There's a better way to stand up for gay rights in Russia than boycotting vodka

The World

In the past couple of weeks, the issue of gay rights in Russia has gone global, with a surprisingly effective Buzzfeed listicle, a New York Times editorial, and now Dan Savage of the Stranger taking on the problem.

Savage — the man who ruined Google for Rick Santorum — has been perhaps the most proactive American advocate for Russian gay rights. He is spearheading a movement that calls for a boycott of Russian-owned vodka brands, in particular Stolichnaya and Russian Standard, hoping to hurt Russian businesses with the aim of influencing Russian domestic policy. The boycott is first targeting bars that cater to a homosexual crowd, and the widespread use of the #DumpStoli and #DumpRussianVodka hashtags on Twitter suggests the program is a success so far — the Atlantic Wire reports that bars from Vancouver to London are taking part.

It's a commendable course of action, but there may well be a better plan right under our noses.

At the very least, the boycott has been wildly successful at bringing attention to what was once an under-covered topic. Gay rights in Russia are a problem — Moscow has banned gay pride festivals for 100 years, "gay propaganda" was recently banned by the Russian Duma, and verbal and physical bullying of gay men and women in Russia appears to be shockingly accepted.

But is a boycott of Russian vodka really the best way for foreigners to influence the situation? Two good articles suggested separate reasons why it may not be:

  1. Writing for Buzzfeed, Louis Peitzman calls the boycott "misguided and dangerous." Peitzman's argues that boycotting Stoli — a brand that has actually been pretty supportive of LGBT causes — implies a broad anti-Russian stance that is unproductive "slactivism" at best, and downright nationalistic at worst.
  2. In Russia! Magazine, Mark Adomanis points out that the idea that Russian businessmen — such as Yuri Scheffler, the owner of the company which controls Stolichnaya — could influence Vladimir Putin or the Duma is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the oligarchs and the government in Russia. The latter controls the former, not vice versa. "Does anyone remember Mikhail Khodorkovsky?" Adomanis writes, referring to the former Yukos oligarch who has been languishing in jail for ten years. "Have we already forgotten that the Russian government doesn’t take kindly to political activism by the oligarchs?"

Both are persuasive arguments. A boycott of Russian vodka seems unlikely to hit the people who actually control legislative power in Russia. Worse still, it would play into lazy notions of nationalism — an "us-versus-them" dynamic that helps the supporters of Russia's anti-gay laws (of which there are many) portray LGBT causes as a corrupt, foreign influence.

LGBT campaigners in Russia seem to confirm this. Nikolai Alekseev, a gay rights activist who has campaigned for years to hold a Moscow Gay Pride parade, called the boycott a "symbolic gesture doomed to failure."

"To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka,' he told Gay Star News last week. "It will impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever."

Is there a better plan? A proposed boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 makes considerably more sense. The Russian government is clearly banking on using the games as a showcase for a sleek, modern Russia — hence the incredible $51 billion price-tag (twice as much as the next most expensive winter games) and Putin's personal interest in the project. Sure, this plan is also nationalistic, but it would seriously hurt Russia's ruling elite.

We also should not forget, however, that there is already a process for punishing Russian officials who hurt human rights — the Magnitsky Act. So far 18 Russian officials are known to be on the U.S. blacklist, facing visa bans and asset freezes. While many are accused of direct involvement in the trial and subsequent death of hedge fund lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, other are involved in different human rights offenses, and there's no reason that anti-gay Russian officials couldn't be added.

Some LGBT groups in Russia have voiced support for some kind of blacklist measure. "Just three or four persons on the visa ban list of the EU, USA, UK and several other countries will dissuade other Russian politicians to follow this path," Alekseev told Gay Star News last week, while Spectrum Human Rights, a group that tracks homophobia in Russia and Eastern Europe, has started a petition to add two anti-gay rights Russian officials added to the Magnitsky list (the petition currently has over 7,500 supporters).

The Magnitsky Act clearly angered the Russian elite — likely prompting what appeared to be a retaliatory ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. parents, and Russia's very own list of sanctioned U.S. officials. It also made clear that the law wasn't about punishing Russians in general, only a select few who had abused human rights.

Ultimately, if people want to really influence domestic policy in Russia, perhaps it's time to move beyond boycotts and into real international action.

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