In Vladimir Putin's Russia, gay men and women have become the political scapegoats of choice. Violence against the LGBT community that is inflicted and permitted by the police is commonplace, and state policies severely scaling back gay rights have become the law of the land. Across the country's western border, gay Ukrainians are watching nervously as Russia increasingly seeks to bring its Western neighbor Ukraine under the influence of the Kremlin.
They call it "contagion." As violence against gays in Russia nears its highest point in decades, Ukraine's gay community is more determined than ever to keep the country from falling farther under Putin's influence. While being gay in Ukraine is no picnic and the entire region is a hotbed of homophobia, modest advances in the country have been made - advances that are now on the line.
In May, Ukraine held its first ever Pride march, an event Olena Semenova, one of the organizers, stated would "go down in the history of Ukraine as one of the key developments in the fight for equal rights." Although the March originally was canceled by court order, campaigners chose to push ahead anyway. As in Russia, ultra-Orthodox protesters attempted to disturb the campaigners, yet, unlike in Russia, the Ukrainian police held back the zealots.
In December 1991, Ukraine became the first ex-Soviet country to legalize homosexuality, an admirable step. However, the country has never been able to edge out of Russia's sphere of influence, including the latter country's attitudes towards its LGBT population. In October 2012, a first reading of a draft law that heavily mirrors Russia's infamous "gay propaganda law," was passed in the Ukrainian parliament. If implemented, the law would make it illegal for anyone to import, produce or spread "works that promote homosexuality," punishable with up to five years in prison.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has so far refrained from signing the Ukrainian anti-gay bill, doubtless because Ukraine is trying to strengthen its ties to the European Union, which roundly criticized the proposed legislation. In February, Yanukovych's foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, announced that a law "prohibiting discrimination against gays" would be adopted soon.
A New USSR
This November, Yanukovych will take part in the European Union's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss whether Ukraine will be granted "associative status" with the EU. This status would place increasing pressure on Ukraine by Western European nations to achieve certain standards in human rights and the rule of law. If the EU decides not to accept Ukraine into its fold, the country likely will be forced to yield to Russia's demands to join its own customs union with fellow ex-Soviet countries Kazakhstan and Belarus, a trading bloc former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has called a new USSR.
At the moment, Ukrainian leaders feel the pressure to submit to Russia's new union every day. Last month, Russia suddenly banned all chocolates and other products from the Ukrainian confectionery firm Roshen from entering its territory. Last month, Belarus and Kazakhstan joined in the ban, a move that could cost the Ukrainian corporation $200 million. Belarus also suddenly banned Ukrainian wine exports, claiming the products do not reach "organoleptic indicators" (they don't have enough taste).
One Giant Step Backward
All this is meant to bully Ukraine into turning its back on Europe and falling under Russian influence. Joining the customs union arguably would be catastrophic for Ukraine - but especially for the country's already fragile gay community. More than the creeping shadow of the Russian state, it is the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine that the LGBT community is particularly wary about. Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, the head of the Russian Church, delivered a speech in July 2013 calling the recognition of same-sex marriages by Western countries a "portent of doom" that "brings us closer to the apocalypse."
There is no question that, should Ukraine move to associate itself with the European Union, greater freedom for the Ukrainian LGBT community will follow. Perhaps slowly, perhaps begrudgingly, but progress will be made. The same cannot be said if Ukraine moves eastward towards Russia, whose violent campaign against gay men and women represents an unprecedented step backward. Let's hope Ukraine doesn't get pulled back into the Dark Ages as well.