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President Obama Meets with Russian LGBT Activists in St. Petersburg

Kochetkov

President Obama met with Igor Kochetkov (above, being detained for 'gay propaganda' in April 2012), Director of the Russian LGBT Network and Olga Lenkova (below), a spokesperson for the St. Petersburg LGBT organization Coming Out for a little more than an hour Friday evening at the Crown Plaza near the St. Petersburg airport with UN ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, and seven other Russian civil society activists, according to a pool report.

LenkovaSaid Obama to the activists: "I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community. I got elected president by engaging people at a grass roots level."

Obama also said, referring to the activists: "I'm very proud of their work... Part of good government is making sure we're creating a space for civil society."

No further details on the content of the meeting have been provided.

Other activists who met with Obama were Pavel Chikov Chairperson of the Agora Association (Kazan); Yana Yakovleva, Founder, Business Solidarity; Yelena Milashina, Investigative journalist, Novaya Gazeta; Yevgenia Chirikova, Director, Movement to Defend Khimki Forest; Ivan Pavlov, Head, Institute for the Freedom of Information; Boris Pustyntsev, Head, Citizens Watch;  and Dmitry Makarov, Member of the Coordinating Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement

UPDATE: Obama's remarks at the roundtable, as provided by the White House.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I just want to say thank you to all the participants in this roundtable. This is an incredible and very diverse group of civil society leaders. And this is something that I really enjoy doing at every country that I visit because it is my firm belief that a country's strength ultimately comes from its people and that as important as government is -- and laws -- what makes a country democratic and effective in delivering prosperity and security and hope to people is when they've got an active, thriving civil society. And all of these leaders, ranging from business leaders to youth leaders to environmental leaders, those who are advocating on behalf of a free press, the rule of law, all of them contribute in one way or another to continuing to strengthen Russian society and helping to make progress on behalf of all people.   

And the same is true in the United States. I'm now in government, but I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community. And the work I was doing was helping poor communities have a voice in what was happening in their lives. And I got elected as President by engaging people at a grassroots level.

So the kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia's development, and I'm very proud of their work. And I think it is important for us to remember that in every country -- here in Russia, in the United States, around the globe -- that part of good government is making sure that we're creating a space for civil society to function effectively: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, making sure that people can join together and make common cause around the issues that they care deeply about.

So I appreciate you taking the time. I'm not going to do all the talking here. I want to spend most of my time listening. But I want to thank you again and I hope all of you continue the good work. 


White House Stresses Importance of Ensuring LGBT Groups Meet with Obama in St. Petersburg, Russia

During a press gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to St. Petersburg for the G20, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes was asked by a reporter:

B_obama"Why is it important for the President to meet with representatives of civil society in Russia?  And how much care and thought went into the selection of these representatives of civil society?"

Replied Rhodes, according to a transcript provided to Towleroad by the White House:

"Well, I think the United States supports civil society around the world.  And in countries that we visit, we often go out of our way to express our support for civil society. In Russia, in particular, we’ve seen negative trends in terms of the freedom of action for civil society in recent years, so it’s important for the President I think to demonstrate that the United States and many in the international community believe strongly that a vibrant civil society is a significant asset for all countries.

"Saint Petersburg has also been a longstanding location where there’s been a lot of civil society activity.  I’d also note in particular that we wanted to include representatives of the LGBT community in Russia.  Given our serious concerns with some of the recent laws that have been passed and restrictions on activity for gays and lesbians within Russia, we felt it was important to ensure that we were including their voices in a discussion with the President."


Obama to Meet with LGBT Rights Groups During G20 Trip to St. Petersburg, Russia

President Obama plans to meet with several Russian LGBT groups later this week when he visits St. Petersburg to attend the G20 Summit, Buzzfeed reports:

PonomarevFour Russian non-governmental organizations told BuzzFeed Monday they had been invited to the meeting, scheduled for this Thursday at St. Petersburg’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. The groups include veteran human rights activists Lev Ponomarev (pictured) and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, legal aid NGO director Pavel Chikov, and Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based LGBT organization. Another local LGBT group, the LGBT Network, is believed to be attending, though director Igor Kochetkov declined to comment to BuzzFeed, saying that he had been “asked not to say anything.”

Election monitoring group Golos is also believed to have been invited, though BuzzFeed could not reach its director or deputy director to confirm. Russia’s justice ministry forced Golos, which used to receive funding from USAID, to disband this summer under a law on “foreign agents” that many believed was created specifically to target the group.

Earlier last month, of course, Obama canceled a G20 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a decision that was at least partly based on Russia's human rights abuses.


Russian Police Seize Painting of Putin in Women's Lingerie, Shut Down St. Petersburg Gallery

Travesty

Russian police have seized a painting from a St. Petersburg gallery that depicts President Vladimir Putin brushing PM Dmitry Medvedev's hair while the two wear women's lingerie, Reuters reports:

The officers also removed a picture of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, his torso covered in tattoos, and two others poking fun at lawmakers who have backed legislation banning so-called gay propaganda, gallery staff said. The officers also removed a picture of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, his torso covered in tattoos, and two others poking fun at lawmakers who have backed legislation banning so-called gay propaganda, gallery staff said.

The latter painting featured Vitaly Milonov, co-author of Russia's bill banning gay propaganda, together with a rainbow flag.

Gallery owner Alexander Donskoy called it an "illegal seizure". It's not clear whether the reason behind the seizure was because of Russia's law banning insult of authorities or its ban on gay propaganda.


L.A. Councilmembers Protest Russian 'Sister City' with Rainbow Flag

LA RAINBOW flag

Karen Ocamb at Frontiers reports that the Los Angeles "Sister Cities" sign near Los Angeles City Hall has a new appendage added by several City Councilmembers:

Los Angeles City Councilmembers Mike Bonin, Mitch O’Farrell and Tom LaBonge eloquently described their anger over the anti-gay “propaganda” law now being enforced in Russia before unveiling a small Rainbow flag attached to the St. Petersburg Sister City sign prominently displayed near City Hall. They declared their opposition to severing Sister City ties, hoping to leverage the relationship to benefit harassed and oppressed LGBT Russians.

Bonin, O'Farrell and LaBonge also introduced a resolution asking the State Department to expedite the asylum program to help LGBT Russians escaping oppression in their country.


Russian Anti-Gay Policies 'Could Kill Its Cities'

St-petersburg
Russia has undergone no shortage of bad press in recent months. Its newly adopted anti-gay propaganda hve prompted outrage the world over, and have already put a damper on events such as the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, months or even years in advance. 

Now, The Atlantic is reporting that Lansing, Michigan, is joining the growing list of global municipalities that are loooking to sever ties with their Russian "sister cities", which already includes the likes of Milan, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Reykjavik. Thus, as Russia inists on moving contrary to the global march toward human rights, the consequences could prove to have political and economic impact:

"St. Petersburg was, for hundreds of years, a city that took pride in its relative openness to global culture. When Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, he envisioned it as a "window on the West," a place where the values of the Enlightenment could be explored and celebrated. It was designed and built by the finest talents from around the world.

"Now, St. Petersburg is leading the way backward. Russia and its cities, by pursuing draconian anti-gay policies, are shutting themselves out of a global community where the benefits of an open society are ever more apparent."

Stolichnaya-1280x960It's no secret that international events such as the Olympics and the World Cup have the potential to generate a host of financial benefits for its host city and host nation. This is, of course, why so many cities vie for a chance to host such events. That said, should hosting a global event prove to be the potential source of controversy for the event's governing body, it would almost certainly deter them from coming back to that same city of country in the future. That's also not counting international boycotts of Russian products, which already have large companies such as SPI Group looking for ways to completely sever ties with the anti-gay nation. Let's also not forget the tourism dollars that Russia stands to lose in the future, from both gay tourists as well as those whom support human rights in general.

Finally, as The Atlantic illustrated by presenting the story of journalist and activist Masha Gessen, Russia's anti-gay laws have prompted an exodus of gay citizens, as well as their advocates. This only exacerbates the country's appartent desire "to shut down intellectually," and cost the country potentially vital intellectual capital. Thus, while the short term costs of losing "sister city" partnerships may be small, in the words of The Atlantic, "They are losing their future."


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