22.05 Review

Flagships of Homophobia: Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community has become a key tool of authoritarian populism and the promotion of an anti-Western agenda in the post-Soviet space

Over the two years of the war, the situation surrounding the issue of the LGBTQ+ community in the post-Soviet space has seriously deteriorated. This deterioration is evident in Central Asian countries where 'non-traditional relationships' were already criminalised or semi-criminalised, as well as in countries like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia, which previously maintained a policy of neutrality and non-interference in LGBTQ+ issues. Human rights organisations report increased discrimination and direct repression against LGBTQ+ individuals in these nations. Russia plays a special role in this shift, acting as a flagship of this crackdown, leveraging it for conservative mobilisation and as a tool of authoritarian populism. These initiatives are promoted under the guise of fighting ‘Western influence’, with Russian laws on ‘foreign agents’ and the prohibition of ‘LGBT propaganda’ being exported to post-Soviet countries in a single package. The Russian authorities are accumulating symbolic capital by positioning Russia as the leading homophobic power in the region (and possibly beyond), viewing this as a source of strength in its confrontation with the West and in garnering support from the countries of the Global South.

Since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the situation of the LGBTQ+ community in post-Soviet countries has significantly deteriorated, according to a review prepared by the Anti-Discrimination Centre ‘Memorial’ (ADC). This primarily concerns countries that previously did not dare to implement discriminatory initiatives at the legislative level but have, in recent years, adopted or are discussing the adoption of repressive homophobic laws (Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus). However, the situation has continued to deteriorate in countries where LGBTQ+ identities and non-conventional sexuality have already been criminalised (In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, there are criminal laws that penalize consensual same-sex sexual relations, and in Tajikistan, there is a law against the spread of HIV that law enforcement uses to persecute the LGBTQ+ community). Human rights defenders have recorded an increase in criminal prosecutions and a tightening of legislation. In 2023, Turkmenistan lowered the age threshold for punishment for "sodomy" to 14 years. In Uzbekistan, according to the Eurasian Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender, and Sexual Diversity (ECOM), 191 cases of human rights violations based on sexual orientation or gender identity were registered in 2023, affecting 209 victims. In Tajikistan, according to the ECOM, 25 cases of human rights violations against LGBTQ+ people were recorded. 

Human rights activists consider Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus to be among the countries where the situation for the LGBTQ+ community has significantly worsened over the past two years. However, Russia plays a special role in this regard. ‘Homophobic rhetoric and the proclamation of the defence of “traditional values” have become part of Russia's military propaganda... Russia spreads negative influence, directly or indirectly, over virtually the entire region,’ the authors of the ADC review state. Indeed, in the aforementioned countries, despite a rather low level of tolerance towards non-traditional sexual relations, in the first post-Soviet decades governments remained neutral with regard to LGBTQ+ issues, officially declaring their commitment to the principles of equality and non-interference. 

The situation began to change in the early 2010s, when, following the mass protests in 2011-2012, Russia adopted a package of repressive and openly conservative laws (the ‘Dima Yakovlev law’, the law on ‘foreign agents’, the law on the ‘protection of the feelings of believers’, the law tightening regulations for holding rallies and demonstrations), among which was the law banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional relationships among minors’. Sociological polls showed that out of all of the conservative initiatives, the latter received the most support. Since then, anti-LGBTQ legislation has become a tool for mobilising conservative and anti-Western sentiments in countries with semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes, serving as a kind of banner of ‘authoritarian populism’.

This trend is not exclusive to post-Soviet countries. The global regression of democracy over the past fifteen years (→ Re:Russia: The Pendulum of Democracy) is linked, in particular, to the rise of radical traditionalism, statist, right-wing, or far-right political forces in many countries (from Germany and the USA to India and the Philippines) and the increasing influence of their public agenda, which includes topics such as the increasing role of religion in society, anti-globalisation, the ‘defence’ of ‘traditional’ family relations, anti-feminism, anti-migrant xenophobia and homophobia. In the post-Soviet space, after 2013, the propaganda machine of Putin's regime became the locomotive of these trends, using homophobic rhetoric as a tool to consolidate anti-Western sentiments. In this sense, the presence of laws restricting citizens’ rights to rallies and demonstrations, laws on foreign influence (’foreign agents') and homophobic initiatives in the same package is not a random coincidence, but a coherent political programme of autocratisation being carried out under the banner of 'traditional values'. 

In the early 2020s, the export of this package to other post-Soviet countries began. In Belarus, for example, the situation began to deteriorate sharply immediately after the suppression of the 2020 protests, the ADC report notes. Public organisations, including human rights organisations, were liquidated, and any form of dissent was persecuted. After the start of the war, amid the growing influence of Russia, officials in the republic began publicly discussing the adoption of a law on ‘banning LGBT propaganda’. In September 2023, the Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus announced that it was starting to draft such a law to ‘protect children from possible criminal actions and to neutralise the efforts of certain Western countries to promote harmful propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations, gender reassignment and childfree ideology’.

In Kyrgyzstan, in August 2023, the parliament adopted amendments to the law ‘On Measures to Prevent Harm to Children's Health, Physical, Intellectual, Mental, Spiritual and Moral Development,’ which classify information that ‘denies family and traditional social values, promotes non-traditional sexual relations and forms disrespect for parents or other family members’ as harmful to children. According to the new norms, dissemination of such information does not entail criminal liability, but is punishable by a fine. In addition, in Kyrgyzstan, there is no provision to amend documents when changing one’s gender marker, and there is strong discriminatory pressure on the LGBTQ+ community from both the political elite and traditionalist activists. 

In Georgia, the issue of (anti-)homophobia is a powerful factor in societal polarisation. The country has had a law against various forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, for ten years, but its implementation is regularly opposed by far-right and Orthodox activists. Homophobia from grassroots radical traditionalist movements in Georgia is often expressed in the disruption of LGBTQ+ events, attacks on activists, and aggressive anti-LGBTQ+ and homophobic rallies. Attempts to institutionalise discrimination against LGBTQ+ people also continue. For example, in May 2023, far-right politicians initiated amendments to various laws to ban the display or propaganda at gatherings of ‘non-traditional’ sexual orientation, and in April 2024, the ruling party initiated sweeping constitutional amendments against the LGBTQ+ community: ban on adoption by LGBTQ+ people, a ban on any medical intervention related to gender reassignment, a ban on meetings and the distribution of programmes or materials ‘promoting’ same-sex unions or medical interventions related to gender reassignment. The mobilisation of the conservative electorate around these initiatives is intended to facilitate the passage of another law — on ‘foreign agents’ - and to help the Bidzina Ivanishvili regime to gain a foothold in Georgian politics by limiting the influence of pro-European political forces (→ Re:Russia: The Homophobes’ Dream).

Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a kind of grey zone. Homophobic sentiments in society and among the elite of these countries are quite strong; however, the state does not take offensive repressive actions against the LGBTQ+ community. The law banning the dissemination of information about LGBTQ+ issues to minors has been under discussion in the Kazakh parliament since 2014, but has not been adopted. Attempts by some MPs to amend the law ‘On Mass Media’ to ban the media from writing about LGBTQ+ people have also been rejected. At the same time, attempts by LGBTQ+ activists or feminists to hold public actions with an anti-discrimination agenda are systematically banned by the authorities, and activists receive threats from radical traditionalists. The situation is similar in Armenia, where the government is developing an anti-discrimination plan, but faces resistance from the Armenian Church and extreme right-wing activists. In addition, Armenian human rights activists have recorded an increase in offences against LGBTQ+ people over the past year, including the murders of two trans women. Similar trends are observed in Azerbaijan, where there was a high-profile homophobic murder of a journalist in 2022, preceded by an aggressive discriminatory statement by a conservative blogger. In Azerbaijan, any public demonstration of LGBTQ+ issues is suppressed. Nevertheless, thus far, the Azerbaijani authorities have not attempted to legislatively discriminate against or criminalise LGBTQ+ people. 

The Russian case demonstrates the progression of a discriminatory approach to LGBTQ+ issues as the regime's anti-Western rhetoric and repressiveness has intensified. The ban on ‘LGBT propaganda’ among minors, introduced in 2013, was extended to all ages at the end of 2022. This effectively imposed a total ban on the public display or discussion of ‘non-traditional relationships’. The adoption of the law has enabled the use of semi-formal violent practices against the LGBTQ+ community, including law enforcement raids on gay clubs and private gatherings often involving violence against participants (according to a large-scale survey by the group Coming Out and the Sphere Foundation, 44% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they had experienced some type of violence in 2023, which was up from 30% in the 2022 survey.) Finally, on 30 November 2023, Russian Supreme Court Judge Oleg Nefedov declared the non-existent ‘international LGBT social movement’ an ‘extremist organisation’. This decision effectively criminalised belonging to the LGBTQ+ community without introducing a criminal article for ‘sodomy’. In addition, trans people were banned in 2023: the new law completely banned medical support, changing the gender marker on their passport, and stripped trans people of the right to adopt or have custody of children. People diagnosed as transgender have lost access to medical care and essential medication. 

The Russian authorities are accumulating symbolic capital by positioning Russia as the leading homophobic/anti-LGBTQ+ power in the region (and beyond), seeing this as a source of their strength in the confrontation with the West and in garnering the sympathy of the Global South. Human rights activists also note that homophobia in the post-Soviet space is often an umbrella category that encompasses far from just issues of gender identity or sexual orientation, but also anti-feminism, anti-transphobia, and even paedophilia or the ‘childfree’ ideology. Thus, homophobic political initiatives often contain a broader discriminatory and repressive potential, affecting not only LGBTQ+ individuals but also wider groups within society.