Russian police in St. Petersburg on Saturday arrested dozens of LGBT protesters and a handful of the more than 100 nationalist counter-protesters who'd gathered to pelt the heavily outnumbered gay pride rally with rocks, eggs, and homophobic taunts.
Such ugly public violence is not uncommon in Russia, where social lines are tightly drawn between a conservative majority that regards homosexuality as a disease and a small, but active LGBT community that wants to live in the open and enjoy the same minority rights and protections that LGBT people in the West do. Scenes like the one in St. Petersburg have long been an annual occurrence in Moscow, where the city government has slapped a 100-year ban on gay pride events.
But a new law, signed into force by President Vladimir Putin on Monday, will shift the balance in that picture – by effectively placing the state squarely on the side of those anti-gay nationalist demonstrators.
It's the latest in a raft of legislation passed by the Duma and signed by Mr. Putin over the past year that appear to be aimed at changing the character of Russia's state system from the secular, pluralistic democracy outlined in Russia's 1993 Constitution to something supporters refer to as a "majoritarian" democracy, in which the stress is laid upon defending the traditional identity and sensibilities of a majority that feels itself under threat from what it sees as attacks by "aggressive minorities."
'It's still democracy'
"The definition of democracy in Russia is different from the West," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to President Putin in the past.
"In the West there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still democracy. Every country may choose between liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy. In Russia we tried to follow the liberal model in the 1990s, but it was disastrous. Russia found itself at the mercy of aggressive minorities, who robbed the country and undermined the position of the majority. Now the trend is that minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority," Mr. Markov says.
The case made by Markov and others is that Russians are still groping for a sense of national identity following the collapse of Communism and the social catastrophes of the 1990s, and that this healthy process of rediscovery is undermined by a host of what they see as pernicious Western influences such as LGBT activism. "We're not against homosexuals – let them live their lives – but we oppose aggressive proclamations and public demonstrations that offend and upset the majority," says Markov.
In a recent interview with the Kremlin's English-language satellite news channel Russia Today, Putin made a similar point when asked about the key distinctions between Russia and the West.
"We don't have any significant ideological differences, but we do have fundamental cultural differences," Putin said, according to the Kremlin transcript.
"Individualism lies at the core of the American identity while Russia has been a country of collectivism.... Russians have different, far loftier ambitions, more of a spiritual kind, it's more about your relationship with God. We have different visions of life," he added.
Cover for a power grab?
For critics, Russia's hard right turn looks like an all-out assault on free speech and social pluralism. It began when Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term last year determined to marginalize a new anti-Kremlin opposition protest movement and redesign Russia's political system to base his personal power firmly upon the prejudices of Russia's conservative majority. For beleaguered liberals, it all adds up to a Soviet revival with minorities like gays, atheists, feminists, and foreign-funded civil society groups being scapegoated to misdirect public attention from the Kremlin power-grab.
Laws have been passed to curb street protests, expand the legal definition of "treason" to include almost any Russian who works closely with foreigners, stigmatize foreign-funded nongovernmental groups as "foreign agents," regulate the Internet, and vastly increase the penalties for "libel" to levels that human rights activists say could chill any public discussion about allegedly corrupt or abusive officials.
"I don't agree that Russia is under any particular challenge that requires consolidation of the majority," says Olga Lenkova, a spokesperson for Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based LGBT group.
"The only challenge is for those who are in power to keep their power.... It's clear that Russians increasingly want their state to be accountable. Whether we're talking about corruption, electoral fraud, or LGBT issues, there's been a lot of discontent, debate, protest in society lately, and it's still going on. All this talk of majoritarian democracy is just an effort to distract the public from all this," she says.
Over the past year about a dozen laws have been enacted that, in sum, make it much harder for any individual or group to publicly criticize majoritarian values or protest in favor of minority rights.
On the same June day that the legislation against homosexual propaganda was overwhelmingly passed, the Duma also pushed through a law that effectively criminalizes blasphemy by setting three-year prison terms for anyone who stages an intentional act aimed at "offending religious sensibilities."
That follows from a huge controversy last year, in which three members of the feminist performance art group Pussy Riot were tried and two of them sentenced to two years in a penal colony for staging a profane performance in an empty church that hurt no one and caused no material damage. Their subsequent trial, for a crime of "religious hatred," raised eyebrows in Russia and around the world because it rested solely on the "offended religious sensibilities" of witnesses, most of whom had only seen the performance on YouTube.
The new blasphemy law fills that gap, effectively criminalizing any public act that insults the feelings of believers. While the law applies its protections to all religious faiths, critics say it is likely to be deployed mainly in defense of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which has grown close to the Kremlin in recent years and many fear is returning to its Czarist-era role as the state's source of ideological legitimacy. The church played a key role in promoting the new anti-LGBT law, and increasingly weighs in on social issues from abortion, to religious instruction in schools, to the way Russian women dress.
Even some church officials worry that the law, which superficially resembles blasphemy laws in some European countries, could be abused.
"In Western countries there are such laws, which prescribe punishments for crimes against civic morals," says Andrei Kuraev, a professor at the Orthodox Church's Spiritual Academy in Moscow.
"But the wording of this law is ambiguous. It's intended to protect the feelings of believers, but who is to judge feelings rather than actions? Courts will become the hostages of feelings. I have feelings, and I'm the only one who can say whether they've been offended or not," he says.
Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and board member of the opposition Solidarnost movement, says the fact that public opinion polls routinely show that a majority of Russians support these laws does not necessarily spell solid, long-term backing for the Kremlin. "These laws have nothing to do with what most Russians want. Putin was in power for a dozen years and had no need of such laws."
"So, why now? Because the economy is stalling, people are getting fed up with corruption, low pensions, bad housing, awful roads and so on," Mr. Davidis says. "So, the goal here is to focus public anger on gays, blasphemers and foreign-inspired agitators, to create the feeling that Russia is a besieged state. This is not going to last very long but, the sad thing is, a lot of innocent people may suffer before it all unravels."