SAINT PETERSBURG — President Barack Obama met Russian gay rights activists Friday after the G20 summit, in a symbol of U.S. support for the community amid a furor over an anti-gay Russian law.
Two gay rights activists were among a group of nine Russian civil society members Obama briefly met before leaving Russia, and asked the U.S. leader to take a tougher stance on rights violations in the country.
Speaking to the group after the end of the two-day summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg at a hotel near the airport where his plane was waiting, Obama said he is "very proud" of the activists' work.
"The kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia's development," Obama said.
He added that "good government," both in Russia and the US, includes "making sure that we're creating a space for civil society to function effectively: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, making sure that people can join together and make common cause around the issues that they care deeply about."
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender activists asked Obama to pay more attention to the rise of homophobic hate crimes in Russia during the conversation, which lasted over an hour, said Igor Kochetkov, who heads the LGBT Network group.
Obama replied that "he would like to do more but cannot promise to view relations with Russia only in the context of human rights," Kochetkov said about the part of the meeting that was closed to the press.
"I was somewhat disheartened by the answer," Kochetkov said at a briefing after meeting Obama, explaining that Russia's current wave of xenophobia and homophobia was primarily directed against the West and cannot be overlooked.
Russia has faced outrage from rights groups and gay communities in the West over the law that imposes fines for distributing "propaganda" about homosexuality to minors.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding the law and other anti-gay initiatives refers to the need to protect Russia from western trends such as legalisation of same-sex unions.
Critics have said that the vaguely-written legislation would punish even holding hands in public for gays and plunge gay teens into an information vacuum.
Obama met with rights activists in 2009, when he visited Moscow for a breakthrough summit with then-president Dmitry Medvedev, but this time the White House specifically reached out to gay activists for the event.
Putin said in an interview Tuesday that he would not mind meeting with gay activists himself if they express "initiative", adding that he "works with such people and even awards them medals".
Gay activists on Friday held a brief rally in the city center, holding up placards "Politics is here, not in Strelna," referring to the site just outside the city where the G20 summit was held.
They faced off with several Orthodox conservatives who sang psalms as police cordoned off both pickets and later put the LGBT activists on a bus to ensure their safety.
Pavel Chikov, a human rights lawyer invited, said ahead of the meeting that it was "very symbolic" that Obama is meeting LGBT groups, who have not participated in similar meetings organised by the U.S. delegation.
Chikov, who met with Obama during his state visit to Moscow in 2009, said the atmosphere had markedly changed since the US and Russia pledged to "reset" ties.
"That meeting happened in the romantic 'reset' period," he told AFP.
"The context is different now."
Several prominent rights campaigners in Moscow who were invited to Friday's meeting declined due to repeated rescheduling, but one of them, Svetlana Gannushkina, also called on Obama to take a more decisive stand.
"There should be a clear, firm, and unambiguous position and there should be relatively harsh political and economic measures toward countries that violate human rights, humanitarian laws and international conventions," the veteran activist said in a letter she passed to the U.S. embassy.