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Sochi boycott?

Interview: Mikhail Bushuev / glbAugust 13, 2013

Russia's new anti-gay propaganda law has led to calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort Sochi. German Green Party politician Volker Beck tells DW why that wouldn't be a good idea.

Image: picture-alliance/AP

DW: The Kremlin has reacted with "disappointment" to western criticism of its recently implemented anti-gay propaganda law, adding that its laws are "quite liberal." How do you see this?

Volker Beck: First off we must say that in Russia it is not against the law to be gay. It's been that way since the beginning of the 1990s, and this pledge of tolerance was one of the requirements for Russia's acceptance into the Council of Europe and its signing of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But with the implementation of this propaganda law, all civil and political rights of homosexuals have now been essentially abrogated. Insofar as this law prohibits people from expressing themselves in support of homosexuality, we can't exactly speak of any "liberal" legislative situation in Russia.

Of course, if you compare it with countries like Iran and Sudan, Russia is of course more liberal when it comes to homosexuality. But in reality it is a country in which citizens - including gays and lesbians - have had their personal freedoms clearly infringed upon.

Bundestag Leistungsschutzrecht
Beck is the Bundestag's human rights spokesmanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently said that the anti-gay propaganda law would be suspended during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. But in response Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko rejected any such willingness, claiming that "all rights would be protected" under the law. What do you think will happen?

It is certainly quite strange for any normal state to suspend or invalidate its laws to appease the representatives of international events. But let's face it: Russia is not a normal state. Ultimately it's the Kremlin that has the control over policing authorities and the judiciary, and this is the way Putin wants it.

But in my opinion it is also quite clear that no spectator should have to fear persecution because he or she is carrying a rainbow flag or endorsing the freedom of gays and lesbians. Otherwise these Olympic Games won't be secure, and then it's no longer an issue of simply boycotting the event. If Russia isn't prepared to guarantee security, then I expect the IOC to move the event to somewhere that can.

Would a boycott of the Sochi Games - as several high-ranking German politicians are now considering openly - really be a good idea? Wouldn't this harm more than it would heal?

When Sochi was chosen as the host of the 2014 Winter Games, we can safely say people knew about the nature of democracy in Russia. The only new development is this anti-propaganda law. We were aware that there is no democracy in Russia; that there's no real rule of law; that the opposition is oppressed; that human rights activists, lawyers and journalists are thrown in jail if they criticize the government. We knew all of this before.

The mistake made here was to choose Sochi as a host to begin with. We can't act surprised now. Putin's Russia is what Putin's Russia is. To boycott the event, to force the athletes to forego the competitions, would be to punish the people who have been training for years - in some cases their whole lives.

Symbolbild Sport Homosexualität
Fears have risen that fans could be punished for endorsing homosexualityImage: imago/Sven Simon

This is why we must demand that the Games be hosted elsewhere if Russia cannot provide the necessary security. And in the future, we ask that the IOC and other organizations learn from this and see that there's no sense in holding major events in dictatorships, because the people in power simply use these events as PR-shows and to oppress the opposition even more.

We saw it in China in 2008, and we're seeing the same thing again in Russia. Perhaps we could make note of this at some point.

Volker Beck is a member of the Green Party and has been in the Bundestag since 1994. He is currently the human rights spokesperson for the Bundestag and focuses on advancing civil rights for gays and lesbians.