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On November 30, 2023, the Russian Supreme Court made a significant decision to label the "International LGBT Public Movement" as extremist. This structure, lacking a defined statute or management hierarchy, renders defendants and interested parties unable to participate in the court proceedings. The legal consequences of this decision will be revealed through jurisprudence, but the court's ambiguous language in the decision categorizes a diverse movement advocating for LGBT rights, women's rights, and the lifestyle of these communities as extremist.
The court decision states, "Participants of the movement are united by the presence of certain morals, customs, and traditions (for example, gay parades), a similar way of life (in particular, the peculiarities of choosing sexual partners), common interests and needs, a specific language (the use of potentially feminine words, such as manager, director, author, psychologist)." In contemporary Russia, extremist laws not only penalize participation in such organizations but also criminalize positive coverage or justification of their objectives.
The Soviet Union once held criminal liability for adult men engaging in sexual contact. And numerous predominantly Muslim countries still consider same-sex contact a crime, with some, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, prescribing death as punishment, Moscow's innovation lies in equating the human rights movement and expressions of solidarity with extremism, carrying severe prison sentences. The instance of banning and criminalizing the LGBT community illustrates Russia's departure from global human rights protection under Putin's leadership. Subsequently, we will delve into Russia's rejection of human rights values and the advantages it gains from such a stance.
Throughout recent centuries, intellectual discourse has revolved around the question of whether universal values, applicable to all individuals irrespective of their cultural or religious backgrounds, can truly exist. Some thinkers dismiss this prospect and contend that only distinct ethical frameworks emerge within specific historical conditions shaped by individual cultural communities. Notable figures like Richard Rorty or Alasdair McIntyre hold such relativistic positions. According to this viewpoint, even values presented as universal are essentially the values of a particular cultural community, spreading globally only due to the dominance of that community during certain historical periods.
Conversely, the opposing perspective underscores the unique nature of human intelligence, asserting that humanity, amidst its diversity, has perpetually strived, or should strive, for fundamental universal ethical principles. These principles, proponents argue, are pivotal for ensuring human survival and fostering dignified lives for individuals across diverse cultural communities. This line of thought draws upon contemporary notions of inherent natural rights (exemplified by documents like the Bill of Rights of 1689 in Great Britain, the United States Bill of Rights of 1791, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in revolutionary France in 1789) or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative. In recent decades, scholars from the communicative tradition, such as Karl Apel or Jürgen Habermas, have further developed these ideas. They posit the possibility of rationally justifying a foundational set of rights that procedurally facilitate comprehensive and equitable communication among individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
The question of whether human rights are exclusively a creation and practice of Western civilization or universal values remains open. It was the belief in the necessity and feasibility of establishing common foundational ethical principles that led to the creation of the entire international legal human rights framework after World War II. The preamble of the UN Charter of 1945 explicitly articulated the goal of "affirming faith in basic human rights, in the dignity and value of the human personality, in the equality of men and women, and the equality of rights of large and small nations."
The initial international treaties dedicated to securing fundamental rights globally were formulated within the UN. The non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first adopted in 1948. Subsequently, building upon this declaration, the more detailed and legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights were approved in 1966. These two covenants garnered unanimous support from the UN General Assembly. Collectively, these three documents constitute the International Bill of Human Rights, forming the foundation for the work of human rights organizations worldwide. Within the UN framework, there are over a hundred documents related to human rights.
The ongoing discussion about the necessity of embracing universal values in Russia traces back historically to the 19th-century intellectual debate between the "Westerners" and "Slavophiles." The Slavophiles adhered to the notion of Russia's cultural distinctiveness from the West and advocated for a unique path of development. In the 1860s, proponents of soil science believed in the Russian people's special mission to save humanity, distinct from Western European ideals. In contemporary Russia, Eurasianists, carrying on the legacy of the Slavophiles, continue this ideology, with figures like Aleksandr Dugin being prominent. Eurasianism views Russia as the core of the vast Eurasian land civilization, in opposition to the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the sea. Slavophilism and Eurasianism have found resonance among the political elites in Putin's Russia. During his tenure, Putin frequently references figures from these traditions, such as Lev Gumilyov and Ivan Ilyin.
Hence, a segment of Russia's elites once regarded human rights protection as a Western, rather than a universally embraced concept. In such circumstances, there was an acknowledgment of the need to accept human rights protection and maintain cordial relations with Western democracies as deemed necessary. However, as these relations soured and anti-Western propaganda gained traction in Putin's Russia, a gradually evolving antagonistic stance toward the entire human rights movement emerged. Branding human rights protection as a disruptive influence facilitated a distancing from the Western principles of governmental accountability, the rule of law, and adaptability.
In 2006, the then deputy head of Putin's administration, Vladislav Surkov, championed the notion of "sovereign democracy" for Russia. The concept proposed that if democracy were to exist in Russia, it should be distinct and safeguarded from influences inconsistent with its character.
Nowadays, the Russian ruling elites staunchly advocate for the concept of Russia as a "distinct state-civilization," a notion clearly outlined in the official framework of Russia's foreign policy. Within this narrative, Russia purportedly requires protection from what is perceived as the detrimental teachings of the "civilized world." Addressing Western elites at the 2023 Valdai Forum, Putin expressed discontent with the idea of a "civilized world" acting as a model for others: "We hear all the time, it sounds all the time: you must, you are obliged, we are seriously warning you. Who are you anyway?"
He found it unacceptable that the United States and Western countries established specific rules of behavior, questioning the origins of these rules and dismissing them as nonsensical. "It is unclear what these "rules" are, who invented them. This is just some nonsense, nonsense," Putin said. This reflects a counter-reaction to ethical trends in the West in recent decades, discrediting these innovations and constricting the space for human rights activities. Russia consistently labels human rights initiatives as foreign agents and undesirable organizations, effectively impeding their work. It also signifies a deliberate effort to construct a legislative framework across various domains contrary to global human rights initiatives.
Look at your enemies and do the opposite
Since 2000, there has been a global trend of legal recognition for same-sex marriages in countries across Europe, North and South America, with 35 nations, totaling about 1.3 billion people, fully recognizing such unions. Estonia was the last to recognize same-sex marriages in 2023. However, Russia has chosen to strengthen its repressive legislation against the LGBT community over the years. Starting with the 2013 law targeting the "propagation of non-traditional sexual relations" among children, it expanded in 2022 to include adults.
In 2023, Russia went further, prohibiting transgender transitions, encompassing changes in gender markers in documents and medical interventions related to transition. Lastly, from December 2023, any activity in support of LGBT communities in Russia can be deemed extremist.
Since 2011, 45 European countries have signed and 38 of them have ratified (including Ukraine in 2022) the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on the prevention of violence against women and domestic violence. The document is aimed at the transformation under international control of local legislation in the respective countries and international cooperation to prevent violence, protect victims, and end impunity for perpetrators.
Contrastingly, in Russia in 2017, beatings were decriminalized, and only administrative responsibility was introduced for domestic violence. Human rights activists from Human Rights Watch and "Zona Prava" estimate that this change led to a surge in unpunished domestic violence, as per statistics from the judicial department of the Supreme Court of Russia on relevant cases. A clear anti-feminist stance was evident in the case of Russian State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky in 2018 when several female journalists accused him of sexual harassment. Despite the accusations, Slutsky rose in the hierarchy of Russian officials and now heads one of Russia's leading systemic parties, the LDPR, after the death of Vladimir Zhirynovsky.
Russian officials and public figures, as portrayed in state media, often distance themselves from and express frustration with anti-racist movements. For instance, in 2021, Putin commented on the Black Lives Matter movement: “America recently faced the most difficult events after the famous events, after the murder of an African-American and the creation of the entire Black Lives Matter movement. I will not comment now, I just want to say that this is what we saw - pogroms, what we saw violations of the law and so on and so forth. We sympathize with the Americans and the American people, but we do not want this to happen on our territory. And we will do everything to prevent this." At the same time, at the same press conference, he spoke out against the persecution of Americans who stormed the Capitol after Trump's election defeat.
This cultural separation with the West extends to the issue of attitudes towards soft drugs, with Russia taking a different stance than the West, where legal responsibility for them has been weakened or abolished in recent decades. In 2020, Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan volunteered to recognize the existence of a separate Ukrainian nation from Russia precisely because of the latter's support for the legalization of medical cannabis: "70 percent of Ukrainians supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes (exit poll). I believe that from this day on, it can be considered that we are truly no longer one people. Mentally, at least.
Looking for allies: I will not ask about crimes, I will believe lies
Neglect of human rights and universal values not only makes it profitable for propaganda to distance oneself from liberal democracies, but also to strengthen alliances with other similar global offenders. Moscow is not alone in its view of human rights as an inappropriate manifestation of Western hegemony, which prevents the achievement of economic and political goals. Russia, in conditions of partial diplomatic isolation, seeks to win the favor of such forces.
In 2016, Putin actually justified the shooting of the Charlie Hebdo editorial office in Paris. Neglecting the right to freedom of speech and creativity allowed Putin to flirt with radical Islam: "You know, there is always a very thin line between what I called a dangerous outrage and freedom of creativity. These activists, I say conditionally, came to the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo and shot people. Here's the question: did these cartoonists need to offend representatives of Islam? They take what was published as an insult. Another thing is that maybe the artists didn't want to offend anyone, but they did," Putin said in a discussion with actor Yevgeny Mironov regarding the cancellation of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Russia.
Putin denied the Chinese government's crimes against this minority in terms that were insulting to human rights defenders and Uyghurs: “You know, I met some Uyghurs. You can always find people who criticize the central government. But I met Uighurs when I visited China. And I assure you, at least what I have heard with my own ears, that they generally welcome the policy of the Chinese authorities in this direction," Putin said in an interview with the NBC television company, when asked about his thoughts on how China is behaving with national minorities in Xinjiang. "It is believed that China has done a lot for the people living in this area, from the point of view of economy, raising culture and so on. Because why should I give grades, looking at the situation from the outside?" Putin continued to speak about the religious-national minority and the territory, which human rights activists and the media call an open-air concentration camp due to constant video surveillance and a general system of repression. Rights groups believe China has detained more than a million Uyghurs against their will in a vast network of what the state calls "re-education camps" and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison over the past few years. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch accuse China of crimes against humanity in the region.
Moscow extended support to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and de facto leader, Muhammad bin Salman despite allegations from Turkish and U.S. media and intelligence services accusing him of involvement in the torture, killing, and dismemberment of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Putin's press secretary, Peskov, asserted confidence in the official statements from the Saudi royal family. This stance strained Saudi Arabia's relations with Western nations, providing an opportunity for Moscow to exploit.
Russia exhibits a similar readiness to back juntas like those in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger in Africa, Myanmar in Asia, and to shield Iran in the UN regarding the suppression of protests. Both the political authorities of these countries and transnational businesses can serve as allies in opposing global ethical norms concerning Russia. Struggles for human rights can hinder pragmatic trade with marginal regimes, compelling businesses to navigate environmental restrictions, pay solidarity taxes, and uphold high labor standards. This might explain why some prominent businessmen, such as Elon Musk, align with Russia in disregarding global rules and universal values.
As each year passes under Putin's extended leadership, Russia becomes increasingly culturally distant from liberal democracies. Moscow strives to persuade both its citizens and the global community that its dictatorial system is in harmony with cultural norms and deserves international respect. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which, despite adhering to sharia, remains a significant partner for Western nations, Moscow lacks the alternative socio-economic system of the USSR or the all-encompassing religion present in Saudi Arabia, which could provide moral legitimacy. The majority of Russia's population is still deeply connected to Western cultural influences, raising the potential for dissatisfaction with the non-Western regime. Consequently, Moscow artificially imposes its uniqueness on the populace, sharply contrasting itself with Western ethical trends through legislative measures and propaganda. However, the most prominent outcome of the "unique state-civilization" in the past decade is, indeed, a state of lawlessness.