Rainbow flag flies over CEE, but attitudes to LGBT vary vastly

Rainbow flag flies over CEE, but attitudes to LGBT vary vastly
There were gay pride marches in nearly every country in CEE this year, but the experience in each is very different / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin July 4, 2019

North Macedonia held its first ever gay pride march on June 29 with up to 1,000 gay men, lesbians, human rights activists and diplomats turning out for the event.

The carnival atmosphere was a coming out not only for the participants, but also for the country. LGBT and alternative lifestyles in general remain a very difficult subject for the people of the whole former socialist bloc, where a large majority of citizens retain conservative values rooted in the Orthodox Church or Islam. Homophobia and even random violent attacks on gays are widespread and common. Discrimination is institutional and few countries have adopted anti-hate speech laws or legislation to support same-sex partnerships.

Indeed, in the entire former socialist bloc there have been only two openly gay ministers in the last 28 years. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics came out on Twitter in 2014 with the hashtag #Proudtobegay. Even the ministers in Latvia’s progressive Baltic neighbours reacted by saying it was still “too early” for gay ministers in their countries. And more remarkably, in Serbia Ana Brnabic became the country's first openly gay prime minister in 2017, after President Aleksandar Vucic gave her a mandate to form a new government. Vucic was thought to be making a point with the decision and had half an eye on Serbia's EU membership when he made the call. 

The 50-year struggle

bne IntelliNews argued in the op-ed “The 50-year fight for gay rights” that it will take at least two generations for most of the countries in Emerging Europe and Eurasia to take on board the liberal values of the west, however, a start has been made and the gay pride marches in the region are a useful barometer of how much progress has already been made.

As it happened Russia’s President Vladimir Putin brought the issue into focus in the same month as gay prides were being held across the region. He declared “liberalism is dead” and rejected the acceptance of things like a gay pride march in an interview last week with the Financial Times. Not unsurprisingly Russia has never held a gay pride march, despite determined efforts by LGBT activists to organise one.

Russia got a lot of flak over its so-called anti-gay propaganda law, but Putin argued that it was about protecting children from the influence of alternative lifestyles and sexualities while they were children, but when they were grown up they could make up their own minds. “We don't discriminate against anyone,” he said.

“Deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist,” Putin told the FT.

Russia repealed its infamous article 121 of the criminal code in 1993 that made sex between men illegal as part of its accession to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The new propaganda law doesn't formally forbid homosexuality, but it is discriminatory and vague. There are many gay clubs in Moscow (and many Russian male pop stars are extremely camp), but the law plays on the fact that the vast majority of Russians believe homosexuality is a perversion and a sickness. They will tolerate it, but they don't want to see it promoted in public. These ideas are not unique to Russia, but they are widespread throughout the former socialist bloc.

The EU lights the way

In general countries that have joined the EU or aspire to join have gone much further than the rest in promoting and holding pride marches. But even in these countries things are not easy.

Georgia is considered to be one of the most progressive countries in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), yet postponed its gay pride march in June because the streets had already been occupied for a week by protests against Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov who gave a speech to parliament in Tbilisi, causing a scandal.

“Due to [the] current political situation and ongoing protests in Tbilisi, our team had to postpone the march which was planned tomorrow,” wrote Giorgi Tabagari, co-founder of Tbilisi Pride, on his Facebook page. “We have joined the protest at this point and will march once [the] situation calms down.”

Georgia has held several pride marches in the past, but they have been prone to attacks by religious conservatives and at the last pride in Tbilisi several participants were hospitalised after fighting broke out.

For established EU members gay pride marches have already become more or less acceptable. Tens of thousands of dancing people marched through Prague city centre in June to celebrate the eighth LGBT Prague Pride festival and the Czech Republic's parliament is currently grappling with the thorny issue of becoming the first post-communist country to legalise same-sex marriages. Wenceslas Square is usually dominated by tourists, but on pride days it was covered with rainbow flags.

The Czech Republic is widely seen as one of the most liberal post-Communist countries, but even there LGBT people are still having a hard time. “I have a lot of difficulties with being different. It can be connected with the fact of having a boyfriend or wearing something extraordinary,” Jakub Knot, 18, told bne IntelliNews during Prague Pride.

Slovakia also held a pride day with 5,000 revellers taking part, while in Romania the number was close to 10,000.

In Poland, with a population almost four times bigger than Czechia, around 45,000 marched in the Warsaw Pride according to the city hall. The organisers said the crowd was much bigger  some 80,000. It was a great season for the Polish pride parades, as 21 Polish cities hosted, or will host, a pride event, including a few locations that will do so for the first time ever. In most of the other former socialist bloc countries organisers can only manage to organise one event in the capital.

Not that the Polish marches are always welcome. Organisers of the events in some cities had to go through courts to ensure the parades would be taking place after conservative city authorities banned them. Short-lived bans, eventually overturned by courts, were attempted in Rzeszów, Gniezno, and Lublin  all ruled not by the ruling conservatives from Law and Justice (PiS) but opposition politicians from Civic Platform and Democratic Left Alliance, the parties that normally deride PiS for being undemocratic.

Tiny Croatia was on to its 18th Zagreb Pride march on June 8 – possibly the most pride marches of any country in the region – that brought 7,000 participants onto the streets.

State news agency Hina reported a daily heavy police presence and one person being taken into custody (it was not clear if it was a marcher or counter-marcher), but no other serious incidents were reported. The Zagreb Pride was followed by the 9th pride march in Split, with turnout reported at several hundred — the biggest to date. And Croatia Cruises even launched a Pride of Croatia Tour to coincide with pride week in an attempt to cash in on the party atmosphere.

Pride marches are now well established in almost all the new EU member states, but there is still a long way to go.

Croatia also leads with progressive legislation for same-sex partnerships. The Life Partnership Act was adopted under the previous Social Democrat led government in Croatia gives gave couples some legal rights, but Pride organisers told the local press that LGBTQ people still “lived in fear of violence, that hate speech and hate crime were still not prosecuted and that they did not have the right to parenthood or foster care.”

EU wannabes embrace their pride

Membership of the EU makes tolerance of minority and alternative sexualities and lifestyles de rigueur if not always de jura, but some countries who are not EU candidates but aspire to be more European have also adopted more tolerant attitudes as a way of advertising their commitment to western values.

Part of the reason the authorities allowed the Skopje pride to go ahead this year is it was seen as a litmus test of the accession candidate countries' commitment to European values and respect of the rights of minority groups. And with North Macedonia’s bid to open accession negotiations delayed by inter-EU politics the government was keen to make itself heard.

Pride revellers danced in the streets and waved the trademark rainbow flag in downtown Skopje. The event was also attended by state officials including Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska and Labour and Social Affairs Minister Mila Carovska, as well as foreign diplomats.

However, despite the bonhomie, the police presence was heavy all the way along the route. Opponents of the march, mostly members of the religious communities, held a counter-rally in front of the main Orthodox Church in the capital to promote traditional family values.

Macedonian Health Minister Venko Filipce announced on June 27 that gender reassignment surgeries, which cost around €15,000, will be free of charge in future and the costs will be covered by the state health fund. The initiative was almost immediately withdrawn following a public outcry, which perfectly illustrates the conflicted nature most countries still have to the whole LGBT issue.

The story at this year’s Kyiv Pride was similar, but the party was a lot bigger. While Ukraine has not been offered a chance to join the EU, its western reorientation since 2014 has driven the government in the same direction.

The first pride in Kyiv seven years ago was a small stationary affair with the crowd entirely surrounded by cordon of police. But it has grown each year, even though like Georgia it has been marred in the past by acts of violence. One year a policeman nearly died after he was stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver by an anti-gay protestor.

This year’s Kyiv pride was the biggest yet and twice the size of last year’s. While the average Ukrainian is as conservative as the average Russian, it seems the popular reorientation towards Europe has driven a public debate that is now materially and demonstrably changing people’s attitudes. Right wing thugs wearing Nazi-like uniforms were contained by the police, but apart from one small scuffle at the very start of the march, the police keep the groups well segregated. This was accompanied by gleeful reports of babushki dancing in the street with the revellers or waving rainbow flags from their windows along the route.

Outside the EU

Outside of Europe and the aspirant EU countries the picture is pretty dark.

Most of the authoritarian leaders that run these countries have adopted conservative family values as a major propaganda plank and often they have co-oped the church or the iman to help bolster their legitimacy.

Even if the Orthodox church has not become a branch of the regime, the church has set itself against the LGBT community and the situation is the same, or even more extreme, in predominately Islamic countries.

Turkey tried to hold a pride march in the last weekend of June that was broken up by police shooting rubber bullets and using teargas. Following the Gezi popular protests a few years ago, Turkey has held a number of gay pride marches, but as the LGBT community also happens to be almost universally against the incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the event has become politicised – at least in the eyes of the authorities – and banned. Ironically Erdogan himself doesn't seem to be that bothered about the gay movement; his motivation is purely political.

Indeed the same can probably be said about Putin. Russia’s gay propaganda law has wide-based popular appeal, but bne IntelliNews sources say that one of his personal interpreters is obviously gay and this has been no impediment to his career in Russia’s foreign ministry.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with Turkey, are politically oppressed, which seems to go hand in hand with institutional homophobia. These three countries are rated worst for LGBT rights in Europe by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe).

And in the countries of Central Asia being gay can be dangerous. Traditional family values run extremely deep in Central Asia. As a man travelling alone in the region the first question the locals always ask is, “Are you married?” Being gay can get you arrested and in one incident last year a group of gay men enjoying a meal together at a restaurant were assaulted by homophobes with baseball bats.

Since the former Soviet bloc countries opened to the rest of the world the local LGBT community longs for more tolerance but they are fighting an uphill battle. The capital of Kyrgyzstan Bishkek had a single gay bar called London but it was closed in 2017 after a two year run.

Kyrgyzstan is an inhospitable place for members of the gay community and a survey at the time of London’s closure found that 84% of respondents had experienced physical violence, while 35% had been victims of sexual violence. Kyrgyz Indigo described the results as "very alarming," noting that they indicate a "tendency of growth from year to year."