By selecting two openly gay athletes as U.S. delegates to the 2014 Winter Olympics, President Obama has delivered the latest body blow to what was to be Russias big moment on the international stage.
By now, Vladimir Putins government must be reeling from the intensity of the negative international reaction to the anti-gay propaganda law adopted in Russia in June. The Sochi Winter Olympics were intended to raise Russias standing in the world by promoting foreign investment and tourism.
Instead, Russia faces an avalanche of push-back from world leaders, including Obama, who has named two openly gay women former tennis star Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, an Olympic medal-winning womens hockey player to the American delegation.
Neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden will attend the opening ceremonies. French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck also will be skipping the games.
While neither France nor Germany explained its reasoning, many believe its tied to alleged human rights violations in Russia as well as the anti-gay legislation.
At a time when Russian diplomacy on Syria is restoring some of the international standing and influence lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russias efforts to better its image have been substantially undermined by its recent homophobic enactments. Putins handling of this mess amounts to a massive missed opportunity.
Russias attack on the rights of homosexuals has included passing a law banning adoptions by same-sex married couples and by citizens of countries that permit same-sex marriages, as well as the now-infamous law that criminalizes propagandizing on behalf of nontraditional sexual relations. Both laws were adopted by overwhelming majorities in the national legislature.
The irony is that in the Western media, the homosexual propaganda law is often identified as Putins anti-gay propaganda law. Yes, he signed the bill into law and his parliamentary faction supported it, but its origins lie more in the grass roots than in the Kremlin.
The notion of prohibiting homosexual propaganda to protect children is not a recent idea in Russia; it has been kicked around in Russian national and regional legislatures for 10 years. More than a dozen of Russias regional legislatures adopted similar laws in that time. The Ryazan regional government adopted such a law on the protection of the morals of children in the Ryazan region as long ago as 2006. Vladimir Putins hometown of St. Petersburg a city of 5 million, often described as Russias cultural capital and the most thoroughly Westernized city in the country adopted a similar law in March 2012.
At the national level, anti-gay propaganda legislation has been introduced several times from 2003 to the present, without success until this year. The idea for this legislation arose in the provinces, gained momentum as it was adopted by regional governments, and then was brought into the national legislature by individual legislators, not at the direction of Putin and his Moscow colleagues.
Nevertheless, Putin bears some responsibility for this homophobic legislation. He has consistently sought to promote an ideology advocating Russian nationalism and close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The result has been a rise in xenophobia and occasional hate crimes directed against Muslim immigrant workers from Central Asia, Asian and African students and homosexuals. Putin has promoted an atmosphere in which the prejudice and passions embodied in the anti-gay propaganda law can thrive.
Americans should not feel smug about Russias benighted attitudes toward gays. The movement to ban homosexual propaganda had at least some of its roots in the United States. An American minister, Scott Lively, pushed for the adoption of such a law in Oregon during the 1990s. When that failed, he took his movement on the road, promoting the idea in Eastern Europe and convincing some of the politicians he met to introduce this legislation.
In the end, Putin missed a wonderful opportunity to play the role of statesman rather than his usual role of nationalistic tough guy. In the interest of burnishing the luster of the Sochi Winter Games and bolstering international respect for Russia, he could have taken the high road and asked his parliamentary majority to take no action on the homosexual propaganda law. Or he could have vetoed it after the Federal Assembly passed it. Instead, he took a decidedly lower road, siding with and in doing so, encouraging the homophobic, xenophobic elements within Russian society.
Michael Newcity is deputy director of Duke Universitys Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies. He is an attorney, Russia scholar and expert on the Russian legal system.