Russia recently passed a series of draconian laws that have effectively made homosexuality illegal in the world's eighth-largest economy. Against this backdrop of state-sanctioned hate, Neo-Nazis, armed militias and gangs of thugs have begun a campaign of rape, torture and murder of LGBT individuals -- often with the explicit support of the police and military. As this violence comes to light, social media is abuzz with efforts to boycott Stolichnaya Vodka (a product that barely qualifies as Russian), force the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the XXII Olympic Winter Games away from Sochi (logistically impossible) or convince the U.S. Olympic team not to attend (argued against by openly gay athletes themselves). While principled, these efforts will fail to change Russian policy, protect innocent civilians and avoid a humanitarian crisis. Here's why:
Sixty-four percent of Russia's economy is oil and gas exports, the rest is military technology and natural resources, and they are a net importer of consumer products and food. Even a total boycott of all Russian goods by the West would fail to make a dent in their economy. And if we somehow were to effect an Olympic boycott of grand proportions -- which already seems wholly unlikely -- Russia would simply scoop up all the medals they weren't already going to win and laugh themselves into the record books (see 1980). Boycotting Olympic broadcasters and sponsors such as NBC also misses the point: Fees for sponsorship have already been paid, most of the money goes not to the host country but to the IOC, and Russia is fully prepared to lose as much money as necessary on the games themselves.
To wit, the Kremlin has demonstrated that it will not be easily cowed by international pressure (see Snowden), and the leadership is happy to use such strong-arm tactics as proof of the West's collapsing morality and imperialist tendencies. In short, we lack the leverage to inflict measurable pain on the Russian government without a UN resolution (Russia is on the Security Council), and anything we do will only serve to strengthen their position -- and likely increase retaliatory violence on the ground.
So what can be done? We believe that the most important -- and achievable -- strategy is to prioritize humanitarian aid to LGBT Russians. The best way is to demand that Western nations streamline asylum procedures for gay Russian nationals. This would be accomplished by temporarily lifting restrictions on the number of refugees who can apply and ordering border agencies to consider the climate for Russian gays as one of systematic persecution. This doesn't eliminate the need for background checks and a competent evaluation by officials, but it would encourage gays and lesbians to consider emigration as a viable alternative to living their lives underground, hunted for who they are.
Immigration policy can be a powerful tool in global diplomacy, and this idea is not without precedent. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Israel actively courted Russian émigrés. Over 1 million people moved to the Mediterranean nation, raising productivity, arts and technology output. While our results may not mirror Israel's in scale or impact, our economy and culture can only benefit from the addition of these individuals.
Over the last decade Russia has slipped toward autocracy, resembling more a failed petro-state than a global superpower. This mean-spirited and violent effort by the Kremlin to attack the vulnerable LGBT population is clearly meant as a distraction from the country's real problems: a rapidly declining population, poor life expectancy, falling industrial output, incredible corruption and the slow decline of freedom and transparency under Putin. Though our best intentions -- and the classic protest playbook -- tell us that a boycott and international pressure is the best approach, Russia's economic and political insularity effectively shields them from any fallout.
The Russian regime needs to change, but this will need to come from within. We must continue to raise our voice and demand that Russia stop persecuting its minorities. But in the meantime, let's do something more constructive than changing our brand of vodka. Sign this petition and urge the White House to grant asylum to gay Russians, and contact your local representative to do the same. If you are outside the U.S., start a Russian asylum project in your country and help get LGBT Russians out of the country before the violence escalates and more innocent lives are lost.