Since 2010, the rights of lesbians, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have gained increasing prominence in the international arena. In 2010, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asserted that as “men and women of conscience, we reject discrimination in general, and in particular discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity…. Together, we seek the repeal of laws that criminalize homosexuality, that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, that encourage violence.” In June 2011, South Africa successfully championed a UN Human Rights Council resolution requesting a study on LGBT rights worldwide. In December of the same year, Hillary Clinton indicated in her high-profile speech marking the International Human Rights Day that the Obama administration would prioritise LGBT rights in its foreign policy. Fast forward to 2013, the passage of a law in Russia prohibiting propaganda promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ caused international uproar. The law also led to a host of Western celebrities such as British comedian Stephen Fry and American actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein to call for or threaten the boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi.
However, despite the rising prominence of LGBT issues in international organisations and political discourse, LGBT rights remain a predominantly domestic issue. The Putin regime enacted anti-LGBT legislation to counter domestic political pressures – as a result, international criticisms, including a boycott of the Sochi winter Olympics, have little influence on the government’s stance. The same phenomenon can be observed elsewhere in the world.
The Putin government is facing strong domestic pressure. While the erosion of Putin’s popularity among middle class voters in Moscow has been underway for some years, support for him in the Russian hinterland also seems to be faltering. Quoting a study by the Center for Strategic Research done this year, Mikhail Dmitriev and Daniel Treisman argue that while Russians living outside of Moscow are still sceptical of the political opposition, they are increasingly frustrated with the government’s inability to provide decent public services and a fair judiciary. This trend is reflected in federal election results. In the 2004 presidential election, Putin received 71.9% of all votes; in 2008, Medvedev received 71.2%; in 2012, Putin only won 63.6% of all votes. In the 2007 State Duma election, United Russia, Putin’s party, received 64.3% of all votes; in 2011, the figure was only 49.3%.
The government’s fall in popularity is compounded by its inability to resort to traditional methods of quieting dissent through redistributing oil wealth. A combination of slowing economic growth (hence lower tax revenue) and unstable oil and gas prices is, in the long term, likely to decrease Putin’s ability to distribute largesse. The Russian government predicts that by 2015, its non-oil deficit will reach 9.6% of GDP, while the overall deficit will be 1% of GDP. In January 2012, Putin was able to consolidate support for his regime in the armed forces by doubling military salaries. In contrast, the government announced this month that all military salaries would be frozen through 2014.
Furthermore, the government’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church seems to be less able to deliver popular support than before. Nadieszda Kizenko, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that the rising popularity of independent orthodox journalists and academics means that the church hierarchy is no longer the only source from which believers take their cue. In fact, while the independent orthodox media takes off, church attendance rate in Russia continues to remain below 10%. She also asserts that to counter discontent, the Orthodox Church is distancing itself from politics.
In the face of falling popularity, economic pressure, and faltering support from the Orthodox Church, it is rational for the Putin government to shore up support in the hinterland through enacting anti-LGBT legislation. Russian attitudes towards homosexuality are broadly conservative. In a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey this June, only 16% of Russian respondents consider homosexuality acceptable, down from 20% in 2007. Emphasizing the cultural difference between the vast majority of Russians and that of opposition activists, who are often members of the educated, cosmopolitan middle class, would help to prevent the opposition from successfully mobilising widespread discontent in the Russian hinterland. Also, Putin’s adroit association of homosexuality to depopulation – a very real problem in regional Russia – indicates that the targets of his anti-LGBT messages are voters in the Russian hinterland. Exploiting widespread homophobia also helps to reinforce Putin’s ties to the Orthodox Church. The head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has came out strongly in support of the anti-LGBT legislation, arguing in a sermon that gay marriage is a sign of the apocalypse. Furthermore, championing the homophobic bill provides many opportunities for the regime to advertise its nationalist appeal. Advocates of LGBT rights could be labelled as ‘un-Russian’, and Western calls for boycott of the Sochi Olympics can be constructed as examples of Western interference in Russian domestic affairs. The domestic political benefits of spearheading anti-LGBT messages are simply too great for the Russian government to retract them, even in the face of tremendous international censure.
The inherently domestic nature of LGBT policies is reflected in a similar controversy in Nigeria. In May, the Nigerian senate unanimously approved the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which would make the display of affection between persons of the same sex, as well as running any LGBT organisation illegal. As in Russia, the Nigerian population is overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation. Despite Western threats to cut aid and investment, President Goodluck Jonathan has yet to veto the bill. As of the time of writing, the bill is still sitting on the president’s desk awaiting his signature.
As news of heinous incidents of violence against LGBT individuals in Russia trickle out, it is natural that supporters of LGBT rights around the world would like to see their government take decisive action to punish Russia for its exploitative anti-LGBT legislation. However, the truth remains that LGBT rights remain a predominantly domestic issue. As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg confessed, same-sex marriage in Britain was achieved only after public opinions demanded it. In most countries (South Africa being the exception), legal protection for LGBT individuals often lags behind changes in public opinion. The hope for Russia is that as the younger generation (which the pew survey revealed to be more LGBT-friendly) grows in political influence, Russian politicians would be compelled to show greater respect for LGBT rights.