News Column

Russian Ban on Gays Is a Headache That Won't Go Away

August 16, 2013

Nikolaus von Twickel, dpa

When Yelena Isinbayeva expressed her support for Russia's ban on propagating "non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors, she obviously had not consulted her PR advisers.

The Russian pole-vaulting superstar triggered an international outcry this week by claiming that there are no homosexuals in her country.

"We just live boys with women, women with boys," she said, in English, during a press conference at the Athletics World Championship in Moscow.

British heptathlon athlete Lousie Hazel accused Isinbayeva of homophobia.

"Yelena Isinbeyana is a stoopid bitch!" pop singer Boy George said on Twitter.

On Friday, however, Isinbayeva said that she opposes any discrimination against gay people, which is against the Olympic charter.

"English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday," she said in a statement that was emailed by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Isinbayeva's spectacular about-face is a powerful reminder of the dilemma facing Russia after President Vladimir Putin signed the controversial law on June 30.

From next year's Winter Olympics to the Football World Championship in 2018, the country will host a series of world-class sports events as part of Putin's bid to restore national pride.

But the international outcry that followed the passing of the law, including calls for boycotting both the Olympics and Russian vodka, has prompted a rethinking - at least among some in the Russian government.

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee said it had received "highest-level" assurances that the law would not be applied during the Games in Sochi.

A spokesman for Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, the top official overseeing the Olympics, confirmed to dpa that the government had made such an offer.

However, days later Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko poured cold water on such hopes by insisting that the law would be applicable to everyone.

A seemingly frustrated IOC President Jacques Rogge said last week that he was waiting for further clarification from Moscow. However, Kozak's spokespeople have been unavailable for comment and senior pro-Putin Duma deputies reiterated Friday that everybody should obey the law, including Olympic visitors.

Experts say that the affair highlights not only divisions in the Russian leadership, but also the fact that the consequences of the law have been underestimated.

"Clearly the Kremlin did not expect that it would become such a headache - which tells us something about what they know about the world beyond," Masha Lipman, and analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told dpa.

The chances that the ban will be overturned anytime soon are slim.

"Don't expect the government to announce exceptions for 'pervert foreigners'," Lipman said, adding that the law was aimed at accommodating Putin's conservative electorate.

A recent survey by the independent Levada polling agency found that a whapping 76 per cent of Russians support the bill.

But experience shows that in Russia laws are rarely applied evenly.

"Usually we see selective punishment, but we might as well expect selective enforcement, Lipman said.

The law explicitly threatens foreigners with detention and deportation if convicted of violating it.

But it has not yet been put to a real test.

Last month, four Dutch activists were hit with an entry ban after shooting a documentary film about gay teenagers in the north Russian city of Murmansk, but their case was not sent to court and authorities later said that the group had violated visa rules.

Meanwhile, a growing number of athletes have announced that they will publicly support gays at the Olympics - following the examples set by Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and sprinter Moa Hjelmer during the Moscow athletics championship.

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Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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