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Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled the global gay rights movement to be an “extremist organisation” on a legal par with al-Qaeda and Isis, outlawing any display of preserve for LGBT+ rights.

Increasingly repressive measures have been introduced in Russia against the LGBT+ community, but Thursday’s ruling adds a complete ban on any public expression of preserve. Since symbols of “extremist” movements are forbidden, the ban is likely to cover gestures such as showing the rainbow flag.

The Supreme Court was responding to a suit filed two weeks ago by Russia’s justice ministry in which it argued that the LGBT+ movement was “extremist”, on the grounds that it promoted social and religious division inside Russia.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement has also previously been added to the country’s extremist list, as were US internet company Meta and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The court’s decision comes as the Kremlin devotes more resources to the propagation of so-called traditional family values — an issue it has often used to unify the Russian population against the west and western liberalism.

In November, President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order declaring 2024 the Year of the Family amid fears concerning the country’s falling birth rate and its implications for Russia’s demographics.

However, analysts and opposition figures have accused the Kremlin of using social issues such as abortion and LGBT+ rights as a way to distract from the ongoing economic and social costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine, particularly ahead of the March 2024 presidential election.

“The classification of LGBT as an extremist movement is the beginning of Putin’s election campaign,” Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on social media platform X.

“This is his clear programme for a new term: a step towards the complete Iran-isation, isolation of Russia. There will be a complete distraction from real problems, the creation of mythical enemies, discrimination against parts of the population on various grounds — this is just the beginning.”

On Thursday, activists and lawyers were scrambling to comprehend the repercussions of the court’s ruling, which took place behind closed doors. It offered no rationale for how the decision was made, or what criteria should carry out what symbols or organisations could be classified as LGBT+.

“This is total absurdity, but it will have serious consequences,” the First Department, a collective of lawyers dealing with cases of alleged treason and espionage in Russia, said on Telegram.

Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for eastern Europe and Central Asia, called the decision “shameful”.

“There is little if any doubt that it will direct to the persecution of LGBTI activists, undoing decades of their brave and dedicated work, while threatening to encourage and legitimise whole new levels of violence against LGBTI persons across Russia,” she said.

The court’s decision comes a decade after Russia first passed a law outlawing “gay propaganda” shortly after Putin returned to the presidency. Four months ago, he signed a new law criminalising transgender surgery and hormonal treatments for changing gender.

As Russian independent media, now based abroad, changed their logos on Thursday to feature the rainbow flag in solidarity with the LGBT+ community, Russian conservatives at home cheered the ban, linking it with Putin’s broader family values campaign.

“This is good news. Sodomy should have no place on our land,” Konstantin Malofeyev, an Orthodox Christian and nationalist tycoon, said on Telegram, the Russian social messaging platform. “It’s especially good that this decision was taken on the eve of the beginning of the Year of the Family.”

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