On a cold Sunday night in Moscow, Vladimir Putin took to the stage – not far from the Red Square – and greeted a huge, overzealous crowd with news of his landslide victory. "I see in this (result) the confidence and hope of our people," he said. The 65-year-old secured a fourth term in power (fifth if you count his time as Prime Minister, as many do) with a massive 76.67 percent of the vote and 59.5 percent voter turnout. This election ensures Putin will remain in power for another six years, bringing his total years in power to nearly a quarter century and making him the second-longest ruling leader of Russia – after Josef Stalin.
Watch the history of Putin’s rise to power.
“What a shock!” reports ABC Europe correspondent James Glenday. “With no serious competitor and almost total control over the media, not even the Kremlin could suggest with a straight face this result was ever in doubt.” While the New York Times dismissed the election as a “more charade than race”. Indeed, many Western countries and news outlets have watched the Russian election tepidly – the word “election” used loosely. Just hours after voting booths closed footage emerged online of ballot-stuffing in numerous locations throughout the country. As well, there were reports of Putin supporters being forced to vote multiple times and being driven in busloads to overwhelm voting stations.
Watch the alleged ballot-stuffing.
Glenday reported a conversation he had with an election coordinator in central Moscow who admitted these kinds of occurrences happen regularly. While Putin supporters dismiss these claims as propaganda coming from Western journalists who are “Russophobic” and don’t understand the country’s “unique” process of democracy. It remains difficult to view the Russian election as democratic. Opposition leaders are vetted and permitted by the government while any serious opponents are banned. Alexei Navalny, one such opponent, was arrested on a fraud conviction and barred from running – Navalny supporters maintain his arrest was politically motivated and manufactured.
Navalny urged people to boycott the election, he then sent out 33,000 observers across the country to see how official figures differed from those of monitors. He found what he called “unprecedented violations”. Pavel Grudinin, a candidate for the Communist party, agreed, calling this the “filthiest” election in recent history. The election also coincided on the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, where Putin won a resounding 92.25 percent of the vote, a statistic many have found questionable at best.
This kind of rampant corruption is, unfortunately, an everyday occurrence in the oligarch-ridden Kremlin and is met with apathy by most ordinary Russians. The Washington Post’s Nataliya Vasilyeva journeyed to a gay nightclub in Yekaterinburg, a city nestled deep in the Ural Mountains. She found that apathy even there. A drag queen took to the stage in front of her urging people to vote, “Do you know what’s happening tomorrow?” she asked the crowd, “I’m going to the election tomorrow. If anyone wants to join me, I can lend you my makeup, we’ll go together.” The crowd responded meekly, and Vasilyeva noted it was unclear if this enthusiasm from the drag queen was merely just ironic.
LGBT+ people have faced an incredible amount of discrimination and pain the last few years in Russia. In 2013, Putin signed into law a ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to protect children. This legislation effectively outlawed any public support of LGBT+ people, making it a crime to hold gay rights protests, pride parades, or to even discuss homosexuality with children.
Four years ago, reports started emerging from independent Russian newspapers of organised groups of young men kidnapping and torturing gay men. They filmed and posted these assaults online. Incidents like these were later found to be more widespread than previously thought. Vigilante groups roam several Russian cities, searching for gay men.
Then, earlier last year, the violent hunting of gay men shifted from being perpetrated by vigilante groups to being carried out by actual police officers. In the autonomous region of Chechnya gay men were rounded up, tortured and killed, while others were released to their families who were instructed to kill the men themselves. Masha Gesson, a Russian journalist and author, travelled to Moscow in May to report on the carnage herself. There she found resilient LGBT+ organisations helping gay Chechnyans flee to safety.
“There was the guy whose name had been given up by someone he seemed to have loved—and who was now presumed dead,” Gesson wrote. “There was the man who had left his lover behind. And there were several men who were married to women and had children they adored, who were struggling to figure out how to save their own lives and keep their families. There were several very young men who desperately missed their mothers but also knew that their families would probably kill them if they made contact.”
As international tensions mount between Russia and the rest of world, the democracies of the West seem unable and unwilling to help Russian LGBT+. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently visited Russia, he met with local LGBT+ activists and had a reportedly frosty meeting with the Kremlin. “We can’t ignore those difficulties, we can’t pretend that they don’t exist,” he later said. “We speak up for the LGBT community in Chechnya, and elsewhere, as people would expect from us. But they would also expect that Britain and Russia, as two P5 (permanent UN Security Council member) countries, should be able, where possible, to coordinate and to work together on the issues that matter to our voters on the issues, that matter to people of the world.” With LGBT+ rights apparently not high enough on that list of issues.
Back in the gay nightclub, hidden away in Yekaterinburg, Nataliya Vasilyeva talked to one of the drag queens. He seemed unfazed by Russia’s rampant homophobia. “I can’t just put on the heels and walk the streets,” he said. “My upbringing won’t allow it. I’m just an ordinary man like everyone else except for my sexual orientation, but I shouldn’t be telling everyone about it. It’s my private business… If you don’t put it on display, if you don’t show off, it’s OK.”
Vasilyeva talked to more partygoers and found that very few of them planned to vote the next day. 51-year-old drag queen Gera shrugged and said he has “neither confidence nor faith” in Russian politics and most murmured agreement that the election was pointless.
Watch: homophobic election ad warning conservatives to vote or wake up with a gay man in their bed.
When asked what six more years of Putin would bring for LGBT+ people, one man simply said it’s “going to be the same as before,” that for gay people “It’s like they exist, but at the same time, it’s as if they don’t.”
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