oDR: Opinion

LGBT+ rights in the Eastern neighbourhood: a geopolitical issue?

The Eastern neighbourhood is often seen as caught between the European Union and Russia, including over LGBT+ rights. This impacts understandings of homophobia and intolerance.

Laura Luciani
2 July 2020
Amsterdam, 2013: protest against Vladimir Putin's passing of the so-called "gay propaganda" law
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CC BY NC ND 2.0 Buunnymaan / Flickr. Some rights reserved

In the Eastern neighbourhood, LGBT+ rights seem to have become a geopolitical issue in the past decade.

Mainstream western media, as well as (pro-)European policy-makers and liberal human rights advocates from inside and outside the region, increasingly tend to represent LGBT+ rights as “victims of geopolitics”. This is done by depicting the EU as a staunch supporter of LGBT+ equality in opposition to Russia - the main source of anti-LGBT sentiments.

The Eastern neighbourhood is often described as either “shared” or “contested” between the European Union and Russia. But the value-based dichotomy associated with EU and Russian influence on LGBT+ issues in their “neighbourhood” is misleading and has highly problematic consequences. Notably, this representation depoliticises LGBT+ struggles by silencing a series of critical issues in the fight for equality which liberal human rights discourse fails to address.

In 2013, Russia passed its so-called “gay propaganda” law - the highest expression of Russian state-sponsored homophobia, translating President Vladimir Putin’s “traditional values” discourse into practice. In the wake of the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the neologism “Gayropa” emerged as a derogatory term used to brand Brussels’ alleged deviancy from the “traditional” gender order embodied by Russia.

For some, the Eastern neighbourhood became a geopolitical chessboard - the new playing field for a “clash of values” between the EU and Russia - with LGBT+ rights acting as a litmus test. Some western observers even pictured a new “World War LGBT” in the post-Soviet space.

Besides the sensational analyses above, mainstream western media, as well as some advocacy and political lobbies, continue framing processes of support and resistance to LGBT+ equality in the Eastern neighbourhood in geopolitical terms. We can call this trend the geopoliticisation of LGBT+ issues, meaning their discursive construction as a geopolitical problem.

The Economist, for example, put it back in 2015: “As Georgia chooses between Europe and Russia, attitudes to homosexuality are caught in the crossfire”. Last June, The Washington Post asked its readers: “What does a Pride have to do with NATO? More than you think”. Similarly, in May this year, Ukraine was encouraged to adopt hate-crime bills protecting LGBT+ people not only to confirm its “European commitment”, but also because the country’s very “security and sovereignty” depend on LGBT+ rights.

As feminist activist Anna Nikoghosyan noted in the case of Armenia, hostile attitudes towards LGBT+ people “have become caught in a tug of war between pro-European and pro-Russian constituencies”. LGBT+ communities in the neighbourhood are the first to pay the price in this geopolitical confrontation.

It is crucial to remember that the geopoliticisation of LGBT rights blinds us to the actual struggles, which are much more complex than a EU-Russia dichotomy, and require critical solidarity across divides

Clearly, this article does not intend to minimise, let alone condone, the horrendous repression of LGBT+ people perpetrated over the past years by Putin and his allies, like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Equally, however, there can be no denying that homophobic discourse and practices “made in Russia” find breeding ground outside the Federation’s borders, including in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Although the rising tensions between Russia and the west exacerbated the geopolitical imaginary surrounding LGBT+ rights in Eastern Europe, the latter also stems from a broader trend of assessing a nation’s status according to its degree of LGBT-friendliness.

In 2013, the EU started taking into account respect for LGBT+ rights, especially state policies and legislative reforms, treating them as benchmarks in the context of the Western Balkans enlargement. “LGBT-friendliness” became an indicator of the level of a candidate country’s modernity, “civility” and “Europeanness” - with ambiguous results.

Advocacy tools such as ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Map indirectly contribute to the reproduction of this geopolitical imaginary, often being interpreted as a demonstration of an “East-West divide” around LGBT+ rights protection. In reality, the picture is far from homogeneous, besides not being representative of the lived experience of – and real social attitudes towards – LGBT+ persons. For example, Italy’s ranking is much worse than the Western Balkans or Georgia, while Montenegro scores as high as the Netherlands in terms of LGBT+ rights.

During a high-level conference on LGBT+ equality in the EU held in September 2019, European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová reportedly declared: “Hatred towards LGBTI-people is being exported from Russia to Europe”.

Similar formulations mistakenly suggest that homophobia is not a phenomenon endogenous to western liberal democracies, or the symptom of a wider de-democratisation process taking place on a global scale.

Moreover, this externalisation of homophobia obscures the existence of a web of transnational connections and shared agendas among anti-LGBT groups across the imagined East-West divide, as recent research on far-right groups in Eurasia demonstrates, along with pro-life movements and events such as the World Congress of Families.

Interestingly, the binary thinking that juxtaposes Russia with “EUrope” conceals that both geographies in fact share similar processes. Instances of both LGBT+ emancipation in the “liberal West” and political homophobia in “illiberal Russia” build on attempts at defining a nation, while excluding cultural and racialised minorities or migrants.

Thus, nationalist parties’ support to LGBT+ equality in Belgium is a tool to legitimise Islamophobia; equally, for Putin, Orbán or Salvini - as well as for some of the far-right groups in the Eastern neighbourhood that they inspire - anti-gender politics are part of a wider ethno-nationalist project aimed at constructing and protecting a white Christian “European civilisation”.

These critical struggles around equality are concealed by a series of mutual accusations between the so-called “Gayropa” and the “traditional values” camp, through geopolitical and warfare metaphors that are reminiscent of the Cold War.

In Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the adoption of anti-discrimination laws, which cover discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, was a fundamental criterion for the ratification of Association Agreements and visa liberalisation regimes with the EU.

Despite these façade legislative improvements, governments’ commitment to LGBT+ equality turned out to be a merely rhetorical tool to “signal values” to Brussels, while also distancing themselves from Russia in a “civilisational choice”.

Today, authorities in Chișinău, Kyiv and Tbilisi praise themselves for guaranteeing freedom of expression and association to LGBT+ people once a year, by authorising (heavily policed) Pride parades or rallies for the International Day against Homo-bi-transphobia on 17 May.

These government use such seemingly liberal measures to present themselves as tolerant, progressive and European, although LGBT+ equality is kept in the back-burner during the other 364 days of the year, or even actively undermined by homophobic discourse from state officials.

And there is more to this than meets the eye. In Ukraine and Georgia, some observed a tendency among local media and liberal civil society to discard anti-LGBT groups as Kremlin provocateurs or pro-Russian, thus externalising responsibility. This strategy aims to avoid shedding negative light on the country and its European aspirations. What this discourse ignores, however, is a systematic condemnation of far-right violence and a comprehensive engagement with its root causes.

Last year in Georgia, the organisation of the first Tbilisi Pride generated important frictions within the local LGBT+ movement; some harshly criticised the event for being disconnected from the very community, broader socio-political conflicts and persisting economic inequalities for which it was supposed to raise awareness. In light of the mobilisation of hostile groups, liberal observers focused on the need to guarantee freedom of expression and assembly to LGBT+ persons. Almost absurdly, however, the dissenting positions expressed by part of the Georgian LGBT+ movement were also dismissed as a consequence of Russia’s “disinformation campaigns”.

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The use of geopolitical signifiers to describe processes of support and resistance to LGBT+ rights, which crystallises the idea of a value-based divide between the EU and Russia, is both problematic and has very concrete and dangerous implications.

First, the civilisational framing of LGBT+ rights is likely to be both instrumentalised by governments and individuals only seemingly committed to equality, as well as hijacked by homophobic groups to criticise an alleged EU “cultural imperialism”.

Second, such binary representations provide a shortcut to avoid digging deeper into the structural inequalities and the social, political, and economic conflicts that intersect with LGBT+ issues in specific contexts, allowing (transnational) homophobic movements to thrive.

It is much easier to ascribe responsibility for homophobia to Russian propaganda, rather than to reflect critically on the limits of the liberal discourse on human rights, including LGBT+ rights, as well as on the common and intersectional fights for equality, both in the “East” and the “West”.

The launch of a “new geopolitical agenda for human rights and democracy” within the framework of the EU Action Plan 2020-24 risks further normalising a battlefield discourse of power rivalries around “values” such as LGBT+ equality.

Within this context, it is crucial to remember that the geopoliticisation of LGBT+ rights blinds us to the actual struggles, which are much more complex than a EU-Russia dichotomy, and require critical solidarity across divides.

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