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While Russian Gov't Bigots Seem Steadfast, the Ground is Shifting Beneath Them

Protests providing the fuel for progressive legal change for gays

By Andy Thayer
GLN permalink 5-26-2010

MOSCOW, Russia, early morning, 5/27/10 - While the bigoted mayor of this city has once again banned gay pride this Saturday, vowing to "bring to bear on them the full force and justice of the law," there are plenty of signs that the sand is beginning to erode beneath his feet.

On the eve of two of his court dates and a press conference later today, I had the opportunity to sit down with the city's principal gay organizer, Nikolai Alekseev, to discuss the shifting political balance of power in Moscow which is only somewhat obscured by Mayor Yury Luzhkov's anti-gay bluster.

Nikolai Alekseev

Nikolai Alekseev

One of my first questions for Alekseev was what, if anything, has changed since last year's Pride demonstration? His answer was that while the city's anti-gay rhetoric makes it seem as though nothing has changed, powerful forces are moving against Luzhkov that could mean his days as bigot-in-chief of Moscow will soon be over. In a country where the life expectancy for men is 58 years, the sharks are already circling around the very overweight, 73-year-old Luzhkov.

For the oligarchs who really run Russia, Inc., resentment is growing at the enormous resources that Moscow pulls in at the expense of the rest of the country, and they look set to redress the imbalance. One guide book I read noted that in 2005 in the largest country on earth, 80 percent of the nation's wealth was concentrated in the capital. While about 1 in 15 Russians live in the city, that's still an enormous amalgam of wealth. "Moscow boasts more billionaires than any city in the world (33, two more than New York)," wrote Dan Richardson. Luzhkov's wife, with her huge construction firm, is reputedly the wealthiest woman in Russia.

The other main factor that makes the political terrain for this year's Pride appear quite different from last year's is the fact that the European Court is due to finally rule sometime this year on the banning of the Pride Parades in 2006, 2007 and 2008. And the decision looks likely to go against the government.

The impending European Court decision is apparently having an effect on the two court proceedings scheduled to continue later today. Unlike previous years when the authorities have forthrightly banned Pride protests on the grounds that gay assemblies are by definition immoral and dangers to public safety, the city and prefectural attorneys have taken the unprecedented step of manufacturing phony "logistical" excuses - roads too narrow, etc. - to justify banning the assemblages whose messages they don't like. For those who know of the City of Chicago's campaign against our anti-war demonstrations over the years, this approach will sound familiar!

Yes, a ban is a ban is a ban, but the fact that unlike in previous years, the city and prefectural attorneys feel that they can't more forthrightly argue for their bigotry in the courtroom indicates a diminished confidence on their part.

When Alekseev told me last night that the European Court was likely to rule against the government, and that it might actually have an effect, I was incredibly skeptical. Coming as I am from the U.S., where the government (regardless of party in power) contemptuously disregards international treaty obligations and rulings of international bodies as a matter of course, I was wary of what seemed like Alekseev's reliance on the European Court. It's one thing for them to rule against oil-less, gas-less, nuclear weapons-less Poland and force Warsaw to allow gay Pride, it's another thing to take on the Russian bear.

But the defeats suffered by the Russian government, Alekseev told me, are "flooding, there are an enormous number of [other] cases they are losing from the European court." Most of these cases involve individuals towards whom the court orders the Russian government to pay out large monetary compensation, and they do actually pay.

Moreover, Nikolai noted, the same holds true for very political issues as well. "That's why they [the Russian government] made a moratorium on the death penalty, and decriminalization of homosexuality was a requirement for entry in to the council of Europe. There are some values and some basic points that you have to accept or you are not a member of the Council of Europe." Thanks to an Austrian case, the issue of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples is also before the court, from which a Europe-wide precedent could be set.

So far as the right of Russian lesbians and gays to assemble is concerned, if the court follows the precedent it set forcing the City of Warsaw to allow Gay Pride in that city, gay pride in Moscow next year, if not this, could be the first one not facing "legal" prohibition by the government.

But is winning the right of gays and lesbians just a matter of court machinations? Far from it, said Alekseev. He is under no illusion that his group would even have a chance of winning in the European Court had they not persisted in organizing the Pride events despite the bans and police violence. Without the continuing illegal protests, "They [the Court] would have swept it under the rug," he said.

Instead, the high profile press coverage of the government's repression of the annual Pride protests has brought greater world condemnation with each passing year. Last year's Pride Protest, scheduled to coincide with Europe's biggest cultural event, the Eurovision Song Contest finals, was singularly effective. It provided Russian gays and lesbians with their "Birmingham moment," bringing more domestic and international press coverage than all previous years combined.

For those not familiar with U.S. civil rights movement history, Birmingham, Alabama was the city where racist Sheriff "Bull" Connor let loose his police dogs on young African American children, shocking world opinion. The photographic images of that attack relayed around the world were the beginning of the end of legal segregation in the American South, as public opinion elsewhere began to shift heavily against the southern bigots. And just like back then, while the legal establishment languidly reshaped its jurisprudence to catch up with the tenor of the times, it was the protests that were the fuel that made those legal changes possible.

Banned or not, regardless of what happens in court over the next two days, Moscow Pride will happen this Saturday, May 29. Because that's the way that civil rights progress has always been made.

Coming up tomorrow: The Cowardice of the American and European diplomatic establishments in Moscow.

Andy Thayer participated in last year's Slavic Pride in Moscow and was arrested with about 40 others for doing so.


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