Ambition to host Winter Olympics could deter government from copying Moscow’s homophobic law.
A recent tide of homophobic comments in Kazakstan is worrying, but the country’s ambition to host the 2022 Winter Olympics might prevent it from adopting Russian-style anti-gay legislation, at least for now.
Last month, a court in Almaty ordered an advertising company, Havas Worldwide Kazakstan, to pay damages equivalent to 180,000 US dollars for producing a poster of 19th century Kazak composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaev kissing Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
The case was brought by staff and students from the national conservatoire and an orchestra, both of them named after Kurmangazy, under defamation laws even though the composer is long dead.
The poster was designed for Club 69, which is located in Almaty at the intersection of two streets named after Kurmangazy and Pushkin – hence their encounter. The image was also posted online, which helped to spur expressions of outrage before the case came to court. Both ad firm and nightclub apologised for any offence caused, but a homophobic campaign took off on social networking sites and there was a small protest outside the club.
The director of Havas Worldwide Kazakstan, Daria Hamitjanova, told reporters that the damages were unprecedented for Kazakstan.
Substantial damage awards of this kind are usually reserved for government critics and opposition media with the aim of putting them out of business.
In a largely traditionally-minded society, homophobic attitudes are nothing new. But in the “poster kiss” case, officials were unusually quick to join the chorus of indignation.
In September, Almaty city administration brought a separate lawsuit against the Havas firm for alleged breach of advertising rules. The company was fined 1,000 dollars and its director 700 dollars, even though the lawyer representing the city authorities was unable to explain exactly what it had done wrong.
Kazakstan’s minister for culture and sport, Arystanbek Muhamediuly, joined in, saying using images of such iconic personalities for a poster of this kind was “unacceptable”. He later said he hoped the verdict in the court case would send a message to the public to be “careful”.
In September, participants in the government’s Bolashak programme, which offers students scholarships to study abroad, and the pro-government Communist People’s Party of Kazakstan both called on parliament to pass legislation outlawing what they called “gay propaganda”.
The head of the Bolashak programme, Dauren Babamuratov, initially claimed that more than 100,000 people had signed a petition in support of the bill, but in a subsequent interview he said it was only 1,000.
Bolashak and the Communists came up with even more extreme ideas like banning gay people from working in public organisations, educational institutions and the armed forces.
Calls from international rights organisations for the case against Havas to be thrown out have fallen on deaf ears. When it comes to human rights, the Kazak authorities are not prone to heeding international concerns.
Government responses to the “poster kiss” case may reflect a wish to gauge the level of anti-gay sentiment in the country, as well as the response of more liberal sections of the population.
Kazakstan has so far avoided adopting anti-gay legislation to copy that passed by Russia last year. By contrast, in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, draft legislation which would ban “gay propaganda” has already had one reading in parliament. That bill would prescribe up to a year in jail for anyone deemed to be promoting a “positive attitude” towards homosexuality.
The government might now find that its views on homophobia are influenced by vital financial interests, principally the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Almaty.
In a move that could influence official thinking in Kazakstan, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in September that cities wishing to host the games would have to sign an anti-discrimination agreement. That followed Russia’s adoption of an anti-gay law in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
The new IOC requirements present the Kazak government with a conundrum.
The ruling elite has a vested interest in hosting the Olympic Games. The event would be both an opportunity to boost Kazakstan’s reputation and a chance to make money through an array of public contracts offered to businesses with links to government officials.
If Kazakstan is serious about the Winter Olympics, it will have to sign up to the terms and refrain from openly homophobic rhetoric. For the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexua and transgender (LGBT) community, this Olympic conditionality could therefore offer some hope.
If, however, Kazakstan decides to not to go ahead with the bid, or if it is turned down, then life for the LGBT community could become more difficult. That scenario would create opportunities to promote homophobic views and draft repressive legislation.
Andrei Grishin is a staff member at the Kazakstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law.