Would a chaser for the Russian vodka boycott improve gay rights?

An empty space on a liquor shelf where Russian vodka used to be located at the Sidetrack, a gay bar on the north side of Chicago.
(Scott Eisen / Associated Press)

Gay bars across the country are doing away with Stolichnaya vodka, for the time being, in reaction to a slew of recent anti-gay legislation in Russia. As a gesture of protest, boycotters in West Hollywood even plan to empty Stoli bottles, filled with water, into a gutter Thursday.

The boycott began, in large part, because Dan Savage, who forever changed Rick Santorum’s reputation on Google, encouraged it in a blog post as a way to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT and allied communities and to bring international attention to their harassment. So far it’s doing just that.

Still, some have called for additional action out of a concern that boycotts might not place effective pressure on Russia’s power brokers beyond their stated (and worthwhile) goal: to generate international attention. There’s reason to believe this is true.

First, although the chief executive of the SPI Group, which owns the Stolichnaya brand, has labeled Russia’s recent actions “dreadful” and said his company was a “fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community,” there’s very little the company can do to affect the policies in a country that does not respond well to political activism from its oligarchs (more on that here).


Moreover, it’s worth noting that political pressure from the West might lead to a backlash in Russia, as the Washington Post’s Max Fisher suggested in a blog post Tuesday.

“Russia has gone from a confident (maybe even overly confident) superpower to an insecure and internally troubled nation,” Fisher writes. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin needs, or at least believes he needs, to maintain the idea that Russia is fundamentally different from the West and that Western lecturing about human rights is really just a form of cultural imperialism and an attack on Russian greatness.”

Given these concerns and others, advocates have begun to consider washing down the boycott with a chaser that would specifically target those in Russia who can affect change.

One suggestion: the Magnitsky Act.

Passed with overwhelming congressional support in 2012 as part of a Russia trade bill, it allows the U.S. government to place travel bans and asset freezes on the country’s human rights abusers. The bill is named for Russian lawyer Sergei L. Magnitsky, who accused Russian government officials of a tax fraud scheme. He died of toxic shock and heart failure in a prison hospital in 2009.

In April, the U.S. Treasury used the act to sanction 18 Russian citizens (16 were directly involved in the Magnitsky case).

Some LGBT advocates have called for doing the same with Russian lawmakers who crafted the law that recognizes “homosexual propaganda” as pornography, Business Insider reported.

Already, a petition on the White House’s website has received more than 96,000 signatures (it needs 100,000 for the Obama administration to officially consider it).


But it’s unlikely that President Obama will. In December 2012, when the measure first passed, he was opposed to attaching human rights sanctions to Russia trade policy. Here’s how the New York Times reported Obama’s reaction to its passage by a 92-4 Senate vote:

In a statement issued after the Senate vote, the White House mentioned the human rights component of the bill only in passing, instead emphasizing that the president was looking forward to signing a measure that would level the playing field for American workers.

And for an administration that has affirmed the need to address gay rights internationally (Hillary Rodham Clinton, as secretary of State, did say that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights”), Obama has been very quiet about Russia’s recent offenses.

Perhaps the most compelling reason is that, as with the boycott, it might only cause a backlash within Russia and inadvertently bolster Putin’s political position. That’s exactly what Max Fisher argues happened when the U.S. used the act in April:


The Magnitsky Act … prompted Moscow to counter with a law restricting American families from adopting Russian orphans, who are innocent bystanders to this conflict. While many Russians opposed the retaliatory strike, many others supported it. The ensuing international attention on the law’s harm to innocent Russian children seemed only to entrench both sides within Russia, making it, for many, an issue of national pride to defy Western dictates and go ahead with the ban.

There are still valid arguments to be made for using the act. It could be used to specifically target some of the officials responsible for the human rights violations, while the boycott targets a company that has little power to change policy and already supports LGBT rights.

It would also be high profile and, as a result, might send a strong message to Russia at a time when, as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, it’s probably looking to avoid any additional international scrutiny.

After the boycott has shed light on the issue, one could make the case that turning to executive action might not be the worst move, albeit one we’re unlikely to see anytime soon.



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Follow Daniel Rothberg on Twitter: @danielrothberg