Democracy Lab

Why Putin’s Defense of “Traditional Values” Is Really a War on Freedom

The sensible way to fight back against Russia's anti-gay campaign.

The Center for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-linked think tank, has bestowed a new title on Russian President Vladimir Putin: It's calling him "World Conservatism's New Leader." Putin, according to the report, is the most influential world figure resisting the global onslaught of multiculturalism, radical feminism, and homosexuality, all foisted upon an unsuspecting world by the "ideological populism of the left." For years, Putin has been working to reestablish the global influence that Russia once enjoyed. But there was one big problem: his regime has been devoid of the ideological raison d'être provided by communism. Whereas the Soviet Union was once able to muster support from people around the globe as the world headquarters of Marxist-Leninism, Putin's Russia offered little in the way of comparable ideological appeal (other than to revanchist Russians seeking a vague return to their country's former glory). Now the Kremlin seems to have settled upon a new international brand: the protection of "traditional values" from the forces of cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism. Like the Comintern before it, this "Conservative International," as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty commentator Brian Whitmore writes, will serve as the ideological fount of anti-Western agitation.

Foremost among the divisive topics the Kremlin has seized upon is homosexuality. Gay rights emerged as a major bone of contention between Moscow and the West last summer, when the Duma unanimously passed, and Putin signed into law, a measure banning the "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Since then, the country has witnessed a sharp rise both in violent attacks on gays and a torrent of hateful statements from prominent Russian figures, like the new head of the state news agency, Dmitry Kiselyov, who has said that the organs of gay people should be burned rather than donated.

"Who could have guessed that the big ideological dividing line Russian ideologists are drawing between East and West would be homosexuality?" asks Tom de Waal of the Carnegie Institute. Though supportive of the international gay rights agenda of America and its European allies, he points to polling data showing the existence of a "genuine" gulf on the question of homosexuality. A cross-national European Social Survey conducted in 2010 found that reactions to the statement, "gay men and lesbians should be free to live their lives as they wish" are roughly determined by the old Iron Curtain. "While not giving up the struggle," de Waal writes as advice to pro-gay activists in the West, "they should reflect that you will not make much progress if in these countries (or in parts of Alabama or Oklahoma for that matter) you just use the same discourse that you use at home."

De Waal is right to focus attention on the discourse. That's because, while there does indeed exist a stark divide in attitudes among EU citizens and Russians on the topic of homosexuality, the gulf need not be so great. Rather, cynical operators like Putin and his lackeys have been able to shore up domestic support by grossly distorting what Western governments expect of Russia with regard to treatment of gay citizens, and by camouflaging their fundamental assaults on civil rights as measures to protect children from sexually inappropriate material.

The fuss over Russia's anti-gay crusade ought to be about far more than the Kremlin's scapegoating a vulnerable minority. Nearly every mention of the legislation passed last summer refers to it as "anti-gay." Yet the words "gay" or "homosexual" do not appear anywhere in the law's text. While it's true that the law's intention is to limit positive (or even neutral) discussion of same-sex relations, the real problem is that it constitutes an assault on the fundamental free speech rights of all Russians, not just gay ones. Rather than highlight the anti-gay nature of the law, activists in the West would do far better to criticize it first and foremost as a violation of freedom of expression. In this way, they can appeal to the vast majority of Russian citizens who, as polls make clear, are not nearly as approving of homosexuality as Westerners.

The case to be made to these Russians is that, while they may find homosexuality distasteful and scorn gay people as neighbors (don't even think about proposing equal marriage rights), they ought to be able to discuss these matters in an atmosphere of openness, free from the Soviet-era fear that they could be jailed for expressing an unpopular opinion. For if the Kremlin can ban positive references to homosexuality today, it can just as easily ban negative references to Putin tomorrow. Prominent heterosexual Russians could drive home the point by purposefully violating the law, thereby demonstrating that it limits the freedoms of all Russians, not just gay ones.

This broader approach wouldn't only be more likely to persuade the average Russian citizen (most of whom supported the law without fully understanding its destructive effects on free speech); it would also help to enlist more conservative Americans who won't otherwise be keen to sign onto a major gay rights struggle. Thus far, the loudest voices in the West denouncing the measure have come from politicians and gay rights activists, most of whom fall on the left side of the political spectrum. Yet there exists, particularly in America, a large number of conservatives extremely wary of Russia in general and Putin in particular. To their credit, they were suspicious of Putin long before the world's gay activists joined the bandwagon, raising skepticism about the administration's foolish and failed "reset" policy when many liberals were claiming that America needed to "repair" its relationship with Moscow (as if such a thing could ever be done, on morally acceptable terms, with Putin still in power). The propaganda law offers one of those rare, bipartisan political opportunities where left and right can come together. Presenting the law as part and parcel of Putin's broad crackdown on Russian civil society will expand the coalition of voices speaking out against it.

Framing the debate as one over fundamental rights like freedom of speech and association (as opposed to "gay rights") is not a distortion -- for that's exactly what it's really about. The tenor of the protest campaign thus far in the West, conducted as it has been almost exclusively by gay groups and celebrities, has allowed Putin to paint himself as a traditionalist standing athwart the creeping tide of same-sex marriage. But no one in Russia is calling for gay marriage. Indeed, it would be bizarre were the U.S. State Department to insist upon same-sex marriage in other countries when the issue has just barely begun to play out in the United States, and when Americans themselves remain deeply divided on the topic. Russian gays and their (pitifully few) straight allies are simply asking that the government stop singling out homosexuals for discrimination, and that they have the right to assemble peaceably and express their opinions.

Putin's Manichean rhetoric also obscures the fact that a country need not embrace the full panoply of gay rights to be considered a liberal democracy or part of the "West." There exist wide disparities among EU member states with respect to the rights they afford to gay citizens, with some countries, like the Netherlands, offering full marriage equality, while others, like Slovakia, offer no relationship recognition whatsoever. Yet what unites the democracies of the EU and the West more broadly is that they are obliged to ensure freedom of association and speech for all of their citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation. That means activists must be permitted to hold gay pride parades (even if it requires heavy police protection) and be free to state their opinions in public. Indeed, it was EU pressure on member-aspirant Serbia that persuaded its government to allow a gay pride march to take place, under a massive police cordon, in 2010. History shows that once a country becomes more liberal and democratic, gays, through the power of moral suasion, will win acceptance.

And it is this -- the prospect of liberalization and the promise of openness -- that frightens Putin most, not the increasing tolerance of homosexuality as a "non-traditional relationship" per se, even though that is sure to follow. If Putin really cared about the moral degradation of society, he would do something serious to combat the rampant alcoholism, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and other societal ills that actually threaten Russia's well-being as a nation. But he knows that a country where people are free to protest, and the media is free to investigate abuse, is one that will never allow his rule in perpetuity. And so he reduces the freedom of his citizens in whichever way he can (the prohibition of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors" being just the latest example). The Kremlin's anti-gay assault is, in essence, an assault on the open society, and it is on those terms that it must be opposed.

GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

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