A group of lawmakers - including Russia's main representative to the Council of Europe - say they have begun a campaign to shore up the morals of the country by recriminalizing homosexuality.
Four State Duma deputies - Dmitry Rogozin, who heads the Russian delegation to the Council of Europe, Gennady Raikov, Vadim Bulainov and Gadzhi Makhachev - have introduced an amendment to the Criminal Code that punishes sodomy with up to five years in jail.
If passed, the legislation would mark a return to the repression of the Soviet era, when thousands of men accused of being homosexuals were sent to jail, opponents said Wednesday.
However, few deputies expected that the amendment would become law, and some called the initiative a blatant publicity stunt.
"You need to punish homosexuality for three reasons: the spread of AIDS, the destruction of spiritual morals and the existence in Russia of four religious confessions that ban it," he said in televised remarks Tuesday night.
"It's all blue," said a supporter of the amendment, Communist Deputy Vasily Shandybin, using the slang term for homosexuals. "All around there are blues, in the presidential administration and in the government and in the Duma. ... Who is running us?"
The bill, which was filed in the Duma last Thursday but only made public this week, provoked sharp criticism from the political mainstream.
"If there are people with a different sexual orientation, as acknowledged by psychologists and doctors, we must take care of their rights," said Russia's human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov, Interfax reported.
"It will cause laughter in Europe," said Oleg Morozov, a deputy with Russia's Regions. "If you want to fight against such a phenomenon, you cannot do it with the help of prison. That would be an uncivilized move."
"It's naked populism," said Alexander Barannikov, a Unity deputy on the Duma's law committee, which has to decide whether to send the amendment to the Duma floor for a vote.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russian MP, co-author of the law
"I think that a person with such homophobic views cannot represent Russia in the Council of Europe," he said by telephone.
Rogozin's office denied that he co-authored the bill.
"He simply supports it. He didn't prepare it," said Rogozin's spokesman Sergei Butin.
However, the amendment, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, identifies Rogozin as a co-author. All four authors are members of People's Deputy.
Officials at the Council of Europe refused to comment.
Vladislav Reznik, deputy head of Unity, predicted the bill would cause outrage in the Council of Europe. "It's difficult to look at the amendment as rational," he said in remarks shown on RTR and NTV television.
Gay rights activists said Russia's desire to join the Council of Europe led it to scrap clause 121.1 of the Soviet-era Criminal Code that criminalized homosexuality.
"This violates Russia's commitments to the Council of Europe," said Nikita Ivanov, legal adviser to gay.ru, Russia's biggest gay web site.
Male homosexuality was criminalized in 1933, while there was never a law penalizing lesbians. Among the thousands of men sent to prison were singer Vadim Kozin, director Sergei Paradzhanov and writer Gennady Trifonov.
Although politicians and the authors of the amendment itself are talking about the legislation as the recriminalization of homosexuality, it only outlaws sodomy. The amendment stresses that other sexual acts between men and all acts between women would not be criminalized.
Although the stated aim is to prevent the rise of AIDS, most of those infected in Russia contracted the virus through drug use rather than homosexual sex.
Reznik said the amendment has little chance of being approved, and Barannikov said it may be voted down by his committee and never make it onto the Duma floor. The head of the Duma's law committee, Pavel Krasheninnikov of the Union of Right Forces, said he did not support the amendment.
Reznik criticized the move as a clear attempt for publicity and "the support of certain sections of the population in the run-up to the upcoming parliamentary elections" in 2003.
"It looks like Duma deputies have no other problems to worry about other than homosexuality," said Viktor Ozerov, head of the Federation Council's security committee. "It's another piece of PR."