Lib­eral val­ues swept aside in Putin’s power grab

More than 200 amend­ments tighten Krem­lin’s con­trol over so­ci­ety

The Irish Times - - World News - Henry Foy in Moscow

When Rus­sian LGBT ac­tivist Alexey Nazarov voted against Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s con­sti­tu­tional over­haul this week he was not just re­ject­ing a re­draft­ing that would al­low the pres­i­dent to ex­tend his more than 20-year long rule.

He was also op­pos­ing a slew of so­cial ini­tia­tives – in­clud­ing a ban on his right to marry – from be­ing en­shrined in Rus­sia’s fun­da­men­tal laws.

While Putin’s move to re­set his pres­i­den­tial terms and po­ten­tially re­main in of­fice un­til he is 83 has dom­i­nated crit­i­cism of the new con­sti­tu­tion, that is just one of more than 200 amend­ments that will tighten the Krem­lin’s con­trol over Rus­sian so­ci­ety and bol­ster its ef­forts to sup­press lib­eral val­ues.

The new con­sti­tu­tion spec­i­fies that mar­riage can only be be­tween a man and a woman, af­firms the im­por­tance of God and man­dates the teach­ing of pa­tri­o­tism to chil­dren. It also calls for Rus­sia to re­sist ef­forts to “fal­sify” the coun­try’s his­tory and des­ig­nates Rus­sian the “lan­guage of the state-form­ing eth­nic group” in a state boast­ing dozens of mi­nor­ity lan­guages.

“The amend­ments will both make Putin ir­re­mov­able and re­in­force dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said Nazarov, who is gay. “These amend­ments rep­re­sent the de­struc­tion of the con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem of Rus­sia.”

“[Putin] has been play­ing the ho­mo­pho­bic card for more than 10 years,” he added. “Ho­mo­pho­bic state pol­i­tics and le­galised vi­o­lence reign in Rus­sia. And the adop­tion of this amend­ment is the sig­nal for a new stage of dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

The ref­er­en­dum, which Putin ar­ranged in a bid to lend a ve­neer of pub­lic sup­port to changes he had al­ready passed into law, is the lat­est move by the 67-year-old to pro­mote na­tion­al­ist, con­ser­va­tive and tra­di­tion­al­ist poli­cies and leg­is­late against what he has de­scribed as “ob­so­lete . . . lib­eral ideas” preva­lent in western coun­tries.

“We are not just go­ing to vote on le­gal amend­ments,” Putin said in an ap­peal to all cit­i­zens on Tues­day, the day be­fore polls closed. “We are vot­ing for the coun­try in which we want to live.”

“The coun­try . . . that we would like to pass on to our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” he added.

Pop-up sta­tions

The slate of amend­ments was sup­ported by 77.9 per cent of vot­ers on a turnout of 68 per cent, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, after months of heavy sup­port from state-run me­dia, and a week of vot­ing us­ing pop-up polling sta­tions in car boots and on park benches.

Cit­i­zens were of­fered the chance to win vouch­ers, wash­ing ma­chines or even an apart­ment in a raf­fle if they voted, and state-run com­pa­nies leaned heav­ily on em­ploy­ees to par­tic­i­pate, in a bid to en­sure turnout was high. In­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions noted wide­spread ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and re­ports of bal­lot-stuff­ing.

Hu­man rights groups have warned that many of the amend­ments will in­crease cen­sor­ship and re­duce free­dom of speech, re­strict the rights of mi­nori­ties and cit­i­zens whose life­styles are deemed in breach of “tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues” pro­moted by Putin.

Last week­end Rus­sian po­lice ar­rested more than 30 peo­ple who took part in in­di­vid­ual protests against the de­ten­tion of a pro-LGBT and fem­i­nism ac­tivist ac­cused of pub­lish­ing porno­graphic pho­to­graphs.

One amend­ment en­dorsed this week en­shrines the supremacy of Rus­sian courts over in­ter­na­tional

‘‘ Mon­i­tor­ing noted wide­spread ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and re­ports of bal­lot-stuff­ing

tri­bunals such as the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights, hith­erto the last hope for cit­i­zens seek­ing to over­turn Moscow’s ju­di­cial de­ci­sions. An­other in­creases the gov­ern­ment’s power to dic­tate how peo­ple get ac­cess to the in­ter­net.

Tanya Lok­shina, Moscow­based as­so­ciate di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch’s Europe and Cen­tral Asia di­vi­sion, said the amend­ment ban­ning all but het­ero­sex­ual mar­riages “con­tin­ues the tra­jec­tory of ho­mo­pho­bic dis­crim­i­na­tion the Krem­lin has stoked since the 2013 anti-gay ‘pro­pa­ganda’ law”, re­fer­ring to leg­is­la­tion that banned ac­tions deemed to “pro­mote” ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

An ad­vert pro­duced by a pro-Krem­lin group urg­ing sup­port for the amend­ments showed an or­phan’s sad­ness at be­ing adopted by a gay cou­ple, prompt­ing an older woman to spit in dis­gust.

“Is this the Rus­sia you will choose?” says a voiceover. “De­cide the fu­ture of the coun­try.”

An­other amend­ment that cod­i­fies the up­hold­ing of “tra­di­tional val­ues” raises “am­ple grounds for con­cern that this could be used to fur­ther counter women’s rights, in­clud­ing by thwart­ing ef­forts to adopt a law against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence”, Lok­shina said.

Pop­u­lar sup­port

Eleanor Bind­man, se­nior lec­turer at Manch­ester Met­ro­pol­i­tan Univer­sity, said the tra­di­tion­al­ist thrust was partly aimed at whip­ping up pop­u­lar sup­port for the plebiscite, which only of­fered vot­ers the abil­ity to ei­ther sup­port or op­pose all the amend­ments at once.

“[Putin’s] cam­paign against lib­er­al­ism is fairly mean­ing­less – the main pur­pose of the re­forms (and of his cam­paign against lib­er­al­ism and lib­eral val­ues) is to keep him and his cir­cle in power,” she said. “So the con­ser­va­tive thrust of these re­forms is just a cover for the changes to pres­i­den­tial term lim­its which are the re­ally im­por­tant is­sue.”

The ref­er­en­dum was first sched­uled for April but was post­poned as the coro­n­avirus pan­demic swept across Rus­sia, and at one point made the coun­try the world’s sec­ond-most af­fected. The vote be­gan last week de­spite the coun­try record­ing more than 6,000 new Covid-19 in­fec­tions daily.

Plan­ning for the over­haul co­in­cided with a fall in Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings to record lows, amid sus­tained eco­nomic gloom. That drove a sense of ur­gency in­side the Krem­lin to ram through the amend­ment to en­sure the po­ten­tial con­tin­u­a­tion of his regime past 2024, when he was obliged to step down un­der the pre­vi­ous con­sti­tu­tion.

“This was not a ref­er­en­dum, it was like a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion,” said Alexey Sergeyev, an LGBT cam­paigner from St Peters­burg. “But it has also ac­ti­vated LGBT peo­ple. Many of my friends who never went to the polls went to vote . . . in the fu­ture, there will be much more politi­ci­sa­tion.” – Copy­right The Fi­nan­cial Times Lim­ited 2020


A sup­porter of LGBT rights takes part in an op­po­si­tion protest in St Peters­burg on Wed­nes­day.

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