Russia’s parliament on Tuesday gave overwhelming support to two laws that signify a sharp turn towards a conservative, Orthodox Church morality that has come to characterise the third presidential term of Vladimir Putin.
The body nearly unanimously passed a ban on “gay propaganda” as well as a measure known as the “blasphemy law” which foresees up to three years imprisonment for “offending the feelings of religious believers”.
The laws, which have been winding their way through the Duma, or lower house of parliament, for months, were passed quickly on Tuesday, coinciding with the first day of a founding conference for the All Russia Popular Front, an amorphous political organisation created by the Kremlin to support Mr Putin.
Some see the Popular Front as a “reserve party of power” waiting in the wings to take over as the official ruling political party in case of the collapse of United Russia, the current ruling party, which is falling steadily in the polls.
Since his inauguration in May 2012 Mr Putin has championed a new brand of Russian conservative nationalism in an effort to appeal to an older, more rural and less educated support base, following the rise of an urban protest movement composed mainly of Russia’s Europeanised urban middle classes.
Many have compared the drumbeat of political attacks on gay rights and “political correctness” to a new era of ideological confrontation between Russia and the west, with liberal social policies now standing in for capitalism as the all-pervasive corrupting foreign influence that threatens to subvert Russian society.
“People write about liberalism today in the same language they used to write about capitalism,” said Moscow economist Mikhail Delyagin, who alluded to an old Soviet joke about the hypocrisy of the official line: “Once again the west is rotting, but it still smells great.”
Nikolai Alekseev, outspoken gay rights activist and leader of the Gay Pride movement in Moscow, said the Kremlin had been stoking anti-gay feeling recently for reasons of “sheer political expediency” due to Mr Putin’s falling approval ratings, which stand at their lowest since 2004.
“They need us as internal enemies. They need some group which is responsible for the collapse of society,” he said. “We are the new Jews.”
A sociological poll published by state owned polling agency VTSIOM showed that anti-gay feeling has been rising over the past few years, with 88 per cent of Russians supporting the new law which would ban disseminating information about “non-traditional” sexuality and promoting “distorted notions of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships”. The ban would apply to the press, television, radio and internet. Violations are punishable by fines.
US-based Human Rights Watch criticised the new law in a statement issued on Tuesday: “Russia is trying very hard to make discrimination look respectable by calling it ‘tradition’.”
The law is a federal version of legislation that has already been passed in 10 of Russia’s 83 provinces over the past two years, and it still needs to be passed by Russia’s upper house and signed into law by Mr Putin.
Mr Alekseev is so far the only person in Russia to be prosecuted for violating a local version of this law in St Petersburg. In 2012 he was fined Rbs5,000 (£104) for standing outside the local city government offices with a sign saying “Homosexuality is not a perversion. Field hockey and ice ballet are perversions.”
He has also resorted to guerrilla methods, publicly “outing” on a live radio broadcast last month what he said were closet gays serving in senior posts in the Kremlin and state companies.
On Tuesday demonstrators for gay rights held a “kissing rally” across the street from the Duma but were met by anti-gay demonstrators who pelted them with eggs and shouted slurs.
The law on offending the feelings of religious believers, meanwhile, was tabled soon after the conviction last August of the all-female punk band Pussy Riot for the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, after they broke into Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral and videotaped themselves performing a song entitled “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, Drive Putin Out”.
The new law imposes a maximum two-year prison term for “public activity expressing clear disrespect for society and undertaken with the goal of insulting the religious views of believers”. The maximum punishment increases to three years’ imprisonment for violating a place of worship.
The Duma has been compared by Moscow’s liberal opposition to a “rabid printer” for passing laws one after another aimed at tightening the screws on the protest movement, which has gradually withered under police pressure.
Last year the Duma passed a series of laws increasing fines for illegal protests, tightening regulation of the internet, as well as a law forcing non governmental organisations to register as “foreign agents” if they engage in political activity and receive foreign grants.
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