Sochi Winter Games: Make Yourself Heard

To open the series of articles and letters of protest York PEN will be publishing during the week leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, PEN International’s Cathal Sheerin, the creator of the Out in the Cold campaign, explains why it’s crucial to pressure Putin now.

Artwork by Maxine Young, re-working Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s painting ‘Three Heads’.

Artwork by Maxine Young, re-working Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s painting ‘Three Heads’.

Anyone who watched President Vladimir Putin’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on 19 January will have seen a man doing his best to appear unflustered by the controversy surrounding the Sochi Winter Games and Russia’s anti-gay propaganda legislation. He even said that he’d be willing to meet Elton John, so comfortable was he with gays.

However, Putin is anything but comfortable with gays: he is terrified that Sochi, the biggest project of his career – and possibly his political swan song – will turn into a big, gay fiasco.

Russia’s head of state clearly didn’t foresee the dreadful publicity that would threaten to overshadow Sochi when he signed the anti-gay propaganda law in June 2013.  This legislation, introduced to shore up support amongst Russia’s conservative voters, has backfired on Putin. He has been back-pedalling furiously ever since.

Since Autumn 2013, Russia’s manliest politician has been softening his stance on the anti-gay law and certain other civil liberties issues. In September, a bill introduced in the Duma which sought to strip LGBT parents of their parental rights was suddenly withdrawn; in December a mass amnesty of non-violent Russian prisoners was declared, freeing the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot; in the same month it was announced that ‘controlled’ protests would now be permitted at Sochi; in January 2014 it was reported that Russia’s human rights council would reconsider the repressive legislation surrounding NGOs (also known as the ‘foreign agents’ law).

None of this is coincidence. Putin is trying to take the momentum out of the huge wave of protest expected to hit Russia from within and without when the Sochi Winter Olympics arrive in early February.

Many of you will already know that PEN’s Out in the Cold campaign is protesting this law and two others – the blasphemy law and criminal defamation.

As these are all relatively new laws, there haven’t yet been many prosecutions, but they present a severe threat to free expression in Russia and have already contributed to a growing intolerance of dissent.

Putin’s supporters point out that the anti gay legislation hasn’t yet been used to prosecute anyone and that its function is merely to protect children from inappropriate material or information. But to argue this is to miss the point. The legislation is so broad that a gay pride rally held within earshot of anyone under the age of 18 is a prosecutable act. In practical terms, the law has converted bigotry into legislation, empowering homophobes to step up attacks – both verbal and physical – on the LGBT community.

The blasphemy law, a legislative appeal to Russia’s Orthodox voters, has so far not resulted in prosecutions either. But again, the danger is in the climate that it has fostered, shutting down criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin.

Criminal defamation, however, has been used to target a number of journalists and publications, including the opposition newspaper, The New Times. The UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression has warned that the existence of criminal defamation laws and their use by public officials to prosecute critics inevitably forces journalists into self-censorship. He has called on all states to decriminalise defamation.

It’s vital to protest Russia’s anti-free expression laws now because the Sochi Games have made Putin vulnerable to outside pressure. But there’s also another important reason: these laws are like a virus. They provide a bad example to countries susceptible to Russia’s influence. Just look at events in Ukraine: before the president resigned in the face of mass protests, the Ukrainian parliament rushed through a series of laws that were virtually identical to their Russian precursors – defamation was re-criminalised and a ‘foreign agents’ law was introduced to restrict the ‘political’ activities of NGOs receiving money from abroad. These laws were scrapped days later due to huge public opposition, but the very fact that they were signed into law in the first place shows the power of Russia’s influence as a bad role model in the region. Look also at Kazakhstan, where politicians are calling for a ban on ‘homosexual propaganda.’ Look too at its neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, which tried to introduce the ‘foreign agents’ law before Christmas 2013. These countries are following Russia’s repressive lead.

Your voice can make a difference.

I’ve interviewed a number of Russian journalists, filmmakers, writers and activists, and what they keep telling me is that our campaigning has a positive effect in Russia. Some have even suggested that protests made by cultural groups, students, artists and NGOs have much more influence than demands made by governments. This is partly because Putin switches into defensive, ‘Cold War Mode’ when foreign governments criticise him. Pleas made by non-governmental groups, however, are much harder to dismiss as self-interested, political machinations. And for that reason, they have more chance of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian citizens.

Make yourself heard.

Cathal Sheerin
European Researcher, Campaigner and Creator of Out in the Cold
Cathal.sheerin@pen-international.org
@CathalSheerin

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