President Obama will fly to St. Petersburg this week to attend the G20 Summit, a confab of powerful leaders from powerful countries, including Russia's Vladimir Putin. Putin and Obama were originally scheduled to have a one-on-one, part of the doomed mission to "reset" relations between their two countries. But then Putin blew it all up by enacting draconian laws aimed at cultural and ideological enemies, most recently the Kremlin-backed law that banned any and all remotely pro-LGBT rhetoric. (Not to mention Russia's wishy-washy stance on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.)
So, instead of chilling with Putin, President Obama will sit with a slew of Russian activists, including human rights allies Lev Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, as well as the St. Petersburg-based gay group Coming Out. Another LGBT group, the LGBT Network, would not confirm their attendance — "[we've been] asked not to say anything," said director Igor Kochetkov — nor has the State Department confirmed this story, first reported by BuzzFeed.
This does sound likely, especially since President Obama has been increasingly vocal about Russia's anti-gay crackdown. He told Jay Leno that "by discriminating," Putin and his allies are "violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country." Later, during a Q&A with reporters, President Obama remarked, ""Nobody's more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia."
President Obama, a former community organizer, has always used his position to reach out to civil society leaders. In 2009, during another trip to Russia, he spoke at the Parallel Civil Society Conference, and told activists there, "The best ideas and solutions come from ordinary citizens who become involved in their communities and in their countries. And by mobilizing and organizing and changing people's hearts and minds, you then change the political landscape." Civil society is essential to the proper functioning of any country.
"[Overcoming cultural, social, and political challenges] requires what many of you have dedicated your lives to sustaining -- a vibrant civil society; the freedom of people to live as they choose, to speak their minds, to organize peacefully and to have a say in how they are governed; a free press to report the truth; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; a government that's accountable and transparent. And we honor all of you for the passion and perseverance that you bring to these causes.
"I don't think these are American ideals and I don't think they are the monopoly of one country. They're universal values. They're human rights. And that's why the United States of America will support them everywhere. That is our commitment. And that is our promise."
This of course was before Putin regained power and the grand plans of resetting relations crumbled. And that was also before Putin's government ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an American organization that has pumped billions to improve Russian healthcare, their environment, education, and economy. That group also helped fund Golos, an election monitoring group dedicated to fighting political corruption. Members from that group will also attend President Obama's civil society pow-wow this week.
And this trip seems different from President Obama and other commanders-in-chief's visits with civil society (President George W. Bush also met with non-government groups while abroad). This isn't simply a quiet get-together to illustrate the importance of civilian organizations. This quiet, seemingly secret meeting is Obama aligning himself with groups and people whom he thinks have more moral authority than Putin. It's a sign that Obama believes these groups, including LGBT activists, have more legitimate power (Arendtian power, that is) than President Putin, a man whose wealth and connections have kept him and his cronies in power for 13 years.
This isn't a tea party President Obama's having. It's a continuation of his protracted war on international corruption. As Obama said to the United Nations in September of 2012, immediately after Putin put the kibosh on USAID, "The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources -- it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs, the workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the women and men that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support." Putin has lost any and all moral authority, and now Obama's giving it to Russia's activist set.