Lady Gaga's Twitter account is beaming messages to Russia, like this one: "Sending bravery to LGBTs in Russia. The rise in government abuse is archaic. Hosing teenagers with pepper spray? Beatings? Mother Russia?"
Last year at a concert, the musician spoke out for gay rights and assured her fans that it's okay to be gay in Gaga's house. So did Madonna, who toured Russia in 2012 and said that "gay people here and all around the world have the same rights." Musicians all over the world have been vocal about human rights in Russia following the politically motivated imprisonment of the women from Pussy Riot.
Gaga could be prosecuted for violating the new law banning "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors." When President Putin signed the bill into law a month ago, he knew that the legislation was unconstitutional and discriminatory, that it undermined Russia's international human rights obligations, and that it was dangerously vague. Without concrete definitions of propaganda, nontraditional, and sexual relations, any public comment about gay rights or sex can lead to criminal prosecution and hefty fines.
The Kremlin's realpolitik influence in world affairs is at a low point these days. To try to remain important, Vladimir Putin's government chose the tactic of being contrarian to the United States: pursuing relationships with Iran and North Korea, supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, and giving temporary asylum to Edward Snowden. Russia is also making flashy gestures in hosting various international events, including the G-20 Summit in September and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
Yet if, like me, you have a Google alert set up for "Russia," you know that these larger-than-life international affairs issues are often overshadowed by human rights problems. The situation in Russia is troubling indeed; since Mr. Putin's return to the presidency, it has gone from bad to worse with oppressive laws and trials that are turning the country backwards. The Kremlin, for example, has put a dead man on trial, turned up the heat on NGOs, and sent Pussy Riot to prison for a 40-second dance in a church.
The laws are something else, though. The State Duma is under control of the Kremlin, so every undertaking receives a near-unanimous support. To retaliate against the Magnitsky Act sanctions adopted by the U.S., the Duma banned adoptions by American citizens, leaving hundreds of orphans in limbo. Reacting to widespread demonstrations against alleged election rigging, the government arrested several protestors and tweaked assembly laws. To famous critics like Alexey Navalny or Pussy Riot, Russia has one answer: two to five years in jail.
But Madonna and Lady Gaga don't live there. Neither do Sir Elton John or Sir Paul McCartney, who also spoke out for human rights in Russia. Their voices are vital, strong, and much appreciated in Russia. They should stay keep speaking out against Russia's human rights problems, including the antigay propaganda law.
When Vladimir Putin travels internationally or hosts world leaders, he needs to face questions about the country's treatment of gays. Last week, we heard contradictory messages on how the antigay law will be applied during the Winter Olympics. Foreign governments must take a cue from Lady Gaga and keep pushing this issue until we have a clear answer on how Russia will treat its citizens and guests. Vladimir Putin has built a system where his authority is final and absolute, so he should tell us how his courts are planning to define "propaganda" and "nontraditional" in Sochi and beyond, and against whom this discriminatory law will be used.
The Kremlin cares a lot about its international image, but it has chosen the wrong tactic. We should be celebrating the fact that Russia is now the fifth largest economy and that the level of personal freedom -- even with these new bad laws -- is still unprecedented in the country's history. Instead, the Kremlin is taking actions that undermine the progress Russia has made since the fall of the Soviet Union.