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LGBT Rights in Russia Is a Straight Issue

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Last week was full of twists and turns in U.S.-Russia politics. Obviously the Russian President was not sincerely concerned about the suffering Syrian people or Assad's chemical weapons stockpile. His concern was President Putin. He seized the opportunity to get back on center stage in world politics.

As one of the ambassadors from an allied nation, someone with deep experience in communist and post-communist countries remarked: let's face it, Putin does have a sense of humor, he must be enjoying himself. He must have had a great time reading his own NYT op-ed clearly written for him by native Americans, who understand how to play to the emotions of the American people (and the public in the West in general).

However, to those carefully watching the public policy war between the U.S. and Russia, he might just have made a tactical error in that exact op-ed.

He declared that "no one is better than the other, we are all created equal". That statement is welcome news, especially in light of recent discriminatory laws being enacted, in essence marking it an open season on LGBT persons. Was this line just a careless slip of the tongue? Or was it a Freudian slip, an indirect acknowledgement of the need for Russia to clear up its human rights credentials?

The violation of LGBT rights, just like anti-Semitism, is the canary in the coal mine. When democracy fails, when authoritarianism kicks in and looks for a convenient scapegoat, especially in some parts of Europe, it is these two groups that are seriously threatened in countries with generally deteriorating human rights. The inability and the unwillingness of a state to protect social, religious or other minorities from attacks by the majority is a statement that "We don't need you, we don't want you." These groups become a tool in the power game, the perfect enemy within.

There are many countries in the world in Africa, Asia and Latin America which have laws of harsh punishment against LGBT persons, even the death penalty. None of these countries, however, are members of the Council of Europe, considered to be the watchdog for human rights in Europe. Russia is. Its elite perceives itself first and foremost as a European power, not as an Asian one. For a country eagerly reaching for modernity, the state-sanctioned oppression of LGBT persons is a step backwards.

LGBT rights has grown up to be one of the most important human rights issue in the free world. Increasing acceptance has significance far beyond the LGBT community itself. The family of free and democratic countries has a promising future only if it sticks to its foundations. The best defense against the emerging competition from the rising powers, who offer a more authoritarian model, is to be courageous and keep a steady course in human rights and democracy, our way of life which puts the rights of the individual first.

Whether at home or abroad, in business, trade, investments, security or culture we are best served to strengthen and not weaken our values, the rule of law and protection for the individual. We must be vigilant against the backsliding of democracies within the transatlantic community itself and must be demanding towards our partners. We need to take our democratic way of life to the next level. The legal guarantees and protection of the rights of our LGBT citizens does exactly that. The West flourishes because its individuals have the right to freely assemble, discuss, and criticize -- this is the crucible of innovation, a phenomenon authoritarians struggle to replicate.

We have reached a milestone. The LGBT rights issue has entered the influential realms of the think tank world in Washington. This signals above all one thing: the granting of LGBT rights is of strategic significance. Our Center [for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS] considers this a pillar of our "walls still to fall" thinking. Our message is simple: you needn't be a Jew to fight anti-Semitism and you need not to be an LGBT person to care about our brothers and sisters who are victims of persecution. And to be clear -- Russia claims its law is to protect minors from 'propaganda'. The evidence from Russia couldn't more clearly rebut that -- with people arrested for assembling and speaking their mind and vigilante gangs brutalizing gays and lesbians. The implications of this law equate to state-sanctioned oppression of those who are different.

It is critical to keep the momentum. The role of Russia in the emerging deal on Syria on chemical weapons is no reason to stop our efforts to continue to push back on restrictions on LGBT rights. The world wants a successful Sochi Olympic Games. Vladimir Putin wants his pet project to be the demonstration of his and Russia's modernity. Modernity however demands certain standards, so Russia must understand that it must reverse the current trends against LGBT rights.

There is a price to Russia's illiberal policies, as there is a price if he fails to understand why he will have to change the narrative in Russia on LGBT rights. The Russian president can do it. He must also understand that it's not just about the Olympics, but goes way beyond, to Russia and its future as a modern country. The world will be watching. Russia needs to grow up and leave the 20th century behind and start behaving like a 21st century player.

Putin can't have it both ways.