Does a threatened boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics really have the power to change the controversial Russian law, or will it just empower the Kremlin?   

Russian LGBT activists tried to conduct an unsanctioned gay-parade in central Moscow on May 25. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexey Filoppov

Russia’s anti-gay legislation sparked a public uproar around the world and resulted in a petition from human rights activists to boycott the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and Russian vodka.

This week the International Olympic Committee received a petition with more than 300,000 signatures calling on it to boycott Sochi as the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics. On the top of that, LGBT activists launched flash mobs to boycott Russian vodka in response to a new Russian anti-gay law outlawing “homosexuality propaganda.”

The law came into effect in June and has spurred a heated debate both in Russia and abroad. The law seeks to fight "the dissemination of information that aims to induce minors to develop non-traditional sexual attitudes, to see non-traditional sexual relationships as attractive.”

Most alarmingly for Western activists, those found guilty of "propagandizing" homosexuality – including foreigners – may face significant fines, arrests for a maximum of 15 days or even deportation from Russia.

The last straw for human rights activists seems to have been the statements of Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister, who hinted at first that Olympic athletes of all nationalities would be subject to the “propaganda” law in Sochi. Later, Mutko backed down, urging critics of Russia’s new anti-gay law to “calm down.”

In prepared statements, he reiterated that the rights of all athletes competing at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi would be respected. According to Mutko, the issue had been “blown out of proportion” by LGBT supporters outside Russia.

This week British author and comedian Stephen Fry responded to the Russian anti-gay legislation with a heartfelt call to ban Sochi from hosting the Winter Olympics next year.

“An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential,” Fry said in an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee. “Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world.”

This week, U.S. President Barack Obama also repeated the sentiment of Fry and other activists, “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama said on NBC’s “Tonight” Show on Tuesday.

At the same time, he didn't approve the idea of the Olympic boycott at a recent press conference in the White House.

“I want to just make very clear right now: I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics,” Obama told reporters at a White House news conference.

Russia Direct interviewed some observers, an LGBT-activist and a cleric to figure out what consequences the boycott may result in.   

Nina Long, co-president of the Russian-speaking American LGBT group RUSA LGBT

We believe that the call for the boycott and the resonance that it has created in the media opened the channels of communication in Russia. It has not been common in Russia to discuss subjects about gay people openly with the general public. Many Russians view gay issues to be about private life only. An open discussion of them in the media is educational.

Gay people are facing violence in Russia, hate crimes are on the rise and are not being investigated: Victims of crimes do not go to the police because of the fear of being exposed. We are glad that people can learn about it now. This law portrays gays as criminals, because, supposedly, children need protection from everything gay. When people realize that this law creates grounds for violence, they will stop supporting these laws, because no one supports violence.

We support the boycott. The boycott expresses criticism of the government's policies towards LGBT people in Russia. One of the main obstacles for the LGBT movement in Russia is the anti-gay law, which prevents all education. We hope that international criticism of the law will create grounds for repealing this law.

Russia and the Russian government are two different things. [The latest] elections were not legitimate, and therefore Russia's government doesn't represent its people. The Russian government deserves criticism for implementing an anti-gay campaign and rightfully receives it. Russia is a country that we love.

Vsevolod Chaplin, chairman of the Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society of the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodox believers. Photo: Kommersant

I don’t think that this boycott will affect the Sochi Olympics. People should respect the traditions of other nations. Nevertheless, I believe that the developmental direction of the West is absolutely wrong and suicidal. And one of the problems of this developmental direction is an attempt to equate same-sex relations to marriage, creating an opportunity to involve children and teenagers in these relations.

As a matter of fact, we should respect such terms as children’s purity and innocence as well as moral austerity. Our society, thanks to God, understands this. That’s why we took such severe measures against propaganda of homosexuality to minors. I hope that this stance will be appreciated in the rest of the world and other countries will follow our example.

Regarding the boycott, let it be! It will only increase moral vigor in society. As for the image of Russia abroad and U.S.-Russia relations, I think that the boycott will have a positive effect, because there are a lot of people in the U.S. who do understand that involving minors in sexual relations is a dead end and that we have to set up a moral center in the world that will call black things black and white things white, as well as withstand the ideology of involving children and teenagers in sexual relations and same-sex marriages.

Isaac Munro, associate account strategist at Google

I don't know if the vodka boycott will result in anything. It seems like those sorts of activities are often less than effective. The Sochi boycott will probably be much more effective if it's well organized.

As much as I love the Olympics, I would support as many countries boycotting as possible. The Russian government needs to be shown that its persecution of LGBT individuals constitutes an egregious violation of international human rights. It is the responsibility of progressive countries to support the defense of civil and equal rights worldwide.

The effect on U.S.-Russian relations will probably be bad, but Russia's image abroad – particularly in the U.S. – is really suffering right now due to this issue. In the developing world, Russia's current behavior is widely viewed as barbaric and backwards.

It is very troubling to watch, and I truly hope that international political pressure will encourage Russia to stop some its actions. The more durable and effective solution, of course, would be a cultural shift in Russia that's more favorable towards the LGBT community – but unfortunately that may be a long time off.

Stepan Serdyukov, editor for Esquire Russia, contributor to GQ Russia

Regarding the boycott of Russian vodka, I think that it has been a very short-sighted policy, the most obvious choice, and in my opinion, it is not going to be effective. It certainly may serve as a means of raising awareness, but I don't believe that the export of Russia's spirits will suffer much.

As for the Olympic Games, the idea of a boycott is good, but doesn't have much meat on its bones. Although the present oppression of gay rights in Russia contradicts the worldwide policy trend, I don't believe that major nations will muster enough official support for a noticeable Olympic boycott. In a way, if it happened, it would be presented in official propaganda as another example of a Western conspiracy against Russia.

An anti-gay activist throws an egg at gay rights activists during a protest against the 'gay propaganda' law in central Moscow on June 11, 2013. Photo: Reuters

Sadly, but for too many Russian people, a boycott motivated by support for gay rights only would not look legitimate. These people would hold some grudge against the West, who, in their view, could have boycotted [government] corruption instead or other unfair actions of the authorities against people.  So, I do not think that it is a reasonable means of showing support for the Russian LGBT community.

I would fix the media campaign by focusing on the fact that the repulsive infringement of gay rights is just another, though especially prominent, form of repressive governmental encroachment on the constitutional rights of the Russian people.

Although, in a way, the boycott would be a gift to the Kremlin propaganda machine, I highly doubt that Putin had this in mind while he was orchestrating the selection of Sochi for the 2014 Games. It may become a part of a bigger confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, because the two presidents increasingly disagree on a lot of issues and the biggest sign of it was the cancellation of a Putin-Obama summit after [the] St. Petersburg [G20 summit].