President Obama today complimented the work of Russian LGBT and other human rights activists when he met with a group in St. Petersburg, saying their efforts are “critically important.”
“I’m very proud of their work,” he said, according to a White House press pool report. “Part of good government is making sure we’re creating a space for civil society.” He also noted he has much in common with the activists. “I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community,” he said. “I got elected president by engaging people at a grassroots level.”
Obama is in St. Petersburg for the G20 summit, a meeting of leaders from major nations around the world to discuss economic and other matters. The summit’s location has drawn attention to Russia’s recently enacted “gay propaganda” law, banning positive discussion of LGBT rights and identities in any venue that might be accessible to minors. The national law was passed this summer, after some Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, adopted local versions.
Those meeting with Obama were Igor Kochetkov, director of the LGBT Network; Pavel Chikov, chair of the Agora Association; Yana Yakovleva, founder of Business Solidarity; Yelena Milashina, an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta; Yevgenia Chirikova, director of the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest; Ivan Pavlov, head of the Institute for the Freedom of Information; Boris Pustyntsev, head of Citizens Watch; Olga Lenkova of Coming Out; and Dmitry Makarov of the Coordinating Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement.
Human Rights First, a U.S.-based organization that works on human rights around the world, praised the meeting. “Engaging civil society has been a hallmark of this administration, and President Obama demonstrated that commitment again today as he met with Russian gay rights and civil society leaders to learn more about the challenges they face,” said Human Right First’s Innokenty Grekov, who is in St. Petersburg, said in a press release. “Today’s meeting was a terrific first step. Now, as President Obama returns home from this trip, he should double down on U.S. efforts to address the concerns of civil society and LGBT activists, and continue to raise these issues in the administration’s bilateral engagement with Russia.”
Earlier Friday, about two dozen LGBT activists rallied in St. Petersburg, holding signs with slogans including “Stop Homophobia in Russia” and chanting “Putin lies!” the Associated Press reports. Police formed a barrier between the participants and a much larger number of antigay protesters, and the demonstration went off without incident. One of the pro-LGBT activists, Kirill Kalugin, told the AP the police presence was a “show intended for the Group of 20 leaders.”