ALMATY -- The Russian regime under the direction of President Vladimir Putin weaponised homophobic propaganda and hatred to increase voter turnout for the controversial constitutional referendum that concluded earlier this month.
Kremlin propagandists, who for years have been spreading disinformation, division, and mistrust abroad but also increasing inside in Russia, took advantage of widespread homophobia among Russians by linking their decision to vote in favor for the amendments to unfounded fears of an unraveling of Russian civil society.
Same-sex marriage was a central issue in the Kremlin's propaganda ahead of the vote, and several weeks before the referendum, videos campaigning for the constitutional amendments were being spread all over social media.
In one video, a sad little boy from an orphanage is at long last adopted. He looks happy as he walks about with his new father, but when he asks where his new mother is, the camera turns to another man waiting for the boy at their car.
The boy begins to cry at the realisation that he is being adopted by gay male couple. The orphanage workers are stunned, and one of them spits and walks away angrily.
"Is this the Russia you will choose? Decide Russia's future. Vote for the constitutional amendments," says the narrator.
"The homophobia of the 'amendments' plays a major role, since for the majority of ordinary Russians, the ban on same-sex marriage is a sure-fire lure --- something that makes it worth going to the polling station and supporting ... all the farcical constitutional amendments," wrote Parni, an organisation that focuses on LGBT issues in Russia. The group posted the video on YouTube to show the nadir of the anti-LGBT campaign during the referendum.
"We consider such rabble-rousing by the so-called mass media outlet Ria Fan unacceptable!" they wrote in the video description.
The video had about 3,100 thumbs up and 37,000 thumbs down as of Monday (July 13).
RIA FAN, or the Federal News Agency, is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman known as "Putin's chef" who leads the Wagner Group, the BBC reported last October. The private mercenary army carries out the Kremlin's agenda outside Russia.
Putin also made a meticulous calculation in postponing the date of the annual Victory Day parade to June 24, about a week before the referendum, to "pump Russians with endorphins and a sense of unity".
Russia voters cast their ballots in favour of the changes to the constitution during a referendum June 25-July 1, the country's Central Election Commission announced July 2.
As a result, a phrase to its constitution was added saying that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The main effort of the referendum -- a reset of presidential term limits, allowing Putin to run twice again after his six-year term ends in 2024 -- was also adopted.
Putin has been either president or prime minister since 1999, and the new reforms will allow him to rule Russia until 2036, or as some observers describe it as "president for life".
Central Asia sees through the propaganda
For Shukhrat Yuldashev, a 43-year-old lawyer in Tashkent, the Kremlin's propaganda efforts were intentionally aimed at diverting public attention from the main goal of the constitutional reforms -- extending Putin's presidency.
"You don't have to be an experienced PR specialist to grasp what is actually hidden behind such an awareness campaign," he added.
"And it's becoming clear what kind of 'respect' the authorities in Moscow have for their own people," Yuldashev said.
Russian authorities, in the name of political gain, are using fear to manipulate the population, and they themselves shaped this fear toward LGBT people, said Amir Shaikejanov of Almaty, a co-founder of Kok.team, a Kazakh news site for the LGBT community.
In recent years, the Kremlin has been promoting ideas of czarist autocracy and spreading a message that some members of society do not conform to these "Russian values", he said.
"Any propaganda that pits people against one another is unhealthy," said Shaikejanov. "This shows the extent of the battle, when it hits below the belt -- evidently the stakes are that high for the people commissioning such ads."
The ideology of the Russian Slavic character and of Orthodox Christianity that the Russian government has been peddling for years is contrasted with the "malicious West" and "menacing Asia", Japan and China, he said.
"Yet Russia is ostensibly rising from its knees and fending off its enemies. All this propaganda rests on this fertile foundation, and the stunt with the LGBT flag is a vivid example of this," said Shaikekjanov, referring to demonstrators wiping their feet on the colored flag outside the US embassy in Moscow.
The Kazakh government in contrast is not waging a war against the LGBT community because Kazakhstan lacks the ideology existing in Russia, he added.
Homophobia is rampant in Russia because the population is dominated by supporters of tradition who fear anything that they find new and unfamiliar, said Andrei Demchenko of Bishkek, a psychologist.
"They criticise not only LGBT people but also ... interracial marriage and are hostile to migrant workers from Central Asia," he said.
Socioeconomic factors influence the rejection of sexual minorities in Russia, he added.
"It is often the case that the lower the education level and salary, the greater the probability that aggression will manifest itself. Say there's someone who perpetually has problems, and then they see two men walking hand in hand. How does this person not take his [or her] pent-up negativity out on those people?" Demchenko said.