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Analysis & Opinion
31.05.11 Gay Pride Goes Public
By Andrew Roth

For the sixth year running, Moscow police disbanded the annual Moscow gay pride parade held in the Russian capital. There was hope among gay activists that with Moscow under new leadership, the parade might escape the fate it suffered under ex-mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who famously called the parades “satanic” and refused to sanction them. While the crackdown raised awareness of gay rights in Russia through the press, it seems that a successful (violence-free) gay parade in Moscow won’t be seen in the near future.

Less than 12 hours before the start of Moscow’s gay pride parade last Saturday, Yelena Kostyuchenko, a journalist from the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazyeta, published a blog post titled “Why I am going to the gay-parade today.” In it, Kostyuchenko follows two threads – in one, she writes about her close relationship with her partner, a young woman named Anna, in loving terms, while in the other she rails out an invective against homophobic rhetoric on the Internet and promises that circumstances in Russia will change for the gay community for the better. “And this [change] is going to happen, you bastards, even if you split my head open with a baseball bat today.” Yelena’s predictions were accurate. She ended up in the hospital the same day after being attacked at the rally by anti-gay activists and suffering a serious blow to the head.

Russia’s unsanctioned gay parade barely got off the ground before it was shut down by riot police, who arrested close to 20 gay protestors, including several high-profile activists from abroad, along with nearly the same number of anti-gay activists. Heated arguments have broken out over the parade, which opposing groups call “propaganda” for the gay lifestyle, while LGBT activists see it as a means of harnessing tactics that have been effective elsewhere to promote gay rights.

It is undeniable that the parade, which has been banned for the past six years and has been repeatedly disbanded by police, is a far cry from its Western brethren – often so few activists attend the event that journalists almost equal their number. Yet the parade remains one of the few yardsticks for progress on gay issues in Russia and the way the authorities handle it draws strong international condemnation every year.

Part of the issue for the pride parade, said Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, is that parades and demonstrations as a protest format in Russia are compromised. “In Russia there is a huge problem with freedom of assembly as such. Not only for the LGBT community, but in general, civic representatives and political opposition are also experiencing trouble organizing demonstrations in large urban centers,” said Lokshina.

Difficulties in sanctioning demonstrations like the gay pride parade or the Strategy 31 rally, as well as small turnout, have raised the question of how effective a gay pride parade can be in Russia. In a comment for Snob magazine yesterday titled “Why We Need Gay Parades,” Masha Gessen compared the parades to the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s, but it is clear that the Russian movement has not yet hit the critical mass it did in the West during that period.

Opposition groups have also successfully labeled the parades as “provocations” that are disruptive to society and have provided the violence to back up those claims. Members of certain groups, such as the Orthodox Brotherhood, who were held accountable for the violence against Kostyuchenko on Saturday, are “well known” since they come to the events for several years in a row and beat up the protestors, said Maria Rozalskaya from the SOVA center, which monitors extremist groups in Russia.

The police, as a result, have claimed they can’t run the events because they can’t guarantee the safety of the protestors. While eyewitnesses noted that police were indeed protecting activists from violent anti-protestors on Saturday, Rozalskaya argued that protecting the protestors is the duty of the police and that they are fully capable of providing a safe environment for the parades. “The government has the obligation to protect demonstrators from violence, and what we saw yesterday was simply a weak response to the problem of violence at the parades,” she said.

There was growing hope among activists that with the exit of Moscow’s ex-mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who famously referred to the parades as “satanic,” the parade would be sanctioned this year. This hope was further bolstered by an important decision made by the European Court of Human Rights last October that fined Russia for putting a blanket ban on gay parades in the capital. Yet Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin spoke out against the parade in mid-February, crushing hopes amongst gay activists for a renaissance in relations with the government.

While Moscow still has not witnessed a successful and non-violent gay parade, Lokshina noted that important progress is being made by including the issue in the wider discussion of human rights in Russia. “Naturally if you compare the gay rights movement in Russia to the gay rights movement in Sweden, you would say that the movement is fairly weak and disorganized. But I would say that over the past few years, the movement has actually gotten stronger. There are an increased number of supporters within mainstream human rights organizations, for instance the Moscow Helsinki Group, and that’s an important step,” she said.
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