How big a snub to Russia is Obama's Sochi 'boycott'?

President Obama is one of several world leaders planning to skip the Sochi Olympic ceremonies in a low key but pointed criticism of Russia's increasing hostility to LGBT citizens.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
A gay couple look out at the Black Sea promenade in Sochi, Russia, in October. Several governments, including the US, have decided not to send heads of state or other top officials to the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics over ongoing concerns about Russia's treatment of its gay community.

It's not an official boycott. But for the first time in over a decade, neither the President of the United States nor any member of his family or cabinet will attend the official opening and closing ceremonies of the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

In a brief statement posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama declined to offer any explicit reason for what will be received in the Kremlin as a snub. But he hinted at one of the sources of US frustration  – the controversial anti-gay propaganda law – by naming two openly gay athletes, tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, to attend as part of the official US delegation.

Mr. Obama joins the leaders of France and Germany in declining to attend the official ceremonies at the Games, to be held Feb. 7-23 in the Black Sea city and its surroundings. It's a move human rights activists welcome as a clear signal that Western governments disapprove of the toughening human rights situation in Russia even if they aren't ready to take it to a higher level by actually attending the Games and stating their criticisms openly.

"We would have preferred Obama to be there at the opening ceremonies and address the darkening human rights situation in Russia, including the campaign against gay rights," says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of the Russia branch of Human Rights Watch.

"If he wasn't prepared to do that, I guess he made the right decision" to stay away, she says.

Debating the message

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin, but experts and semi-official sources downplayed Obama's choice. Many said it was just another zig-zag move in an increasingly complicated US-Russian diplomatic game that saw Obama cancel a planned Kremlin summit last summer just after Russia decided to grant asylum to ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, and then engage with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting the next month about the crisis in Syria.

"I don't think gay rights are important for Obama, maybe they're No. 35 on his list of priorities," says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"If there were no Olympic Games, it would be something else," he says. "For Obama, what matters most is his domestic situation. He doesn't want to trigger criticism at home. Anyway, there's no requirement for a head of state to attend the Olympics. His decision not to come won't improve our relations, nor will it make them worse."

Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, says it's not a big deal that Obama and some other world leaders aren't going to show up in Sochi, though it is a sign that the domestic atmosphere in Russia is not regarded as normal by much of the outside world.

"The anti-gay propaganda law surely played a role, but it's not the only reason," Mr. Konovalov says. "The general atmosphere in Russia is growing worse, violations of human rights are becoming more blatant, and the way we do everything seems more brutal and less rational all the time. Obama's decision is one small but clear cut signal that the world does not approve."

Activists in Russia's beleaguered LGBT community, who met with Obama during his September visit to St. Petersburg, say they never asked Western leaders to boycott the Olympics, but they appreciate the signal of support that's being sent by the decision of some countries not to send top-level delegations.

"If you're sitting next to Putin, Russian audiences will see that as condoning his policies unless you make a strong statement otherwise," says Polina Andrianova, an activist with Vykhod [Coming Out], a St. Petersburg LGBT group.

"The Olympics is quite a unique and powerful platform, so we think it's positive that Obama decided to send a strong message by not coming," she says.

'Full-fledged and equal' citizens?

Russian authorities depict the law passed earlier this year against "the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" as being designed only to protect minors from being exposed to overt public or media influences that they say disrupt normal childhood development. In his clearest statement on the issue, Putin insisted that the law would have no impact on the private lives of LGBT Russian citizens, nor should it affect the conduct of the Olympic Games.

"We have no laws against people with non-traditional sexual orientation.... Russia has adopted the law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, but these are completely different things," Putin said in a press interview last summer.

"We see attempts being made to bring the future Olympic Games into discredit, including by exploiting this subject.... In our country, first of all, the rights of people with non-traditional orientation are [not] infringed... They are absolutely full-fledged and equal in rights as citizens of the Russian Federation," he added.

Human rights monitors say that while the law does not ban homosexuality, its passage, along with an intensely homophobic campaign in state-run media, has given license to ultra-nationalist and skinhead groups to persecute LGBT people.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the independent Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks of extremist movements, says there has been a significant spike in homophobic violence since the group began tabulating separate statistics on anti-gay hate crimes in 2009. In that year, he says, the center recorded no specifically homophobic hate crimes. There were three violent attacks, leading to serious bodily injury, in each of the two following years. But in 2012, the number jumped to 12. As of November this year, he says, there have been 25 homophobic attacks resulting in serious injury, including one murder.

"LGBT organizations will give you larger figures, but we double-check every report to make sure it's an explicitly homophobic hate crime," he says.

"So these numbers do not show the mostly hidden crimes that are probably happening, but only the open, public attacks that can be verified. There's no question they are becoming more frequent, and more brutal," says Mr. Verkhovsky. "Such attacks are mostly committed by ideologically motivated groups. Of course, they hated gay people before, but this law created the impression that active violence is more tolerable than before. And the loud and aggressive anti-gay campaign in state media certainly plays a role," he adds.

In many of the incidents Sova has looked at, the role of police has been disturbingly ambivalent, Verkhovsky says. 

"It's not so easy to protect a small group against a large number of attackers," he says. "But it's obvious that police don't do all they can do to protect [LGBT activists]. The police don't completely neglect their duties, but make it clear that their protection is not complete. That sends the message that [activists] should go home, not appear in public, for their own well-being."

Russia's own morality

Putin's policies, including the new law, have been strongly endorsed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. Church spokesman Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin says that gestures like Obama's decision not to attend the Olympics should not prevent Russia from defining its own moral path.

"Russia is one of many countries that is exercising the right to set its own standards in these matters. Those convictions that the West calls progressive are actually held by a very small minority of people in the world," Mr. Chaplin says. "So, the West's insistence on propagating these values is in effect marginalizing the West."

Mr. Chaplin also denies that hate crimes are on the increase in Russia.

"But if you mean that if someone calls homosexuality a sin, that's hate speech, then I don't agree," he says. "People have the right to defend their traditional values."

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