President Barack Obama's decision to cancel a planned Moscow summit with President Vladimir Putin next month was brought on by a wide spectrum of US frustrations with Russia, not least of which was its decision to grant temporary asylum to fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
But another issue, one that's just beginning to come into public focus, may carry the long-term potential to do far more damage to Mr. Putin's and Russia's already deteriorating image in the West.
That is the widespread impression, based on a new Russian law that bans "homosexual propaganda," that Putin's Russia is drifting out of the modern world altogether. The new law clearly suggests the Kremlin is trying to engineer a conformist "majoritarian" society in which minorities – especially the country's beleaguered LGBT community – may exist only in private and will be severely punished for any attempt to assert their identity in the public square.
The law, which is backed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, does not explicitly ban homosexuality, but looks more like the US military's former "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule applied to the whole of Russian society. Supporters say gay people should be allowed to live their own lives out of public sight, but must not be permitted to speak about their "non-traditional" orientation or display it in any venue where it might be witnessed by minors which, in the Internet age, is just about any non-private space.
"Russia's public development is taking the right path," says Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading spokesman for the Orthodox Church. "This law gives us a chance to preserve the purity of childhood, and to oppose the artificial sexualization of children. I hope that other countries will follow Russia's lead, because the normalization of homosexuality is wrong."
Reaction in the US has been gathering steam in recent weeks, including an appeal – probably misdirected – to boycott Russian vodka, which has seen many taverns around the world take the iconic Russian beverage off their shelves. Some protesters have demonstratively dumped bottles of the stuff into the streets.
Another campaign is aimed at convincing the 27 US cities, including Philadelphia, Honolulu, and Los Angeles, that twinned with Russian cities in the euphoria following the cold war's end, to sever those ties. And a petition posted on the White House website that calls for denying US visas to the Russian law's main authors, Duma deputies Yelena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov, has aims to gather the 100,000 signatures required to put it on the president's agenda. [Editor's note: The original version misconstrued the petition's status.]
But most worrisome by far to the Kremlin is a growing call for the US and Western countries to boycott the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, a move that would humiliate and isolate Russia like no other, and could eviscerate the personal prestige of the Games' chief promoter, Vladimir Putin. Following Mr. Obama's decision to shun a summit meeting with Putin, the political stage appears to be set for a major effort by global LGBT groups and their supporters to step up efforts to achieve exactly that.
Both Western misconceptions about the Russian law, as well as the view that Russia is completely out-of-step with the world on the issue of gay rights, are on full display in the exchange about Russia between Obama and Jay Leno on Tuesday's edition of NBC's Tonight Show.
"Something that shocked me about Russia, and I'm surprised that this is not a huge story, homosexuality is against the law," Mr. Leno says, comparing the situation to Nazi Germany. "I mean, it starts with that. You round up people.... Why is not more of the world outraged about this?"
Obama responded 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.... 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."
The law's effects
Russian media have reacted angrily, especially to the misconception – clearly voiced by Leno – that homosexuality has been outlawed in Russia. A good primer on the Russian point of view can be found on the website of the Kremlin's English-language TV network Russia Today, which prefers to be called RT.
An accompanying video report quotes RT's own openly gay British presenter Martin Andrews, who's lived in Russia for 8 years, as insisting that the gay community in Russia is "thriving, excitable, wonderful [and is] happy here."
But the RT report almost contradicts itself by showing only the closed, unmarked factory-style gates of a Moscow gay nightclub which, the report admits, is in a "discreet location" and whose owners would not permit any filming inside "to protect the privacy of its clients."
Mr. Andrews explained: "I think if you compare America, for example, you can’t look at San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York and then look in the middle part, Texas. That’s what Russia is, especially Moscow. You’ve got the old meets new," he said.
Russian LGBT activists and human rights monitors retort that the law discriminates against sexual minorities and relegates them to second-class citizen status by defining down their civil rights. Worse, they say, it has changed the social atmosphere to encourage a statistically visible uptick in threats and violence against LGBT Russians.
"This law actually declares sexual minorities to be socially defective persons, so no wonder many people are calling it fascistic," says Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian Movement for Rights of Sexual and Gender Minorities.
"It's directed against freedom of information, which is particularly useless since teenagers know by the age of 18 what their orientation is, and need access to objective information," Mr. Kochetkov says. "Even if the law isn't actively used by law enforcement, it has already served as a kind of 'green light' for ultra-right groups to begin witch-hunting gay people."
"Over the past two years (since local anti-gay propaganda laws were enacted in St. Petersburg and other regions) we have seen a huge increase in the frequency of public insults, blackmail, threats of violence and actual violence.... Police no longer see any need to open criminal cases when this happens. There is a direct correlation between the rising instance of violence against LGBT people and the passage of this law."
How to host the Olympics
Russian officials have so far not offered a coherent explanation of how they plan to avoid a major PR disaster when the world descends on Sochi for the Winter Games in less than six months time. On Thursday Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak assured journalists that athletes coming to the Olympics will not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.
"There will be no diminishing of rights based on sexual orientation at the Olympics, neither before nor after. No one should have any concerns whatsoever," Mr. Kozak said.
"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," he added.
But some experts say that does not address the basic problem. Not only hundreds of athletes, but thousands of foreign spectators, are expected to attend the Games and – especially amid the current controversy – some of them are bound to be gay rights activists intent on staging protests over the Russian law. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told journalists last week that the law will definitely apply to them.
"No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable," Mr. Mutko said.