trying to project a kinder face recently. Some prominent dissidents were released from prison, and Putin has cast the anti-gay propaganda law in a softer light, saying it was merely about protecting kids. But yesterday, just a day after Ban Ki-moon's remarks, the day of the opening ceremonies, activists say more than a dozen gay rights demonstrators were arrested.

That brings us to our cover story today: When it comes to human rights and tolerating dissent, is Russia moving forward or backwards?


RATH: Russia began enforcing its law banning so-called gay propaganda last summer. The law is vague, but it makes it illegal to disseminate information on nontraditional sexual relations to minors.

We reached out to Svetlana Zakharova. She's an activist with the Russian LGBT Network in St. Petersburg. She says the law has deeply affected LGBT Russians.

SVETLANA ZAKHAROVA: I believe that people - LGBT people feel more depressed, more vulnerable. And they don't really see their future because of that.

RATH: And has it changed how people are just going about their lives day to day? I mean, you know, is the same-sex couple comfortable holding hands in public or things like that?

ZAKHAROVA: Well, in fact, I think that's more - not that many people who were doing it before. But now, for LGBT people, definitely the situation is much worse because they feel much more targeted now because there are public debates about them. And on the other hand, LGBT community got quite big level of support as never before. But at the same time, they are much more open expressions of aggression. So it's double-sided.

RATH: And have there been more incidents of violence or attacks?

ZAKHAROVA: Well, there were always attacks, but now they're demonstrative.

RATH: How do you mean?

ZAKHAROVA: I mean that people who are attacking, they wanted to be known - they want LGBT people to be scared.

RATH: Svetlana, why do you think these laws were passed in the first place?

ZAKHAROVA: I believe that there are really a lot of social economic problems in Russia. And that's how the authorities are trying to challenge public discontent. They're trying to distract attention from real problems, and they want to blame somebody. And LGBT community became the target.

RATH: That was Svetlana Zakharova. She's with the Russian LGBT Network in St. Petersburg.

The public discontent that she's talking about hit a boiling point in 2012 in a wave of pro-democracy, anti-Putin protests.

Julia Ioffe is a senior editor for The New Republic. She covered those protests, and she agrees the Russian government's crackdown on gay rights was in part a response to that movement.

JULIA IOFFE: One of the ways he cracked down was by fostering this traditionalist conservative patriarchal image. You know, I think what Americans and Westerners hear about is the anti-gay laws. There were a bunch of other laws of the same vein, and we're just designed as kind of signaling tools of the, like, this is the way Russia is going now.

For example, there was a law proposed that would ban Russians from getting married more than four times. There was a law that did pass that criminalizes offending the feelings of religious believers. So this is just part of this kind of traditionalist image that Putin has been pushing for the last year or two.

RATH: So you talked about how this issue of gay rights is set against this larger political conflict in Russia. Where is the anti-Putin movement? Where does it stand today?

IOFFE: It's splintered. It's been deprived of some of its main symbols now that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon, has been released from prison, now that Pussy Riot has been released from prison. That said, a lot of the strength of the street protests has been sublimated into this kind of quieter civic activism or people starting volunteer organizations. It's this effort to hold on to what was a main staple of the protests, which was the dispelling of this notion that you're alone, that you're the only one who disagrees with the regime and that you're by yourself.

During the protests, people realized that was not the case, and there were many, many, many of them. People are still very dissatisfied, but they're not ready to go out onto the streets anymore because they want the one protest, two protests, 10 protests and nothing changed. And they think they're challenging their energies into these online or offline civic groups to kind of do something with their frustration.

RATH: In your piece, you write about how in spite of what this release seems like, Putin has really conquered his enemies. You write that he's crushed his opposition but has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

IOFFE: Political change in Russia has come - in the last, you know, hundred years has come because of long-standing economic malaise and trouble. And we're starting to see a beginning of that in Russia. The money's running out because the Russian state and its populace budget has become so bloated that it needs much higher oil prices to be able to sustain itself. And if oil prices aren't growing, the Russian economy isn't growing.

You know, but at such obscene levels of corruption, people are running out of money to steal. And that also creates room for a lot of potential conflict among the economic elites, which, you know, in the past has been disastrous for Russia.

KI-MOON: That was Julia Ioffe. We reached her in Moscow. Her story is in the latest issue of The New Republic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.