A boycott would significantly damage Putin’s prestige

A boycott of the games would cause major embarrassment, even for Russians who sympathise with Putin.

Before the recent open letter by Stephen Fry urging David Cameron to support moves to strip Russia of the 2014 Winter Olympics over concerns about anti-gay laws passed in the country, actually getting the IOC to consider pulling the plug on Russia was a mere pipe dream.

Now activists and campaigners across the world have kick-started something that the Olympics committee cannot possibly ignore. LBGT groups are kicking up a global fuss, scores of celebrities such as Lily Allen and Alan Cumming are involved, world leaders are taking notice, and all eyes are on Putin.

As Fry noted, “It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village…beatings, murders, and humiliations [in Russia] are ignored by the police”.

The law is also vague enough that safety is by no means guaranteed to those who choose rightly to be open about their sexuality and who they are.

One set back on the protest front was against Stolichniya vodka. Val Mendeleev, the self-described ex-Russian and chief operating officer of SPI Group (a Luxembourg-based company which owns the vodka brand), said in response to the boycott of his company that he will be “making a financial donation to an unspecified group working on behalf of Russian LGBT activists fighting against the Russian government’s anti-gay policies”.

But other actions have been far more creative and eye-opening.

For example one Facebook group has requested supporters send a dildo to Vladamir Putin at 23, Ilyinka Street,  Moscow, 103132, Russia. In the group’s blurb it urges senders to: “Help Impale The Vlad! Send your toys, new or used, to where they’re needed the most!”

Photos on the site include one of Putin in drag, one depicting the Russian leader with a dildo emerging from his head, and another with him looking as though he’s about to kiss a Russian orthodox priest – with lust in his eyes.

In the Netherlands a number of vessels carried banners or signs criticising Russia’s President. Banners read: “Putin, Stop Repression, Choose Freedom”.

According to one report “The Netherlands’ Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem and other members of his political party were on a boat wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Gay Rights for Russia.” Dijsselbloem also told local newspaper Het Parool that gay rights in Russia are “headed in the wrong direction”.

Closer to home Scotland’s Equality Network has recently organised a demonstration outside the consulate in Edinburgh. Calls have now also been made for Glasgow City Council leaders “to cut ties with Rostov-on-Don, the Russian city with which it has been twinned since 1986”.

And it is working, too. Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Sadie Docherty, has now formally written to the mayor of Rostov-on-Don about the new law.

The Queer Avengers, based in Warrington, New Zealand, had planned a “kiss-in” at the Russian Embassy today. They had combined this with a candlelight vigil and used the opportunity to highlight Russia’s new law, which “imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for people accused of spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and large fines for holding gay pride rallies”.

Indeed the law, vague as it is, describes homosexual propaganda as anything that is “aimed at the formation of nontraditional sexual behavior,” and is punishable with fines of up to 5,000 rubles ($150) on individuals and up to 1 million rubles ($30,000) for companies.

As Fox News (of all places) pointed out Yelena Mizulina, a member of parliament, used her position as the head of the Committee on Family, Women and Children “to author increasingly conservative laws, including a ban on homosexual “propaganda” that went into force last month”.

What’s even more concerning is how much this seems to resonate with Russian people themselves. According to a poll by the independent Levada Centre, in 1998 the number of people who consider homosexuality either “licentiousness” or “a sickness or result of some psychological trauma in Russia” was 68 per cent. That figure has now risen to 78 per cent.

Fox News documented the recent rise of vigilante homophobia among some extremist nationalist groups. For example one group calling themselves Occupy Paedophilia “use gay dating websites to lure young men and boys into meetings, where they taunt them on camera and then publish the videos online”.

Is a boycott necessary?

One openly gay Olympian taking part in the games wants the boycott called off. New Zealander Blake Skejellruphas said “I don’t support a boycott at all. I believe in the power of visibility…If the world shows up, athletes like myself, straight athletes, supporters all show up in Sochi to voice their support for this issue, I think it would be a lot stronger than a boycott.”

This does raise an important issue, namely does a boycott show campaigners not wanting to demonstrate strength through presence? By not going do they not risk airbrushing themselves out?

It is certainly something to think about, but a boycott would damage Putin’s pride significantly. As it has been noted before, the global response to Pussy Riot seemed only to help Putin “regain his balance”. But that was different. As with Iran, saying the whole world is against you can help politicians.

Though an overall boycott of the games would cause major embarrassment, even for Russians who sympathise with Putin. That their leader wasn’t able to withstand the pressure, possibly jeopardising Russia’s platform on a world stage, won’t go down well with the public at all. Which is why, uphill as it might be, we should all support this boycott.

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