Russia's Olympic losing game over gays, human rights

Putin's pardons are a last ditch effort to improve his image before games, rights lawyer says

Two presidential pardons this week don't say anything about Putin's stance on human rights, lawyer Nikolai Polozov told Al Jazeera.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week pardoned a dissident group that insulted him and an environmentalist group that targeted the nation's energy industry, in what some human rights advocates call a desperate attempt to improve Russia's image and secure his partners' investments in the Sochi Olympics in February. 

But Putin won't budge on recent anti-gay legislation, and activists say that will cost Moscow some of the soft power it hopes to gain from holding the Olympics. 

Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov told Russian journalists this week that the absence of President Barack Obama and a slew of European heads of state won't affect the games. But Nikolai Polozov, a renowned Russian civil rights lawyer who represented dissident punk rock group Pussy Riot in their 2012 trial, told Al Jazeera two high-profile pardons indicate that Putin is eager to make good on his allies' Olympic investments.

"It's a tactic of Putin's, only for good face, where he's played very bad," Polozov said.

On Thursday, Russia dropped hooliganism charges against all but one of 30 Greenpeace activists involved in a September protest at an oil rig off Russia's coast in the Arctic, and on Monday, two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot were freed. Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of released Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told Al Jazeera he was elated.

Still, Polozov, Tolokonnikova's former lawyer, said Putin's pardons indicate that the Russian head of state has performed a cost-benefit analysis of the country's human rights situation and its ramifications for Sochi.

Putin "doesn't think about freedom, not about human rights. He thinks only about his money and the money of his team of people. He's afraid that nobody will go to the Olympic games, not Obama, not (U.K. Prime Minister David) Cameron or other leaders," Polozov said.

The Sochi Olympics are slated to cost Moscow between $60 billion and $65 billion, over 30 percent more than the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To make the financial investment worthwhile, Moscow needs to get something back, and it's unlikely to be a financial return.

"Over half is being spent by Putin's buddies, the oligarchs," said sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist. "They've been complaining, saying the government promised they would offer more subsidy. They want the government to buy out hotels that they're building."

"They are very anxious about legacy after the games are over," he said.

Winning an Olympic bid — at least financially — is almost always a loss, reminds Zimbalist.

"The Olympics is a very problematic investment to make, even in the best of circumstances," Zimbalist said. "The odds are overwhelmingly against them."

Even in soft power, the effect for Russia's standing in the world "could be negative instead of positive. There's a very viable threat for terrorist activity. ... You can have anti-gay activity ... Nobody is going to say, 'Look at Putin, he's a nice man now.'"

A split Queer contingent

Gay rights advocates in the United States say the community is split on its response to the Olympics being held in a place where legislation banning what Moscow's Duma calls "gay propaganda" has led to a rise in homophobic violence.

"When there is persecution (against gays) like you are seeing in Russia, people want to react in some way, whether it's not attending or attending and expressing displeasure," said Ross Murray, a spokesman for gay rights group GLAAD.

Obama appears to have chosen for the gay community that attending in protest is the right route, announcing a delegation of representatives that includes three openly gay athletes and no elected officials.

Some plan on attending and saying nothing at all. Retired Olympic figure skater and self-avowed Russophile Johnny Weir announced in October that he will attend the Olympics as a commentator but has promised not to comment on this year's anti-gay legislation.

The community-wide conversation on a boycott "has been going on for months, and (a boycott) has not happened," GLAAD's Murray said.

But international companies have started to face ramifications for their participation in the event.

"There have been protests outside of (the headquarters of the Olympics' corporate sponsors like) Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Visa," Murray said.

"A lot of these corporations kind of pride themselves on how (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)-friendly they are — this puts them in a difficult spot. They have a community they want to engage, but the Olympics is a huge engagement and product placement opportunity for them."

Duncan Osborne is a member of gay rights advocacy group Queer Nation, which has engaged Coca-Cola in protests for reportedly not adhering to the same anti-discrimination policies for gay employees in Russia as they do in the United States.

"We don't dismiss their pro-gay policies here. We want them to implement those policies in Russia and around the world," Osborne said.

"It's easy to be a friend when it's easy. It's easy in the U.S. Friends step up when times are hard," he added.

Coca-Cola did not respond to an interview request at time of publication. Osborne said that gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign typically rates Coca-Cola very highly in its corporate equality index.

"Our point is they should do that in Russia. They are not doing it in Russia. They should do it publicly. That would be a very powerful statement."

And it's a statement that could damage the image of Russia that Putin is trying to project of an independent, resurgent power player.

The impact of the absence of the LGBT spectators who plan to boycott Sochi remains unclear, Osborne and Murray say, but it could additionally hurt the bottom line.

A study published at the end of last year by Prudential Financial reported the median household income of the average LGBT American household is $11,500 higher than for their heterosexual counterparts. The study cited "a diverse group" of 1,401 LGBT Americans, ages 25 to 68.

Osborne pointed out that the purchasing power of the gay community is a contentious issue, as a number of previous statistics surveyed specific, affluent subgroups of America's gay community.

But Osborne said the argument that alienating the LGBT community will hurt Moscow's Olympic earnings is morally questionable.

"Those are not my favorite arguments. You shouldn't say be nice to gay people, because they spend money or they'll deliver X number of dollars in taxes if you allow them to marry or ban discrimination."

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