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Opinion | Obama right to poke Putin in the eye

Published: Thursday, December 26, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 26, 2013 11:12

Last week President Obama named three openly gay Americans to the delegation that will represent the US in Sochi, Russia next February at the 2014 Winter Olympics. The delegation is notable for another reason as well: for the first time since 2000 the US won’t send a president, vice president, first lady, or former president.

Although the White House claims these moves are not a reflection of the pitiful state of US-Russian relations, they clearly are. They underscore a series of recent rifts in the relationship, mostly due to the increasingly illiberal and undemocratic policies and rhetoric of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

In June the Russian parliament, controlled by Putin and his party United Russia, passed a law 436-0 making it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships and to distribute material about “non-traditional relations.” Predictably this has led to increased violence against gays and a reluctance on the part of law enforcement to bring people that engage in such violence to justice.

Groups in Russia such as “Occupy Pedophilia” are known to entrap gay men, humiliate them on camera, and then post the videos online.

While Ukraine was debating the merits of ditching its eastern neighbor Russia in favor of the European Union this fall, a group backed by wealthy Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, who has close ties to Putin, called homosexuality a “threat to national security.”

Recently, Putin announced that the state news agency RIA Novosti, which has a reputation for more objective and balanced reporting than other mouthpieces of the Russian government, was being dissolved and merged with other state media outlets to create a new conglomerate.

Fair enough. However, Putin then appointed homophobic television anchor Dmitriy Kiselyov to head it. Kiselyov has said publically that the hearts of gays and lesbians who die should be buried or burned.

President Obama is right to poke Putin in the eye by sending openly gay representatives to Sochi, who in his spokeswoman’s words, “represent the diversity that is the United States.”

Russia’s open discrimination of gays should be unacceptable to countries that pride themselves on liberty and equality such as the US. The presidents of close European allies, such France and Germany, have announced that they will not attend the games.

We can only hope that with such symbolic gestures comes improvement in the plight of gays in Russia and throughout the world.

The author is a junior fellow at the Miami Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.

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