The comments by a deputy prime minister and a foreign ministry official came after President Obama on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” answered a question about Russia by saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”
Wednesday also saw the White House announce that Obama was canceling a planned summit with President Putin on the sidelines of a G20 gathering early next month. Although the decision has been attributed largely to Moscow’s decision to grant asylum to the fugitive former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, some Russian media also linked it to the controversy over the sexual orientation law.
The Moscow Times in a front page story noted that the White House announcement came “as the international outcry against Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law gains momentum” and noted that a New York Times editorial on Tuesday questioning the point of holding a summit called Putin “a repressive and arrogant leader who treats his people with contempt, as the recent crackdown on gays and lesbians demonstrates.”
Announcing the summit cancelation, White House press secretary Jay Carney cited the Snowden case as well as “our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society.”
U.S. concerns about human rights in Russia cover a broad range of abuses – the Magnitsky Act signed into law last December cites “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” – but in recent months attention has focused increasingly on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) issue.
Proponents of the legislation which Putin signed last June say its aim is to protect children, while critics say it will have the effect of promoting hatred towards LGBT people.
Human Rights Watch argued that “the law implies that Russia’s LGBT community is unnatural and alien, thereby demonizing LGBT people and activists in the public eye, and possibly making them more vulnerable to harassment and physical attacks.”
A poll by Russia’s VTSIOM opinion research center in June found that 88 percent of Russian respondents were in favor of the new law.
Citing the legislation and a general climate of antipathy towards homosexuality, some campaigners in Western countries are calling for a boycott of the Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi next February.
During Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday evening Jay Leno raised the issue. “Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law,” he declared, equating the situation to the rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany and asking, “why is not more of the world outraged at this?”
“Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country,” Obama responded. “And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”
Asked whether he thought the issue would affect the Olympics, Obama said, “I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”
In Moscow the foreign ministry’s human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, on Wednesday rejected any attempt to link the Olympics to the recently-enacted law.
“Everyone knows that any attempts to politicize the Olympic Games go against the spirit of this event and are absolutely counterproductive,” Voice of Russia radio quoted him as saying. All athletes and guests attending the Olympics would be treated “with maximum hospitality,” he said, but would be expected to obey Russia’s laws.
“The law does not ban any relations related to non-traditional sexual orientation,” Dolgov said. “It bans propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation among children. We take care of our children’s interests, we comply with our obligations, including those under the Convention of the Rights of the Child.”
Meanwhile deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, who is responsible for the Sochi games, also rejected the notion that athletes’ “private lives” would be affected by the law.
“There will be no diminishing of rights based on sexual orientation at the Olympics, neither before nor after,” the RIA Novosti state news agency quoted him as saying. “No-one should have any concerns whatsoever. People can get on with their private lives, and spread their respective advantages and attraction among adults. The main thing is that this doesn’t touch children.”
In a statement late last month the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it would oppose anything that would jeopardize the principle that “sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation.”
“The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes.”
The IOC said it had “has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”