Gay Chechens being killed – Will Trump speak up?
Activists outside the Russian Embassy in London protest against the treatment of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya on April 12. The photoshopped image of Russian president Vladimir Putin on this placard is now illegal to publish in Russia. | Stephen Chung / Rex via AP

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in Paris for talks with the newly-elected French president, Emmanuel Macron. Syria, terrorism, Ukraine, and election tampering were all on the agenda of what has been described as a frosty meeting. Also up for discussion, however, was the issue of ongoing persecution of gay men in the largely self-governing Russian province of Chechnya.

At a joint press conference held by the two presidents, Macron became the second major world leader (Germany’s Angela Merkel was first) to question Putin about the treatment of gays in Chechnya, where up to 100 have reportedly been arrested, tortured, or killed in recent weeks.

Macron told reporters that he “spelled out France’s expectations very precisely” on the “subject of LGBT people in Chechnya.” He said that Putin promised to undertake initiatives to “establish the whole truth about the activities of local authorities.”

News of what’s happening to gay men inside Chechnya first began to trickle out in April when the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on “mass arrests and murders of Chechen residents on charges or mere suspicion of a homosexual orientation,” and published the accounts of several who claimed to have escaped from a “concentration camp” for gay men. The story was subsequently verified by Human Rights Watch in a major report released on the weekend.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov meet in 2011. | Alexei Nikolsky / Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

According to many who have survived and gotten out of Chechnya, the pogrom now underway is a massively stepped-up version of an anti-gay campaign that has been going on there since at least 2009. Electrocutions, beatings with metal pipes, and family members pressured to murder their gay sons, brothers, and nephews are the trademarks of this latest iteration.

The campaign of terror is being perpetrated by the government (and affiliated thugs) of local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, would-be dictator, part-time Islamic fundamentalist, and ally of President Putin. When first confronted with rumors about gay concentration camps, Kadyrov denied not only the existence of the camps, but also of the gays supposedly in them. “It is impossible to detain and oppress that which simply does not exist in the republic,” his press secretary said.

Internally, Kadyrov was apparently saying something distinctly and terrifyingly different. Britain’s foreign minister recently claimed to have received intelligence that Kadyrov pledged to eliminate Chechnya’s gay population “by the start of Ramadan.”

When he has spoken on what’s happening in Chechnya previously, Putin instructed his officials to investigate the “rumors, you could say, about what is happening in our North Caucasus with people of non-traditional orientation.” Not exactly the aggressive response one might expect to the possible existence of torture camps on one’s own territory. But of course, this is a government that has a horrible record of its own when it comes to LGBTQ issues. (Remember Russia’s law banning “gay propaganda” a few years ago?)

It comes as no surprise then that the Putin government is a little less than vigilant in investigating the atrocities being carried out in Chechnya. No doubt he wants to maintain peace in a province that provided Russia with nothing but trouble all through the 1990s and early 2000s, and he may well believe that keeping Kadyrov in power is the only way to do that.

So we have Merkel and now Macron publicly pressuring Putin to step up his response on Chechnya and to come clean about what is happening there.

But where is President Trump? Where is the voice of the United States, a country which is always quick to condemn human rights abuses abroad (at least in countries with governments it finds disagreeable)?

So far, all we’ve seen is a short statement from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley saying the administration is against discrimination and that “Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations.” Really? Chechen authorities must investigate? The same Chechen authorities who are in charge of the terror?

Of course, the U.S. has a long history of ignoring, downplaying, or – at the worst of times – abetting human rights abuses when it is deemed politically expedient to do so. (Think Pinochet in Chile, Diem in South Vietnam, the Shah in Iran, and the list could go on…)

But there’s something more to Trump’s silence on the anti-gay pogrom going on in Chechnya. It’s not just that he appears to be going back on the promise he made as a candidate that he would do everything in his power as president “to protect L-G-B-T-Q citizens from violence and oppression.” Few in the LGBTQ community ever expected much from that promise anyway. The anti-gay Christian fundamentalist ideologues who make up a significant portion of his base are the same crowd that have helped push homophobic legislation in Russia.

In ‘normal’ times, though, it would be a no-brainer for a U.S. president to publicly criticize a geopolitical foe like Russia for human rights issues. Back in the days of the old Soviet Union, U.S. leaders rarely passed up an opportunity to condemn the latest tale of political repression to come out of the Eastern Bloc. And even though some of the corporate-owned media has eagerly hyped up those old Cold War fears lately, the Trump administration hasn’t joined in. Why not? It’s strange.

The silence this time suggests there’s more at play than just Trump’s ambivalence toward gays or human rights. One can’t help but entertain the implication that this administration is so compromised by the investigation into its ties and possible campaign collusion with Russia (and crooked foreign business dealings) that it won’t even take an otherwise run of the mill opportunity to score points as a defender of justice and freedom on the international stage.

Donald Trump holds an LGBTQ-pride rainbow flag as he arrives to a campaign rally at the University of Northern Colorado, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. | Evan Vucci / AP

The Trump government is now so crippled by allegations of corruption and its own communications incompetence that it can’t even join the U.S.’ erstwhile allies Germany and France in the low-obligation task of verbally condemning an obvious case of state-sanctioned annihilation of an entire community of people.

Even just a bit of coordinated pressure on Putin might be enough to embarrass him into reigning in Kaydrov. But Trump won’t be joining in to apply that pressure; he’s hard-pressed to say a disparaging word about any foreign autocrats or authoritarians lately.

Meanwhile, the gay men of Chechnya are being electrocuted, locked up, and killed by the state, or worse, by their own families.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.