Monday

22nd Apr 2019

Feature

Gay rights fall victim to EU-Russia geopolitics

  • Pride in St. Petersburg, the more open of Russia's two big cities, last year (Photo: Maria Komarova)

“The idea is that being gay isn’t patriotic. If you’re gay, then you’re a foreign agent, a Western agent, and you’re here to spread Western values,” Pavel Loparev, a Russian film-maker, told EUobserver.

Nvard Margaryan, an Armenian gay rights activist, noted: “They [pro-Russia NGOs] say people will take children from ‘normal’ families and give them to gay families … They say Europe doesn’t care about people’s rights, only gay rights. They call it ‘gayeuropa’.”

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Protection of sexual minorities used to be a human rights issue.

But Russia, in its propaganda war against the EU and the US, has made it geopolitical.

Recent events in the EU and the Eurasian Union, Russia’s new bloc, highlight the clash of values.

In Luxembourg on 15 May, Xavier Bettel, the PM, married his gay partner - a first for an EU head of government. In Ireland, a week later, people enshrined gay marriage in the constitution by referendum - another first.

But in Moscow on 17 May, the international anti-homophobia day, police arrested rights activists at a small rally. In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which is to shortly join the Eurasian Union, thugs beat up activists, who were taken away by police, who beat them up again.

The clash is also visible, in green (equality) and red (rights violations), on a map published each year by Ilga-Europe, a Brussels-based NGO.

Most EU countries, but not the former Iron Curtain ones, are becoming greener. Most former Soviet states, including pro-EU ones, such as Ukraine, are becoming redder.

It’s a clash enforced from the top.

Russia, in 2012, passed legislation saying NGOs that receive EU or US money, a category which includes most NGOs that promote gay rights, are “foreign agents”. In 2013, it forbid “propaganda” of homosexual relationships. In May, it said “undesirable” NGOs can be shut down.

Kyrgyzstan is passing Russia-model “foreign agents” and homosexual propaganda laws.

In Armenia, which is already in the Eurasian Union, the Russian ambassador has recommended a “foreign agents” law. A homosexual propaganda bill, tabled in 2013, is, activists say, “still on the agenda”.

“We’re afraid the same anti-liberal legislation will be exported here”, Margaryan, who works for Pink Armenia, a Norway and UK-funded NGO, told this website.

None of the former Soviet countries are slated to join the EU.

But with protection of minorities forming, in the European Commission’s words, “an integral part of … the Copenhagen political criteria for accession”, anti-liberal laws help lock them into the Eurasian orbit.

Hate factory

Conservative mores in Catholic and Orthodox societies aren’t new.

But Russia’s project, to turn them into anti-Western feeling, is a recent development.

Loparev, the film-maker, whose last work documents gay teenagers’ life in Russia, said “something changed” in 2013, the time of the anti-propaganda law and the run-up to the geopolitical confrontation in Ukraine.

He noted that state TV, fronted by celebrity homophobes such as Dmitry Kiselyev and Arkady Mamontov, began to depict gay people as a fifth column and to blame them for economic problems.

Ivan Okhlobystin, another pro-Kremlin TV star, in December 2013 said gay people should be "burned in ovens”.

He was fired from his PR post at a mobile phone firm. But a fashion company, Baon, snapped him up. It later said “he’s … consistent with our target audience, our brand values: attachment to family life; Orthodox Christianity”.

Loparev said: “The [anti-propaganda] law is just part of the anti-Western campaign, of the geopolitical game Russia is playing … They’re saying: ‘We’re against the West and all it stands for. We don’t share Western values. We have our own’.”

The campaign generated momentum in society.

“It gave the green light to bullies … people are afraid of being attacked”, Loparev noted.

He said gay-friendly Moscow nightclubs are being vandalised with slogans such as “fags party here” and right-wing NGOs report pro-gay blogs or tweets to prosecutors: “The sad thing is, they don’t all work for the government. They think they’re doing the right thing”.

For its part, Armenia was to sign an EU association treaty in 2013.

Its president changed his mind amid Russian security threats on its conflict with Azerbaijan.

Shortly before the U-turn, a Russian-linked NGO, the Pan-Armenian Parents’ Committee, began a noisy campaign linking gay rights to pro-EU reforms.

It revolved around a bill on gender equality, which said gender is “acquired, socially fixed behaviour”.

Pink Armenia’s Margaryan said “suddenly, they were everywhere - in street protests, on TV - trying to make the word ‘gender’ into a dirty word. They said it’s nothing to do with equality between men and women, but that it’s about promotion of paedophilia and homosexuality”.

Armenia’s state-controlled media are traditionally right wing.

But the Eurasian swerve brought a more aggressive tone: One newspaper, Iravunk, last year published a list of 60 gay rights activists, including their personal details, which it dubbed “enemies of the state”.

It was taken to court, but got off the hook, in part, because Armenia has no anti-hate crime law.

It’s the same reason why the Black Ravens, an ultra-nationalist group which burned down Yerevan’s only gay bar in 2012, got off lightly.

EU leverage

It’s also the reason why campaigners want the EU to use the leverage it has.

The EU-Armenia association treaty called for hate crime legislation. That’s defunct. But EU conditions for Armenia visa-free travel also include hate crime laws.

Bjoern van Roozendaal, from Ilga-Europe, said EU institutions have made gay rights a bigger part of their diplomacy in recent years.

“Much more work is needed”, he told EUobserver. “But LGBTI issues are increasingly becoming part of high-level political discussions … the EU and US have these issues high on their international agenda”.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the EU foreign service, said: “It’s … no secret that LGBTI rights have come to be perceived as a symbol of Western and European values and used as a rhetorical channel by those offering an alternative cultural paradigm”.

“Faced with this situation, the EU will continue to … support the LGBTI movement”.

That’s the official line.

But off the record, some EU diplomats say it’s unwise to give gay rights a prominent place in EU communications in the eastern neighbourhood.

“Don’t even go there. It’s better for the time being to focus on issues like democracy and basic human rights. In a place like Armenia, gender equality and LGBTI rights are better left for five, or 10 years down the line”, one EU source said.

The wariness is being noticed on the ground.

Margaryan said the EU delegation in Yerevan is keeping quiet on details of the visa-free package: It holds perfunctory press conferences; documents aren’t translated into Armenian.

She said national embassies, including Germany and the US, are also becoming shy.

“If they support any of our campaigns, we’re asked to agree their support shouldn’t be publicised”, she noted.

“It feels like everyone is more afraid to publicly support LGBTI issues because LGBTI is considered a Western value and they don’t want to go together with this association”.

The wariness is also evident in Russia.

Loparev, who isn’t a professional activist, but who is gay and who follows independent media, noted: “EU activism is non-existent. You don’t see it or hear it”.

“I haven’t seen any sign of an EU politician or some other actor speaking about these issues in recent times in Moscow. People are being detained and I don’t see any action by Western diplomats”.

Values chessboard

The EU foreign service gave as examples of high-level intervention its demarches on homophobic laws in India, Nigeria, and Uganda.

It indicated that it’s trying to use a softer touch in the former Soviet region.

“LGBTI issues are dealt with in a broader context of anti-discrimination, as this can make it easier to approach the subject when dealing with more 'sensitive' partners”, Kocijancic said.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a US scholar and former diplomat, in his 1997 book compared geopolitics to a “grand chessboard”.

His analogy invites the question: Should the EU sacrifice gay rights for tactical reasons, or should it refuse to cede ground, on values, to Russia?

For Ilga-Europe, one answer is to help local activists do the work.

“The need to strengthen local movements - which are uniquely placed to bring up LGBTI issues within their own cultural context - continues to grow,” Van Roozendaal said.

“Local movements ... [should be] supported so that inequality can be addressed from within”.

With former Iron Curtain EU states also getting redder on Ilga-Europe's map, he added: “Remarkably, neither the EU nor the US have envoys who promote LGBTI rights within their own legislature, creating incoherence between domestic and foreign policy”.

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