Straight Out of the Cold War

A few weeks ago, in the run up to the Sochi Olympics, LGBT rights in Russia was on the front burner. It was the theatre in which we were going to fight the battle between authoritarianism and democracy, for the respect for human rights. Suddenly it has been relegated to an issue among many which are important, but can't be dealt with now. There are several reasons why this should not be the case, why we should continue to work on LGBT rights in Russia and elsewhere in the world.

It has, of course, suddenly become more difficult to deal with LGBT rights in Russia, and the community and their friends understand that. But it has also become even more difficult to be an LGBT person in that country. The war Putin unleashed on Ukraine has had its impact on Russian society, where waging wars was always in part aimed at whipping up nationalist sentiments, an opportunity to unite society. Russia's laws against LGBT people always had this connotation all along, a tool to fight back against "foreign" influence. It was a tool to rally the troops, the nationalist sentiments of the Russian people.

Occupying Ukraine and annexing Crimea is obviously a far more effective tool for Vladimir Putin. It boosts his image as a leader who stands up for Russia, who stands up for the Russian people much more than just fighting a few poor, defenseless souls who can be bullied into hiding or exile. Both, however, are part of his toolbox against the West, and of course liberalization and democracy in Russia.

We have long been suggesting for the LGBT community to get strategic on their rights in Russia and beyond. That many around the world see the rights of LGBT people as part of the overall competition between two ways of life, two different ways of organizing society, two opposing views on freedom and democracy. While saving lives and protecting individuals must be a priority, they must not lose sight of the big picture.

Don't overlook some of the arguments, clearly fueled by Russia, against the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Russian media suggested that such an agreement will oblige Ukraine to accept same sex marriage -- a lie then repeated by ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The LGBT community in each country understands that the road to full and comprehensive rights is a slow and difficult process. They know that the EU stands up for gay rights, but will never make such conditions. Protection of LGBT people and granting same-sex marriage rights are not identical issues.

How interesting to see that in the U.S., it is the very same extreme conservative, right-wing groups who have been fighting the war on gay rights that are now apologetic on Russia's aggression. It is the same religious right, who "defend life and family" and fight LGBT rights at home and abroad. They will be the attendees to the World Conference of Families -- a U.S. organization -- in Moscow later this year. It will make itself look like a Russian front organization, just like the ones they used to have during the good old times of the Cold War.

These radical groups also make themselves look like Communists in the United States and elsewhere in the west during those times, who were mere tools of the Soviet Union. Some of them were naïve idealists, some others were opportunists, and some were simply paid agents of the Soviets. Today, the religious right tends to be the most pro-Russian. Whether in America or, in a weird way, my own country of Hungary which suffered under Russian domination for forty years, many on the radical and extreme right support Putin. They should know: is not enough to be anti-communist, this alone does not make you a supporter of democracy.

The pattern is there, and they should be aware -- whatever they claim -- that they are and will be mere tools in the hands of Russia's leader. Just like in the past, when Western Communists were among the harshest critics of human rights activists behind the Iron Curtain, thez are weakening democracy and civil society in Russia. They are a fifth column.

Speaking of which, it is time to realize that the old agitprop department in Moscow is alive and well. It has received a facelift, it is using Western technologies and techniques, but it is still that: agitprop. Having grown up in a Communist country, this is just all too familiar.

It gave me great pleasure the other day to see the resignation from Russia Today (RT) of journalist Liz Wahl, on the grounds that she can't serve this Russian propaganda tool. Had she asked me, I would have told her a long time ago, but better late than never. She made me proud as a Hungarian. She has done a great favor to us all.