Is the Tide Turning in Russia?

The first Greenpeace member to be granted a release on bail by a Russian court was let out Thursday. Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel, a Brazilian national, left jail holding a "Save the Arctic" sign and was quickly whisked away by her lawyer as the other passengers of Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise awaited their own releases and hearings. The treatment of the largely-international crew (first, a reduction on charges, and then, release on bail), who were arrested as they tried to scale a rig owned by state-run oil giant Gazprom, seems to demonstrate a thaw in Russian prosecution of ideological opponents.

Russian authorities have come under heavy pressure lately to ease up on government opponents and the LGBT community, with the international community saying that such conduct — particularly as it pertains to the LGBT community — is unbecoming of a nation hosting the Olympic games. Protests on behalf of the jailed Greenpeace activists and calls to boycott the Olympics because of anti-gay discrimination have echoed around the world.

So it shouldn't be a surprise, perhaps, that alongside the Greenpeace developments, LGBT activists got some kind words from Vladimir Putin on Thursday. "We should not create any xenophobia in society on any principle against anyone whatsoever, including against people of non-traditional sexual orientation," the Russian president said. To which gay rights activists basically responded with a big, "Yeah, right, but thanks nonetheless."

Putin's condemnation of anti-LGBT "xenophobia" comes after a period of increasing violence against Russia's gay community. State television broadcast a sensationalized and inaccurate special on the gay community last week, and there were two highly-publicized attacks on LGBT organizations. One attack on an organization that works with HIV positive people left a young activist blind in one eye. In another incident, gunmen attacked a popular gay club in Moscow.

But might the government's treatment of the "Arctic 30" and the president's statements on LGBT rights signify that international pressure is working? Perhaps. But Putin also knows that international outrage is mostly bark, not bite.

Rather, what's likely happened is that the wheels have been set in motion. Hate needs fuel to ignite, but will prosper on its own. Remember, the reason Russia stands out from any other country in the world on issues like homophobia is because its one of the few countries where things are actually getting worse. To go against the tide, the country needed a push, and now that the backwards wheels have been released, Putin doesn't have to tarnish his image by adding to the fuel. No, now he can be a pragmatic world leader.