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Russia Blog / April 24, 2017
By Mark Ames

Yesterday I wrote about Nikolai Alekseyev, the very strange and very anti-Semitic Russian gay rights activist who, according to Novaya Gazeta, “provoked” Chechnya’s recent brutal crackdown on gays.

Now he’s suing.

Last week, a member of Alekseyev’s organization sued Novaya Gazeta — and Alekseyev himself announced plans to seek state criminal libel charges against the muckraking newspaper, which could conceivably lead to jail sentences for the journalists and editors. It’s all the headache Novaya needs, given the death threats hanging over the heads of their brave reporters who broke the story — Elena Milashina and Irina Gordienko — and over the entire Novaya Gazeta staff.

On April 3, two days after Novaya broke the story, a gathering was held of 15,000 Chechens—including top Islamic leaders— at the main mosque in the capital Grozny. During the gathering, a top advisor to Chechnya’s brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov attacked the journalists and Novaya Gazeta as “enemies of our faith and our homeland.” An official resolution was passed that’s about as direct a call for murder as you can. Article 2 reads:

“In view of the insult to the centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and to the dignity of Chechen men, and also to our faith, we vow that retribution will come to the true instigators, wherever they are and whoever they are, no matter how long it takes.”

Milashina fled Russia, in semi-hiding for her own safety; Novaya has increased security for its staff, and for good reason. They’ve already had journalists murdered in connection with their reporting on Chechnya, most notably Anna Politkovskaya.

Last week, an envelope sent to NG’s offices postmarked “Grozny” contained an unidentified white powder. It was a message. This is not going to end any time soon.

Now comes Alekseyev’s organization’s lawsuit, which he announced on his facebook page:

Just started a law suit against “Novaya Gazeta” in the Basmannyy District Court of Moscow for the protection of dignity and reputation in connection with two of their publications on the “prosecution of gays in Chechnya”. The second step will be an official request to the Russian Investigative Department to charge “Novaya Gazeta” with libel on the basis of the Russian Criminal Code.

So when Alekseyev’s not ranting about “kikes” or teaming up with xenophobes, he’s launching lawsuits and trying to imprison journalists already under threat of assassination. Just a lovely guy all around.

The Basmanny Court where Alekseyev is threatening to sue Novaya Gazeta is one of the surest places you go to get your judgment against upstart media, or upstarts period. It’s not exactly the most respected institution for probity and impartiality. I should know—in 2002, my former newspaper The eXile was hit with a lawsuit by some very shady “lawyers” claiming to represent a once-famous Russian hockey player. I won’t get into all the details here, some of which are stupid, some were downright scary—but when I decided to fight it with a lawyer, because the sum they were asking for would’ve bankrupted us, I got some phone calls on the eve of the judgment that not only scared the shit out of me, but even worried some longtime friends of mine who’d risen up in power. They made me immediately evacuate my apartment for a couple of weeks, moving me around from hotel to hotel, while they worked behind the scenes to make sure nothing bad happened. In the end, the Basmanny Court ruled against my newspaper, as we expected. And we didn’t appeal the ruling, as I was instructed not to do. I spent the next couple of years paying back the loans I took to keep The eXile alive. Other, far more serious and far more high-profile cases have been decided [in advance] over the years at this same Basmanny Court. . . .

So when Alekseyev goes out of his way to name the court he’s suing Novaya Gazeta in, he’s basically taunting them.

I’ve been trying to understand Alekseyev’s angles for callously provoking what he knew would be a homophobic reaction from the North Caucasus. I don’t think even someone as cynical as Alekseyev expected it turn into a violent roundup-torture-disappearance campaign in Chechnya—but he knew he was playing with fire and putting locals in danger, and clearly didn’t give a shit.

What Novaya Gazeta did make clear—and Alekseyev makes no bones about this—is that he has a deliberate strategy of provoking Russian government institutions into issuing refusals of his petitions for gay parades. And because those official Russian denials violate certain European institutional legal norms to which Russia is still a signatory, Alekseyev can use those official denials to then wage successful lawsuits in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg — which he’s done already, netting an expected $100,000+ euros in fines, and counting.

Novaya did not say that Alekseyev directly pockets that money, but it’s clear that this petition-denial racket keeps his in business with ECHR lawsuits, which is good for fundraising. And speaking of fundraising, Alekseyev conveniently set up a Swiss bank account for that.

Some of the most trenchant reporting on Alekseyev that I’ve read comes from a longtime gay activist, Scott Long, who founded Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Program in the early 2000s. He later resigned and has since turned into an eloquent and merciless critic of the gay rights movement’s cozy relationship with the interests and institutions of the US empire.

It was through Long’s blog, Paper Bird, that I learned about Alekseyev’s alliance with a far-right xenophobe from Zhirinovsky’s party back in 2007. Long knew about it because he was at the 2007 Moscow pride march; he was the one who reported on Alekseyev’s announcement that he wanted to run for the Duma on Zhirinovksy’s ultranationalist party ticket. Long has written several takedowns of Alexeyev and his many high-profile western boosters who’ve been accessories to Alexeyev’s shitty politics and opportunism.

If there’s one reason I’m at all “glad” I dipped into this rancid side-story to the current Chechnya crackdown, it’s been finding and reading Scott Long’s blog. For example, his posts on Egypt’s brutal crackdown on gays and transgender people under dictator Sisi are really worth reading. Sisi’s Egypt is one of many countries closely allied to the US where violent homophobia is state policy. And it’s interesting to say the least that you don’t hear peep about Egypt’s violence against gays—or really any violent homophobia from friendly countries where the US has real influence and can do something about it. Like Saudi Arabia, or like Egypt—which for decades has been the second largest recipient of US aid, mostly of the military and police sort. Instead our media and our human rights lobby is far more interested in the plight of gays living under our adversaries, where we have zero influence—unless we can effect regime-change in the targeted adversary.

I want to quote from one of Long’s posts criticizing the politics of the human rights industry’s cozy relationship with US power, because it’s really smart and it applies to a lot of politics today well beyond LGBT rights activism. In a post titled “Selling out: The gays and governmentality” he writes about a VIP Washington event held by Human Rights Campaign—a leading gay rights group—honoring Susan Rice. Long is quite merciless and honest—Human Rights Campaign openly views US power as serving the interests of the LGBT community around the world, even though that power is only used very selectively. It means keeping quiet about abuses in strategic allies like Egypt, while praising Susan Rice and condoning the imperial abuses she helped oversee as head of Obama’s National Security Council:

Arrests of queers in Egypt aren’t a quaint facet of the previous decade’s history. They’re happening now. Egypt has probably sentenced more LGBT people to prison since 2013 than any other country in the world. Neither Rice nor anybody else in the US government will discuss these arrests, much less condemn them. There are more than 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt; torture and death squads are rampant. The US refuses to raise these facts with its its Cairene client-tyrant in any consequential way — because “it would be too damaging to our relationship with Egypt.” For Rice to claim something’s changed because State Department staffers can now watch movies about handsome brown men being abused, and do so on government time — that is obscene. Screw the movie, Susan. Stop endorsing torture.

[The “movie” Long refers to here is a documentary about a brutal raid on a Cairo gay nightclub that the State Department refused to show its employees in 2003, but which, Susan Rice proudly told the Human Rights Campaign function, was now being shown to State employees under the enlightened Obama Administration.—M.A.]

Yet the Human Rights Campaign condones torture; and so does the audience of professional gays who turn out to applaud Rice’s platitudes. Not that they’re bad people or malevolent organizations; far from it. They’d be horrified if they ever met a torture victim face to face. But they know the Obama administration is power, and they believe it’s on their side. They can’t contravene power. They see it has done good in places; so they can’t see or speak about places like Egypt where it’s done wrong. The convolutions of a state whose actions aren’t all categorizable under the same moral absolute are too much for them. And to raise their voices risks alienating that power. Then their own capacity for good, so invested in the authority of others, might slip away. So they let Rice drone on; they don’t confront her; they convince themselves that the government’s symbolic gestures — screening a film! making a donor an ambassador! – have a magical impact on the reality that rests in people’s lives.

And here is another amazing paragraph where Long distills the trajectory of LGBT activism and politics over the past 20 years, from the margins to the centers of power:

For a long time, in almost every country in the world, LGBT activists had no access to power at all. In the US, 20 years ago, we had trouble just getting a meeting with the State Department. When I lobbied the UN’s human rights meetings in Geneva back then, even diplomats from the most supportive states had to be persuaded that queers weren’t either a distraction or a joke. Now plenty of governments say they’re all in for LGBT rights. No doubt some are propelled by politicians’ sincere concern (if that’s not an oxymoron). Others want to appease voters back home; still others see a convenient way to pinkwash their national reputations. They approach the subject, that is, with the usual confused and chiaroscuro motives states show. Their ministrations, though, give LGBT activists the unfamiliar sense of power, even if the reality is still remote. They’re listened to, suddenly; the elixir of authority is sitting on the table, with three icecubes and a swizzle stick, and even the smell intoxicates. How do they accommodate themselves to this new condition? Many queer groups lack any history of negotiating their relationships to power — the history that feminist movements, for example, have accumulated through decades of harsh experience. Moreover, they are less and less inclined to listen to those other movements, or learn from their stories. Wounded by hate and vitriol, LGBT activists’ egos are often desperate and valetudiniarian. Who can say how well we’ll withstand the swift explosion of self-regard that comes when ambassadors and presidents, principalities and powers, bestow on us the swerving lighthouse beam of their attention?

Reading this is a reminder both of how fragmented issue-oriented rights activism is—and how disempowering that works out for everyone but a tiny few at the top. Cretins like Nikolai Alekseyev make you think that the problem is one of bad personalities—and his is cartoonishly bad. But Long reminds us that the deeper problem is structural and political.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

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  • 1. nampa  |  April 26th, 2017 at 12:07 am

    I was searching for something informative, youthful and fun, so I took a chance on this glorious site, and this time I am rewarded with an original piece by Mark Ames. THank you, Mark. Glad to read you. 🙂

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