RUSSIA’S PARLIAMENT has given initial backing to a disputed bill banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors – that could lead to gay people being fined for demonstrating or kissing in public.
The 388-1 vote, in the first of three readings, came hours after police detained over 20 opponents – mostly young people – who were staging a “kiss-in” protest outside the building of the State Duma lower house of parliament.
The bill is the latest in a rapid sequence of restrictive legislation voted through by the parliament since President Vladimir Putin returned to power last year in the face of widescale protests.
The bill’s pro-Putin backers cast the vote as a fight for Russia’s moral salvation. “There is simply too much homosexual propaganda in the Russian Federation,” the Duma’s family affairs committee chair Yelena Mizulina said during the debate.
The nationwide proposal is based on local laws already passed in Putin’s native city of Saint Petersburg and five other Russian regions.
Several of the bill’s most ardent proponents said they were protecting Russia from what they perceived as excessively tolerant attitudes in other countries.
“Just look at what is happening in Spain. Just look at what is happening in France! Of course we need this law,” said deputy Dmitry Sablin of the ruling United Russia party.
He spoke moments after a group of opponents embraced and kissed their same-sex partners in open defiance of the bill’s proposals. It was their third such action outside the Duma in a week and once again ended with police action.
Witnesses said officers detained 20 supporters and opponents of the bill as small scuffles broke outside the parliament building.
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in Russia after the end of the Soviet era, and top officials continue to express homophobic views in public.
Russia’s leaders repeatedly refer to gay people in official language as “people of a non-traditional sexual orientation”.
Broad public and parliamentary support
The Moscow authorities have roughly suppressed attempts to stage gay rights parades over the past seven years. A 2010 survey by the Levada Centre found that 74 per cent of respondents thought homosexuality was either “immoral” or “mentally deficient”.
The bill in its current form prohibits “the propaganda of homosexual behaviour among minors”. Activists worry that the vague wording could lead to gay people being fined for demonstrating or even holding hands in public.
It also sets out fines for violations of up to 5,000 rubles (€124) for individuals and up to 50,000 rubles for officials.
Legal entities such as businesses or schools would be fined up to 500,000 rubles ($16,500).
“The very fact that Russia in 2013 is discussing the possibility of banning the ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ is in itself the harshest of blows against our own prospects,” Esquire Russia editor Andrei Babitsky wrote in a commentary for the Vedomosti business daily.
“It is hard to imagine a single issue that so clearly distinguishes between modernity and the Middle Ages,” he added.
The introduction of a local law in Saint Petersburg last year led to a boycott of the former imperial capital by international gay rights groups while US pop star Madonna handed out pink ribbons at a concert in the city.
The authorities have issued a series of fines against couples who appeared kissing or holding hands in public.
The ruling party’s law formally aims to shield Russians aged up to 18 from what its authors view as the spread of dangerous ideas on freedoms by Western-backed advocates and new social media.
United Russia has enough votes in the lower house to pass any piece of legislation on its own without the support of other parties – but Communists and other lawmakers have also expressed sympathy with the draft.
Russian state television said that members of Russia’s gay and lesbian community would be invited to attend the key second hearing that is likely to be held within the next few weeks.
Draft laws move from the Duma to the upper house for a single reading before reaching Putin’s desk for their final signature.