October, 2013 / Author:

Should we boycott Stolichnaya vodka? Should our athletes boycott the Sochi Olympics? GLBTQ* Canadians are grappling with these questions as the media spotlight has focused on Russia and its anti- GLBTQ* policies.

Specifically, Russia just passed a law which would make it a crime to speak out in favour of GLBTQ* rights. The law is ostensibly meant to protect children. The law on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors” took effect on July 29. Originally called the law on “homosexual propaganda,” the bill criminalizes public expression of support for nontraditional relationships. Russian leaders say the law doesn’t outlaw homosexuality but merely discourages discussion of it among people under the age of 18.

No one has yet gone to court under the law. Six GLBTQ* activists were detained when one of them raised a banner reading “Being gay is normal” near a children’s library in Moscow, but the accused have not yet been brought to trial.

Four Dutch citizens producing a documentary about gay rights in the northern Russian town of Murmansk were the first foreigners to be detained under the new law. They were summarily fined and forced to leave the country. GLBTQ* activists have suggested that GLBTQ* citizens in the West must fight back. One suggestion has been a boycott of Russian goods, including the popular Stolichnaya vodka. Unfortunately, Stolichnaya is partly Russian and partly Latvian. Also, the company which produces it has been GLBTQ*-positive in the West.

Another suggestion has been to boycott the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Olympic boycotts have occurred in the past, with little success. Canadian Olympic athletes devote years of their lives training for the Olympics, and some say it would be unfair to ask them to shoulder the entire burden of making a statement against Russian policies.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has spoken out against Russian GLBTQ* policies, as have other Western leaders.

So what should the GLBTQ* community do? Firstly, we should find allies by broadening our focus. The anti-GLBTQ* law is just part of a larger pattern of human rights and civil liberties abuses in Russia.

International non-profit organizations such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have documented Russian abuses for years. Freedom House, which analyzes the state of democracy in every country and rates them as free, partly free or not free, currently rates Russia as “not free”.

Among other things, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are increasingly limited in Russia. Russian elections are increasingly marred by irregularities. Few independent media are allowed to exist.

Freedom of religion is limited and groups like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are harassed. Trade union rights are limited. The courts are not independent. Illegal detention and torture are too common. Freedom of movement is restricted. Police often ignore violence against women.

It would be foolish to focus entirely on discrimination against GLBTQ* groups while completely ignoring the bigger picture. Russia should be criticized for all of its human-rights abuses.

As for concrete measures to take, we should focus on actions that will have serious rather than trivial effects. Even if Stolichnaya were to be driven out of business, the effect on Russia’s leaders would be non-existent.

However, Russia is a huge tourist destination. In 2012, about 25.7 million tourists visited Russia. This was up from 22.7 million in 2011. By comparison, only 16.3 million tourists visited Canada in 2012. The answer is a tourism boycott. All Canadians who care about human rights and civil liberties in Russia, including the new GLBTQ* law, should email the Russian Embassy in Ottawa (info@rusembassy.ca) and inform Russia that they were considering visiting Russia as tourists, but that they will not set foot in Russia until it repeals the anti-GLBTQ* law and improves its human rights record. If we want to be very concrete, we could even say that we will not set foot in Russia until Freedom House rates it as “free”. This kind of tourism boycott will hurt the Russian economy in a broad way, rather than simply hurting one or two vodka companies. Also, by broadening the boycott to include all Canadians who care about human rights, we will be certain to get the attention of Russian leaders. A few thousand GLBTQ* Canadians can be easily ignored. A million emails to the Russian Embassy will most certainly not be ignored.

Of course, John Baird and other leaders should join the boycott. If they have to meet with Russian leaders for foreign affairs business, they can meet in Ottawa. Or in Geneva.  But not in Russia.

Nelson Mandela pointed out that there is “no easy walk to freedom”. Russia will not become an GLBTQ*-Mecca in the foreseeable future. But Russian leaders must come to understand that their actions have consequences. Millions of Western tourists visit Russia and spend many dollars while there. Those tourists care about human rights, including GLBTQ* rights. Russia will have to govern itself accordingly.


– Elliot Leven is a Winnipeg lawyer and human rights activist.

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