Vladimir Putin’s Culture War

From Russia Foundation chairman David Clark.

It’s easy to sympathise with the petition launched by gay rights activists calling for a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. The persecution of gay men and lesbians in Russia is a serious and growing trend that demands strong condemnation. But the campaign is unlikely to get very far, not least because international opinion has already rejected several other good reasons for a boycott, including the 2008 invasion of neighbouring Georgia (only a few miles from the Olympic site) and evidence of corruption and human rights violations around the Olympic preparations in Sochi itself.

In order to develop a more effective, long-term approach to combating officially-sanctioned homophobia in Russia, it is first necessary to understand the politics behind it. Vladimir Putin is under serious domestic pressure following the rigged elections that returned him to the presidency last year. His popularity ratings remain on a downward trend and the era in which he was able to rule with the passive consent of the majority – certainly in the major urban centres – appears to be over.

Unwilling or unable to develop a reform agenda that might win over part of the opposition without endangering the power structure he has created, Putin has fallen back on repressive measures to shore up his position, such as the prosecution of Alexei Navalny, the intimidation of independent NGOs and the introduction of punitive new sanctions for unauthorised protests.

This appears to have worked in reducing the immediacy of the opposition threat, but Putin is a shrewd enough reader of politics to understand that it may not last, especially if dropping oil prices put serious strain on Russia’s finances over the next few years. He needs something else and the stratagem he appears to have adopted is to launch a culture war designed to divide metropolitan liberals, who form the activist core of the new opposition, from conservative-minded voters in rural Russia.

Putin’s objective is to persuade ordinary Russians that their country is under threat, not just in the traditional geopolitical sense of being encircled by hostile Western forces, but in the cultural sense of being invaded by foreign attitudes and values likely to rob them of their essential Russianness. Moves to stigmatise or even criminalise same-sex relationships are of a piece with the heavy prison sentences given to the punk band Pussy Riot for staging a protest in a Russian Orthodox cathedral and measures to label NGOs that accept money from abroad as “foreign agents”. The rhetoric of the Russian elite is becoming more socially conservative and more anti-Western, with the link between the two becoming stronger.

Putin is not the first leader to use this device. Robert Mugabe is long-practised at using homophobia as an anti-imperialist stick with which to beat the Western “gay bandits” he accuses of conspiring to rob Zimbabwe of its independence. Perhaps the most successful and extensive use of the culture war as a political tool has been practised by the US Republican Party; for example, Karl Rove’s infamous “god, guns and gays” campaign in the 2004 presidential election. It is worth noting that the new Russian law is strikingly similar in scope to Section 28 passed in the 1980s by the Thatcher government, but since repealed.

I expect that Putin will be privately happy to become the target of Western opprobrium over Russia’s anti-gay policies. This will enable him to heighten the sense of Russia being under cultural siege from outside forces determined to impose alien norms. He can use it to position himself as the defender of traditional Russian values and his opponents as agents for foreign influence. But he will be anxious that it doesn’t go too far.

An element of tension could be useful in boosting domestic support provided it doesn’t compromise other interests Putin regards as important. Russia needs foreign investment to reverse net capital outflows, modernise its faltering energy sector and diversify into new areas economic activity. If it cannot achieve this, it will be unable to finance the social transfers without which no amount of gay-bashing will be able to secure the loyalty of conservative-minded pensioners and public employees.

Putin also enjoys the prestige of having restored Russia to great power status, as he would see it, just as the Russian elite enjoy the lifestyle privileges of global mobility. That is why Russia has reacted so strongly to the provisions of the US Magnitsky Act which impose visa bans and financial restrictions on individual government officials held responsible for serious violations of human rights. Efforts to deny the Russian elite the prestige and privileges of global citizenship are more likely to be effective than ritual condemnation alone.

Starting with the G20 summit next month, Western leaders need to be much more forceful and united in their approach to Russia. They need to state publicly that Russia cannot continue to enjoy all the benefits of being leading member of the international community while violating its human rights norms and encouraging anti-foreigner sentiment at home. And they need to be much clearer about spelling out the costs to Russia if it continues down its current path. Now that President Obama appears to understand that the reset is over, perhaps a more coherent Western policy towards Russia can take its place.