It reads like something out of a Cold War drama: a former Soviet satellite convulsing with protestors; a communist sympathizing President ousted from power; statues of Lenin toppling across the country; and a battle for influence between old-time geopolitical foes. In the balance hangs the future of Ukraine, along with the fortunes of its 46 million inhabitants.
Peaceful protests began last November after former-president Viktor Yanukovych ditched a far-reaching accord with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. The overnight deal betrayed the long-held aspirations of many Ukrainians who yearned for the increased trade, economic growth, political inclusivity, and modernization that a closer partnership with Europe promised. As bourgeoning crowds gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square, Yanukovych’s government stoked the flames of discontent. Police began attacking student protestors; severe anti-protest laws were rammed through Parliament; and powerful political dissidents were abducted, imprisoned, and beaten.
Despite the onslaught of terror, the protestors in Kiev could not be moved. As government repression increased, protestors bunkered down in equal measure. Makeshift barricades were erected across the capital, Molotov cocktails filled the air, and a loosely armed, amateur army of citizens faced off against a uniformed state police force.
Eventually the protestors took the day, wrestling power from the ruling leftist party and restoring an earlier version of the Ukrainian constitution that imposed far greater limits on executive authority. But the embers had not yet died from the smoldering rubble in Kiev, when the country was plunged yet again into chaos. This time the threat was external. Heavily armed Russian forces have launched a full-scale invasion of Crimea under the guise of securing peace. This brazen act of aggression makes it abundantly clear that Russia will not “lose Ukraine” to the West without a fight. At stake in the seemingly renewed Cold War conflict are the sovereignty of Ukraine and the power of its people to control their own future.
But the stakes are particularly high for Ukraine’s LGBT community, for whom closer ties with Europe promises greater tolerance and increased political standing. The road to Europe would require Ukraine to fully comply with the EU’s charter on human rights, which prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. In 2011, for example, the European Parliament adopted two resolutions requiring Turkey and Montenegro to extend greater protections to gay and transgender people as a condition for further progress toward EU membership. The Turkish resolution chastised the forced closures of LGBT organizations, reproached the army’s classification of homosexuality as a psychosexual illness, denounced ongoing murders of transgender people, and condemned the withdrawal of sexual orientation and gender identity from a proposed anti-discrimination bill. As for Montenegro, the EU welcomed a newly adopted general anti-discrimination law in places of public accommodations, but highlighted widely persistent LGBT discrimination as an obstacle to EU membership. The journey to Europe for Ukraine would likewise include greater safeguards for the LGBT community.
Closer ties with Russia, by contrast, promises state-sanctioned oppression of LGBT people. The Sochi Olympics made it abundantly clear that Russia is bent on establishing moral independence from the West by promoting “traditional orthodox values.” That mission has culminated with the passage of an anti-gay law that prohibits the dissemination of any communication that portrays same-sex relationships as normal or acceptable. The effects of that law have been widely felt. Hundreds of LGBT protestors have been arrested and beaten, LGBT organizations have been forcibly closed, and a wave of violent hate-crimes against LGBT people is sweeping the nation.
The presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory raises serious worries that the country may fall back under Russian influence. If that were to happen, the dream of a European-allied Ukraine may be dangerously imperiled. The horror of that prospect demands that the West take bold and decisive action to reverse the advance of Putin’s army. Upon the success of that enterprise rest the dreams and aspirations of the Ukrainian people, especially those of its LGBT citizens who know full well what waits for them behind the Iron Curtain.