News Column

Vodka, Gays and Snowden: US-Russia Relations at an Ebb

Aug. 3, 2013

Andy Goldberg, dpa

San Francisco (dpa) - It's not often you see bar owners pour perfectly drinkable vodka into the gutter rather than down the gullets of their thirsty customers.

But that is exactly what numerous gay-friendly bar-owners began to do this week to protest a new Russian law that targets homosexuals.

"Revolver Video Bar could not support any brand associated with Russia at a time when the Russian government is implementing its anti-gay law that bans gay 'propaganda,'" the West Hollywood, California, bar said in its Facebook statement.

It was reacting to the recent legislation signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," including providing children with information on homosexuality and holding gay pride events.

In June, the bill was overwhelmingly passed by Russia's parliament.

Syndicated columnist Dan Savage kicked off the unusual protest as a way "to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin's increasingly fascistic Russia."

The move by dozens of bars from New York to San Francisco is but a drop in the ocean of Russian exports, and Stolichnaya vodka, one of the targeted brands, actually emanates from Latvia. But in an atmosphere of increasingly toxic relations between the two traditional rivals, the anti-Russian theme hit home.

The vodka wars are not the only expression of the strain between the countries. On Thursday Russia announced that it was granting asylum to the self admitted leaker of US intelligence, Edward Snowden, who had been holed up in Moscow's airport for weeks after the US cancelled his passport.

The asylum decision prompted an unusually harsh response from the White House which said it was "extremely disappointed" and that it would re-evaluate its participation in a Moscow summit next month in which President Barack Obama was due to meet Putin.

"This is not a positive development, and we have a wide range of interests with the Russians, and we are evaluating the utility of a summit," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The comments added to widespread speculation in the US media about the state of US-Russian ties, with most analysts predicting a rocky road ahead for the superpower rivals.

The Christian Science Monitor said the tussle had brought bilateral ties to a "post-cold war low" as influential politicians like Senator John McCain called for a series of strong actions against Moscow. These would include an expansion of NATO over Russian objections, and the completion of a missile-defense system in Europe that Russia opposes.

The New York Times pointed out that the Snowden affair was just one of many reasons for Obama to skip the summit, noting that the US-Russia relationship had "soured across the board."

"From the Syrian civil war and Iran's new president to missile defense and nuclear arms reductions, the United States and Russia are miles apart on virtually every major issue they discuss," the paper noted.

Despite these weighty issues however, the question of Russia's gay rights - or lack of them - could drive a cultural wedge between the two countries.

Calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are gaining traction online, amid fears that gay US athletes could fall foul of Russia's anti-gay laws. Russia's sports minister has already warned about enforcement during the world games.

The Snowden dispute has just intensified the boycott movement.

"We need to boycott the Olympics for so many reasons," said Cheri Taylor on a Facebook news discussion page about Snowden. "This and the threat to arrest any gay or lesbian athletes or visitors and ongoing human rights violations. I think we should cancel the summit as well. Ignoring it just makes us look weak."

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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