Foreign Policy Blogs

If It’s Sunday, It’s…Time to Bash Russia

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(Credit: AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

(With apologies to “Meet the Press,” which — oddly — hardly mentioned it)

Several of last Sunday’s talk show guests pointed fingers yet again at a Russia that, in their implications, refuses to be transparent or recognize human rights.

First up, the temporary asylum in Russia granted to Edward Snowden.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Paul Ryan both argued that, due to the asylum, President Obama should 1) not meet with President Putin at next month’s G20 Summit and 2) convince other G20 members to move the summit from St. Petersburg, where it is scheduled for September 5 and 6.

U.S. officials are understandably irked that Mr. Snowden fled with classified laptops and wound up welcomed by an international rival. But did Mr. Snowden really have a choice about leaving his lovely limbo in Sheremet’evo Airport? Russia wasn’t going to give him to the U.S. for free. And the U.S. locked down any options for asylum, not to mention airspace, elsewhere. A statement from the U.S. that Snowden “would not face the death penalty” if he returned (that is, life in prison) was hardly an incentive.

Let’s go back a few weeks to when President Putin stated that the sooner Mr. Snowden left, the better. The Russian government saw him as a headache and could not wait to usher him out. Both U.S. and Russian officials downplayed the affair, stating that it would not affect substantial cooperation. President Obama said he would “not be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” Except that he has, as NBC reported Sunday afternoon, now cancelled his upcoming meeting with President Putin, which will undoubtedly affect cooperation.

Then the suggestion that the U.S. push to move the G20 summit out of Russia, with less than a month to go. Sen. Schumer said he would “urge the president to try to urge our allies” to move the summit, creating an opposition dynamic where the senator apparently knows how the other G18 members feel. The irony is that several European states, and especially Germany which backed out of intelligence sharing last week, have been astonished at U.S. spying efforts on them at international conferences, revelations made possible through Mr. Snowden’s leaks in the first place.

Next up, the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled for Sochi, Russia.

ABC’s “This Week” profiled Russia’s enactment of anti-gay legislation and its possible effect on the upcoming Winter Olympics. While mentioning gay athletes’ possible boycott of the Games, Martha Raddatz asked whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is “missing an opportunity” to force Russia to change its law.

Let’s step back for a second. An international body requiring a sovereign state to change its own law?  That would be like the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund requiring that a country reduce its pension obligations before it is eligible for a loan, would it not? And Russia has been just about as likely to agree to international common denominators as, oh, say, the U.S. for the Kyoto Protocol or being subject to the International Criminal Court.

Both “This Week” guests assented. Christine Brennan of USA Today:

I think the International Olympic committee could basically say to the Russian government you must change this law and here’s why. It is a great gift and it’s a great bargaining chip to have the Olympic Games given to a country.

The Winter Olympics were awarded in 2007, six years and billions of Russian rubles ago. The games will start in six months. Organizers have actually saved snow from last year to assure that there is enough in February. Cue the American journalists sitting around lamenting a Eurasian power’s position on gay rights.

The Russian authorities have stated that they will not discriminate on sexual orientation. The IOC was told “from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

The larger point is that this is another example of Americans projecting their own values onto others. My fear is that advances in the gay rights / same-sex marriage movement in the U.S. fortify our policymakers to use this standard when assessing foreign states.

Christine Brennan’s own USA Today reported that “in June, a Brazilian congressional committee approved legislation that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disorder or pathology.” Holy moly! Has anyone contacted Brazil’s 2014 World Cup Committee to protest this law they had no control over but on which they should still be criticized internationally?

Russia has a horrible record on human rights, hands down, with prisoners dying mysteriously in jail and persecution of minorities. Opposition activists face stiff intimidation and jailtime. Federal ministries and industrial chiefs nurture close relationships that help enrich all involved. And justifiably the international community demands accountability for what they deem medieval practices.

Russians, however, do not see gay rights as a human rights issue, they see it as a cultural one, and specifically one foisted upon them from outside.

Studies show that different cultures have different rates of acceptance of homosexuality. The Middle East and North Africa, with more patriarchal and socially conservative societies, have the lowest acceptance rate. Russia scores along these lines.

In a Pew Research poll published in June, 74% of Russians said society should not accept homosexuality, vs. 16% who said it should.

Similar polls include the state-run VTsIUM (All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), which in 2012 found that 45 percent of Russians felt “negative emotions, antipathy, or stress” when associating with someone of a “nontraditional sexual orientation,” in comparison to the same emotions when encountering someone of a different nationality (which in Russia could mean ethnicity) (10 percent); someone with more wealth or influence (9 percent), or someone with a different religious belief (7 percent).

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credit: http://russianspectrum.com/2013/05/18/no-rainbow-in-russia

It is difficult to imagine what Olympic athletes would be protesting if they sat out Sochi. The law in question fines people for “spreading information directed toward forming non-traditional sexual orientations among minors,” and promoting the “social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.” Athletes would be competing, presumably, not trying to make political statements.

On the passing of the anti-gay legislation, as Mark Adomanis of Forbes commented, most surprising was the unanimity of the vote, which hinted at the sheer unwillingness of anyone to debate the issue. Even though “the Communists, the LDPR, and other groups have no problem voting against various sorts of economic and fiscal policies,” no one voted against the anti-gay bill.

Adomanis also mentions that anti-gay sentiment in Russia has grown, while the same polls indicate a high degree of affection among citizens for the U.S. and EU. “Outside of homosexuality,” he relates, “it’s hard to think of a single issue where Russian opinion increasingly correlates with the Kremlin’s party line.”

Both the Snowden asylum and the call for Russia to change its anti-gay law, as discussed in the mainstream U.S. media, continue the misled narrative of an autocratic, backward Russia that should be brow-beaten into embracing U.S. and European leadership and values. Before making general statements based on established stereotypes, and more importantly advising rash actions, pundits should try to see realities in Russia as Russian citizens see them.

 

Author

Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason spent April and May 2014 in Central Asia researching religious extremist groups. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Jason previously served as a trainer for US military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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