Putin's "war on gays" is a desperate search for scapegoats

Russia is not a particularly homophobic culture, but its government is looking to divert attention from recent political discontent.

Now that Russia’s “war on gays” is an established narrative, one aspect of it still leaves global observers thoroughly confused: the timing. A mere eight months stretch between the enactment of a law that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the costliest spectacle of its kind in history.
 
Unlike China, which was on its best behaviour in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Russia, with no discernible provocation, is enthusiastically supplying the world with reasons to boycott, sabotage or mock the Games, or protest at them.
 
The Winter Olympics were supposed to be President Putin’s big – how shall I put it – coming-out party: a planetspanning, fortnight-long infomercial for the Russia he had, over 14 years, remade in his image. Viewed in this light, the event’s reported price tag of £33bn begins to seem almost reasonable. To Putin’s Russia, obsessed with its standing in the western world even as it does everything to torpedo it, this kind of publicity is priceless. But the one thing most of the world will now be watching out for is the flash of a rainbow flag on the podium. What was Russia thinking?
 
To put it simply, it wasn’t. The war on gay people is one part of a broader crackdown on civil rights that got out of control. Ever since a wave of mass protests in December 2011 shook the Kremlin, the Russian Duma has passed a staggering number of restrictive laws: new regulations that make it harder for people to congregate freely; a rule that requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”; a stultifying ban on US adoptions of Russian children; and a suite of decency and anti-piracy bills that makes it easier to shutter inconvenient websites.
 
Some of these laws, such as the ban on adoption, are projects pushed by Putin himself. Others, owing to the bizarre way in which the Duma operates, are more like the self-fulfilling side effects of demagoguery. Putin says something off the cuff; an obscure Duma deputy looking for a publicity boost introduces a slapped-together bill; the rest rubber-stamp it; the law gets an equally ramshackle enforcement arm (Roskomnadzor, the feared digital-censorship body, is just a few people in a room tasked with monitoring the entire internet for offensive and pirated content); a few unlucky test cases go to trial, with the aim of frightening the rest.
 
This is the dreary context in which we should view the two anti-gay laws (the other one bans adoption of Russian children by gay couples and single citizens from countries where same-sex marriage is legal). Ironically, Russia, when it is not being whipped up into paranoid frenzy, is not a particularly homophobic culture. Its motto on the subject is something along the lines of “Whatever you do behind closed doors is fine”. (In Russia, everyone is doing something behind closed doors.) With new laws against gay people, Americans and the internet, Putin has used the classic dictator’s gambit of shoring up the most backward elements of his base by demonising everything they don’t understand about the protest demographic.
 
Homosexuality, in this case, is just one part of the semiotic cluster of otherness. “Americans” are “Jews”, “Jews” are “gay”, “Americans” are thus also “gay”. “Liberals” may stand for US stooges (as in Putin’s speeches) or Jews (as in the spreading nationalist rhetoric), but their defining traits are feminine – softness, pliability, indecisiveness – so they are “gay” above all (cf: “liberast”, the popular conflation of “liberal” and “pederast”). And so on.
 
So why has the mistreatment of gays in Russia caught on as an international cause when the other scarecrow laws have not – to say nothing of the jailing of Pussy Riot and other protesters? The answer is partly that it provides a black-and-white narrative, something Russia has in short supply. And it comes with villains so outrageous that casting the inevitable movie would be a breeze: from the author of the “propaganda” law, Yelena Mizulina, a bespectacled schoolmarm with hair in a bun, to Dmitry Kiselyov, a federal TV executive and presenter who has proposed “burning gays’ hearts” so they don’t end up being donated for transplants.
 
The international backlash has focused on Sochi because it’s the next big event; were Russia about to host, say, Eurovision, as it did in 2009, there would be calls to boycott that. For those wishing to protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws, however, the timing may be fortuitous. Villains rarely realise their villainy. That’s what would make spoiling Putin’s Olympic party so satisfying: it’s the closest the world can get to staging an intervention against the man.
 
Michael Idov is the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia 
The Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit