ST. PETERSBURG, September 7 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – The last thing US President Barack Obama did during his trip to Russia for the G20 summit was meet Friday with a group of Russian human rights activists, including members of the gay community, in an encounter that attendants described as symbolic, and a signal to the Russian authorities.
The group of nine activists who met with Obama for a little over an hour included three gay activists from LGBT organizations that have not traditionally been invited to take part in meetings with visiting senior US officials.
Russia passed a controversial new law earlier this year banning the “promotion of non-traditional relationships to minors.” The Kremlin maintains that the law does not prevent adults from making their own sexual choices, but it has been sharply criticized by world leaders, and opponents say it amounts to a state-supported crackdown on gay people.
“For me the very fact that members of the LGBT community were invited to this meeting is important,” head of the Russian LGBT Network Igor Kochetkov told RIA Novosti after Obama’s departure from Russia.
Dmitry Makarov, a coordinator from the Youth Human Rights Movement, said that, “the United States has sent a signal, which is the correct thing to do.”
During the meeting Obama said that the United States raises its concerns about LGBT issues with the Russian authorities, and will continue to do so, according to the activists. The US president, however, said “nothing concrete” about internal Russian affairs, according to Kochetkov.
Russian attendants said they also raised the human rights issues in the United States including the case of fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the conviction of army leaker Bradley Manning, LGBT rights, and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Obama actually spent only about two minutes addressing LGBT rights in Russia, according to Makarov.
In a statement posted online after the meeting, the White House said that Obama had told the assembled activists that he always arranges gatherings with civil society leaders whenever he goes abroad.
“The kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia’s development, and I’m very proud of their work,” Obama said, according to the statement. “I think it is important for us to remember that in every country – here in Russia, in the United States, around the globe – that part of good government is making sure that we’re creating a space for civil society to function effectively.”
Obama sent his greetings to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot currently serving two year jail sentences, Pavel Chikov, who heads legal aid organization Agora and was present at the meeting, said in a tweet late Friday.
As well as Obama, the meeting was attended by US Ambassador in Russia Michael McFaul and Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice.
The other activists present were environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, member of St. Petersburg LGBT group Coming Out Olga Lenkova, head of business advocacy group Business Solidarity Yana Yakovleva, investigative journalist Elena Milashina, human rights organization Memorial lawyer Ivan Pavlov and St. Petersburg-based human rights activist Boris Pystintsev, according to media reports and the accounts of activists.
Invitations to the meeting with Obama, issued by the US Embassy in Moscow, were declined by several prominent activists as well as representative from election monitoring organization Golos, who cited busy schedules and the repeated rescheduling as reasons for not attending, according to media reports.