George Takei’s Sochi Campaign is More Consequential than Obama’s Canceled Summit With Putin

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The foreign policy community is abuzz right now with news that President Obama cancelled a planned meeting with Vladimir Putin over Russia’s protection of Edward Snowden. This may be a very public display of displeasure by the most powerful man in the world, but the chances of it affecting policy in Russia is not terribly high. (The organizing principal of Russian foreign policy these days seems to revolve around antagonizing Washington for its own sake.)

On the other hand, a burgeoning campaign to use the Sochi Olympics to shame Russia over regressive domestic policies may stand a chance of success.

The actor George Takei ,who is nowadays better known for his activism (and hilarious Facebook Page), is waging a campaign to move the Olympics from Sochi.  At issue are increasingly oppressive state policies against the LGBT community, including a new law that criminalizes speech that “promotes” homosexuality. Says Takei: 

It’s been bubbling for some time, but the controversy over Russia’s draconian “gay propaganda” law has now boiled over. Last week, Russia’s Sports Minister confirmed that the country intends to enforce its laws against visiting LGBT athletes, trainers and fans, meaning anyone even so much as waving a rainbow flag (and I presume many men enthusiastically watching and dramatically commenting on figure skating) would be arrested, held for weeks and then deported.Given this position, the IOC must do the right thing, protect its athletes and the fans, and move the 2014 Winter Olympics out of Russia…

If you think it’s a stretch that foreigners may be detained for violating the new “Gay Propaganda” law consider the case of a Dutch documentary film crew detained by Russian police last month.

Takei doesn’t urge a ban on the Olympics, he just wants them moved out of Russia. (Perhaps to Vancouver, which already has the facilities in place).

There have been urgent calls for boycotts of the Olympics and of Russian exports like vodka. These are understandable: It just doesn’t seem right to see any of our dollars flowing to that nation. But a boycott of the games would punish athletes who have trained for years to participate, and a boycott of Russian vodka isn’t going to effect the kind of change needed. Besides, with Russia’s confirmation that it will enforce its law, our LGBT athletes are in real danger, and their safety must be paramount

Many believe that such a call to move the Olympics out of Russia goes too far. Would this be their opinion if the law instead called for the arrest of any Jews, Roman Catholics or Muslims should they display any sign of their religion, such as a wearing a yamaka or praying while facing Mecca?Discrimination in any form is a blight upon the Winter Games, and it must not be tolerated.

NBC and the corporate sponsors of the Olympics should be paying close attention, too, and should get behind the “Move the Olympics” movement now, while there is still time to do so. If the Winter Olympics proceed in Sochi, Russia, all of the goodwill they have spent millions to build will evaporate in noisy protests, boycotts, and terrible publicity. I personally will be beating this particular drum loudly, as will many other LGBT actors, activists and allies. Trust me, if you are a corporate brand, you do not want to be associated with the Sochi Olympics. (Emphasis mine)

The model here is the pressure that was applied on China vis-a-vis Darfur. In the year leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, activists waged a campaign to call  it the “Genocide Olympics” for China’s steadfast patronage of the Sudanese government; activists even convinced Steven Spielberg to back away from serving as an artistic advisor for the olympics.

The activism worked. China softened its obstructionist stance at the Security Council, eventually abstaining from key Security Council resolutions that let a UN Peacekeeping force into Darfur.  China very much did not want anything to distract from their coming out party.

Chances are the Olympic Community won’t move the Olympics from Sochi, but that should not be the measure of success of a campaign like this. Rather, success should be judged by the extent to which Russian policy makers reevaluate the costs of imposing regressive, anti-gay legislation to Russian prestige.

Russia has invested heavily in the Sochi Olympics–they are even importing snow! Between now and February is the crucial window to leverage the Olympics for a public campaign to press Moscow on LGBT rights.  If the “Winter of Hate” campaign catches on — and I suspect it will — we can expect some softening of Russia’s anti-gay policies.