The real reason boycotting Russian vodka is unlikely to improve gay rights

July 30, 2013

A Russian gay rights activist holds a sign reading "Love is stronger than homophobia" inside a Russian riot police van during a gay rights rally in central Moscow. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has been tightening its laws restricting the rights of gay citizens for months, passing legislation that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" such as public marches. But it was the recent violence against gay rights marchers, committed by nationalist counter-protesters as well as police, that seems to have led gay rights activists in the West to say "enough." A campaign to boycott Russian-made vodkas has been adopted by a number of gay bars in the United States and Canada, as well as, to a lesser degree, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Switching from Stoli to Ketel One, though, is probably not likely to shame the Duma into repealing its laws or persuade far-right Russian nationalists to accept fellow citizens. Russian vodka brands are big enough that the loss of Western gay bar business is not likely to harm them much. Even if it did, the alcohol companies don't have tremendous political clout in Moscow or economic importance for Russia. But that's not the real reason that, as activists acknowledge, the boycott is unlikely to improve human rights in Russia. It actually has as much or more to do with issues unique to Russia, its post-Soviet popular ideology and ongoing political divisions.

Activists get that the vodka boycott isn't going to transform Russian policies. The goal, as Dan Savage wrote on his blog, is more to "show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight allies" in Russia. Some activists are also linking this to a larger campaign to either boycott or protest the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. The games are a point of national Russian pride; negative international attention around the Sochi Olympics could indeed be felt in Moscow.

The dilemma here is that a Western campaign does have a good shot at raising awareness within the West. But as that activism grows, so does the risk of a backlash within Russia, potentially entrenching or even worsening the problem. That's not a reason to avoid raising awareness, of course, which matters in its own right. But it's a reminder of the delicate balancing act, particularly difficult when it comes to Russia, that Western human rights campaigns can often face.

What sort of Western activism does work at pressuring Russia to improve on human rights? After the fall of the Soviet Union, very little. Post-Soviet Russia, particularly since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, has emphasized a kind of anti-Western, religiously conservative Russian exceptionalism. Being criticized by liberal Western activists – or, better yet, Western legislators – isn't a bug of this ideology, it's a feature.

Before the Berlin Wall collapsed, the Soviet Union was a big and mostly confident superpower that had a high stake in maintaining the international system and a functional relationship with the West. Even if Soviet and Western leaders disliked or even feared one another, they had a mutual interest in managing their very real conflicts to keep them from escalating out of control. That extended beyond security and diplomatic issues into human rights. In the mid-1970s, for example, the U.S. made a stink about the Soviet Union's restrictions on Jewish emigration, an issue pushed both by grass-roots activists and by Congress with a 1974 law called the Jackson-Vanick amendment. And it eventually worked, leading Moscow to soften emigration policies.

That dynamic has since flipped: Russia and the West now have, outside of a few Moscow-backed rogue states and some Eastern European defense issues, largely convergent national interests. But Russia has gone from a confident (maybe even overly confident) superpower to an insecure and internally troubled nation. Putin needs, or at least believes he needs, to maintain the idea that Russia is fundamentally different from the West and that Western lecturing about human rights is really just a form of cultural imperialism and an attack on Russian greatness.

Grigory Golosov, of Russia's Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix, told The Washington Post in January that the anti-gay laws are actually intended to create a backlash. “This is part of a concentrated effort by the Russian authorities to create a new political cleavage between the conservative, pro-Putin majority and the more liberal, pro-Western minority,” he said. “They have to invent issues around which such a cleavage can be manufactured.”

Past efforts to pressure post-Soviet Russia on human rights abuses have led Russian leaders to only dig in further, much more eager to be seen as defying Western punishments than avoiding them. The Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law to punish Russian officials complicit in human rights abuses, prompted Moscow to counter with a law restricting American families from adopting Russian orphans, who are innocent bystanders to this conflict. While many Russians opposed the retaliatory strike, many others supported it. The ensuing international attention on the law's harm to innocent Russian children seemed only to entrench both sides within Russia, making it, for many, an issue of national pride to defy Western dictates and go ahead with the ban.

None of this, of course, is to argue that activists or others should ignore human rights abuses in Russia or anywhere else. That wouldn't do Russia's gay community any good, either. It is only to note that Russian politics don't work like American politics, that national ideologies there can color how Western activism campaigns are perceived and that Russian leaders often face an incentive structure that makes publicly defying such campaigns preferable to just ignoring them. The way that the country is currently set up, economically and politically, just doesn't make it very vulnerable to Western human rights criticism.

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Max Fisher · July 30, 2013