Obama says LGBT and human rights activists are strengthening Russia

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking during a "Civil Society Roundtable" with LGBT and human rights activists on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Compiled from Wire Reports

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Barack Obama is telling gay rights activists and other Russian civil leaders that they are strengthening their country.

Before leaving for home after the Group of 20 summit, Obama met with the nine advocacy leaders Friday, including two representing gay rights groups.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
President Barack Obama gestures while speaking during a “Civil Society Roundtable” with LGBT and human rights activists on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The meeting comes as Russia is implementing a new law banning gay “propaganda.”

Obama has said he is offended by the law but didn’t mention it when reporters were invited briefly into the beginning of the meeting.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, takes part in a “Civil Society Roundtable” with President Barack Obama and LGBT activists, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
President Barack Obama participates in a “Civil Society Roundtable,” Friday, Sept. 6,2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Obama told the group that they all “contribute in one way or another to continue to strengthen Russian society and (are) helping to make progress on behalf of all people.”

According to some of the activists in attendance, Obama assured them that he would keep pressing the Russian government to respect human rights, but explained to them why this was not always possible.

“He was telling us how difficult it is for him to raise these issues, especially in relations with Russia and China,” said Pavel Chikov, who heads Agors, a legal aid nongovernmental organization.

Yana Yakovleva, head of business advocacy group Business Solidarity, described the meeting with Obama as “open and sincere.” Obama, who said that he draws inspiration from rights activists like them, told them that the U.S. administration has to think carefully before poking the Russians, she said.

“His main message was that there’s a lot of differences between the two great powers, and that while deciding which issue to raise they have to weigh carefully the impact it may have on relations on the whole,” Yakovleva said.

The meeting was held several hours after gay activists rallied in St. Petersburg to protest Russia’s new anti-gay laws.

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Igor Kochetkov, the head of LGBT Network, who attended Obama’s meeting with the civil society activists, said they pushed him to be more outspoken in his criticism of the rights situation in Russia.

“We asked him to be more open while assessing the human rights situation in other countries, including Russia,” Kochetkov.

Obama was joined by Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Mike McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, for hour and a half meeting.

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