Defending a pride parade in Kiev.

Photographer: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

East European Gays' Long March Toward Dignity

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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More police than marchers attended the gay pride parade in Kiev last Saturday. And it ended minutes after it began, with right-wing activists throwing flares and seriously wounding a cop. Despite Ukraine's European ambitions, the level of intolerance there remains almost as high as in neighboring Russia. It's a bit of Communist heritage that has been harder for many countries to shed than the planned economy.

Gay activists in Kiev have long been trying to stage a public event, but their attempts have usually been thwarted. In 2012, security concerns led them to cancel a march at the last minute, and even as the organizers announced that to the press, a masked man sprayed mace in their faces. In 2013, about 50 people marched for 20 minutes behind a police cordon before being driven away in buses to avoid a fight with right-wing thugs. Last year, the event was canceled again after police told the organizers that they wouldn't be able to guarantee their security. Indeed, just a few months after Ukraine's "revolution of dignity," Kiev was an anarchic place and the activists agreed that the warning made sense.

QuickTake Gay Rights

This year, however, Ukraine is firmly on its European path and the government takes pride in controlling the parts of the country that aren't held by pro-Russia separatists. So the gay activists tried again. 

Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko asked them to cancel the march again so as "not to play into the hands of the enemy," meaning Russia. "Don't fire up enmity, don't create yet another standoff in the center of the capital," he said. Then came a scarier warning from Dmitri Yarosh, a parliament deputy who is the leader of the extreme nationalist organization Right Sector, which played an important part in last year's revolution and in the subsequent fighting against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. "Representatives of the military-political movement Right Sector will have to put other business aside to hinder the plans of those who hate the family, morals and normal notions of humanity," Yarosh wrote on Facebook. He went on to rail against Ukraine's European allies such as France and Germany, which he said are "imposing LGBT ideology" on the Ukrainian government while hampering the Ukrainian war efforts with their talk of truces and compromises.

The organizers, however, were heartened by the -- admittedly tepid -- support of President Petro Poroshenko. He said that, as a Christian, he would not want to take part in the march but that he saw "no grounds for interfering with it. It's every citizen's constitutional right." 

Armed with that presidential statement, the gay activists still took all the usual precautions, announcing the location -- far from the city center -- first to the police, then only to registered participants. Even so, soon after the small column carrying rainbow flags set off, attended by the Swedish ambassador and a few liberal legislators, the Right Sector was there in force. Police were heard grumbling about having to protect "homos," but they did their job well, especially after one of the cops was hit in the neck by a flare and started bleeding from a broken vein. The demonstrators ended up walking for only about a third of a mile before the event ended with 25 nationalists detained and 10 people injured.

This was a happy outcome, considering the circumstances. It could have been as bad as the battle in Belgrade, Serbia, in 2010, which saw 57 people wounded amid clouds of tear gas and flying bricks and Molotov cocktails. 

Other post-Communist countries have had to deal with such violence on a smaller scale. In 2004 and 2005, Warsaw banned so-called equality parades because its mayor, Lech Kaczynski, who later became president of Poland, had a problem with "promoting a homosexual lifestyle." In 2005, thousands of anti-gay protesters overwhelmed a 70-person march through the streets of Riga, Latvia. In 2010, a parade in Vilnius, Lithuania, went ahead after the country's prosecutor successfully sued to have it stopped, but a higher court overturned the ban. The event ended in violence.

The easternmost European Union countries are slowly coming around to the realization that gay people should have the same rights as anybody else, including the right to assembly. Riga this year hosts Euro Pride, a pan-European LGBT event. In Warsaw, thousands take part in annual parades, which the city authorities now permit. And, in general, attitudes toward homosexuality are shifting, as data from the European Social Survey have indicated. But Eastern European nations have been laggards in accepting homosexuality and same-sex unions, not to mention marriages:

European Social Survey

There is no definitive theory to explain this. According to a 2013 report of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, Latvia is more accepting of gays than neighboring Lithuania because its people have more progressive attitudes toward gender roles and are less religious -- but also because the Latvian LGBT organization, Mozaika, has done a stellar job of fighting for gay rights. The Czech Republic is more tolerant than Poland, thanks to its protestant traditions and a lower prevalence of nationalism. Wealthier countries, and those with lower inequality levels, are generally more accepting of diversity in sexual orientation. 

Perhaps the single biggest factor that sets the post-Communist countries apart, however, is their oppressive past. In a 2008 study, Robert Andersen of the University of Toronto and Tina Fetner of McMaster University found that, even controlling for economic differences, former Soviet satellites and constituent republics were more homophobic than other democracies. "Cultural characteristics, which have less to do with economic development than with a lack of social trust related to Communist oppression, may be responsible for less tolerant attitudes," Andersen and Fetner wrote. 

The former Eastern Bloc countries' social fabric is still too strained to allow as much tolerance as exists in other nations. Vladimir Putin's Russia has attempted to turn that into a strength, banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and advocating "traditional values." Thanks to that policy, only 25 percent of Russians now believe gays should be "left alone," down from 31 percent two years ago, and 37 percent say they should get medical treatment. Twenty-four percent of Russians describe their attitude toward gays as "disgust and fear." In Moscow, gay pride events include perhaps a dozen die-hard activists who are promptly detained by police. 

Ukraine is starting from a similarly low point, but at least there is no official homophobia. It's a long march, and every yard the activists add to their progress through the unsympathetic city brings the whole country that much closer to Europe. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net