Ukraine: The liberal honeymoon for LGBTQ is over.

On the penultimate weekend of October, Ukraine will hold local elections, which can be ultimately considered a political test for the first year of Volodymyr Zelensky’s rule. How has Ukrainian politics changed after the 2019 complete political reset?

The actor, comedian and showman received an unprecedented victory in the Ukrainian presidential election (in the second round, Volodymyr Zelensky won with 73.22% of the vote, and his rival Petro Poroshenko got 24.45%), and soon after that the pro-presidential political party “Servant of the People” was able to bring 254 out of 420 MPs’ to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine Parliament), and independently form a parliamentary majority and the government.

Volodymyr Zelensky is the youngest president in the history of Ukraine. His election campaign was based on progressive and liberal slogans, which gave hope for the continuation of pro-European and liberal-democratic reforms launched during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency. Although Volodymyr Zelensky neither explained nor gave promises on legislative regulation of same-sex marriages/partnerships during the election, his promises to legalize the land market and gambling sector created the illusion of hope for a liberalization policy on all other issues for progressive Ukrainian society and LGBTQ-community.

So how did it happen that instead of continuing the course of European integration, we are witnessing the drafting of new legislation banning "homosexual propaganda", borrowed from Russian laws by deputies of the pro-presidential “Servant of the People”?

Civil partnership: Not getting any better

Recognition of same-sex families in Ukraine is long overdue. Moreover, we are witnessing an almost schizophrenic situation in which the state of Ukraine recognizes the same-sex marriages/partnerships of foreign diplomats (the relevant international agreement was ratified by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in March 2016 within the Association with EU), but does not recognize or authorize same-sex marriages and partnerships for their own citizens. For example: an employee of any diplomatic institution/organization can provide consent in the event of a medical emergency for his or her partner. Ukrainians in a similar situation would simply not be permitted, despite the constitution of Ukraine's guarantee of an equal and non-discriminatory attitude towards all persons with its territory.

Although the Constitution of Ukraine clearly states that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman, the institution of civil partnership could regulate all property and other issues between same-sex couples and bridge the legislative gap that leaves thousands of same-sex couples in a gray legal zone (in particular, they cannot currently give inheritance to their partners, obtain a mortgage together, have joint custody of a child, enjoy spousal privilege, etc.).

Despite the fact that Ukraine has a number of international commitments and recommendations regarding the rights of same-sex families (see the UN Human Rights Council Report), and despite the fact that in 2015 the government voted for the Human Rights Action Plan (which contained the obligation for the Ministry of Justice to develop and submit for consideration a bill on civil partnerships and the introduction of criminal penalties for hate crimes - including against LGBTQ) the relevant provisions of the Action Plan have never been implemented.

In 2018, the Ministry of Justice even issued an official statement that it is not drafting and does not plan to draft any bills to legalize same-sex partnerships.

Libertarian or populist?

Initially, Volodymyr Zelensky looked like a young and progressive presidential candidate, and one of the factors in Zelensky’s victory in the 2019 presidential election was his successful communication with young people, in particular, he became the first candidate to use Instagram as a platform for communicating with voters. Compared to the cold press releases of other politicians, his communication style inspired hope for the rapid Europeanization and liberalization of Ukraine.

The question of whether the “Servant of the People” platform supports the LGBTQ community, and the liberalization of legislation on same-sex families has remained unclear for a long time. At his first press conference as president in October 2019, Zelensky even gave a small speech stating that all citizens of Ukraine “...can freely choose their language, religion, sexual orientation” and asked that they “leave those people LGBTQ community alone for God’s sake”. Unfortunately, the promise of hope encapsulated in his statement during the press conference turned out to be completely empty.

In 2016 the Ministry (Department) of Justice created the Human Rights Directorate, which was tasked with the responsibility of coordinating the national human rights strategy, as well as development of legislation on human rights and European integration. In February 2020, the Ukrainian government made the decision to close the Human Rights Directorate. Three months later, in May 2020, the Minister of Justice stated that human rights was no longer a priority of the Ministry.

At the same time, the pro-presidential party began changing its ideology, as before the parliamentary elections the party used the term “libertarian party”, and after entering the parliament the MPs’ of the “Servant of the People” party noted that their ideology was somewhere between liberalism and socialism. But already in February 2020, at the last congress, the party voted for the “center ideology”. Such divergent and inconsistent movements are chaotic. The party’s program can be summed up by the well-known Ukrainian phrase “for all that is good against all that is bad”.

Hypocritical Liberals

As soon as “Servant of the People” MPs’ got to the Verkhovna Rada they made a sharp 180-degree turn. The first wake-up call was the creation of the parliamentary group “Values. Dignity. Family” initiated by Svyatoslav Yurash – MP from the “Servant of the People” party and Oleh Voloshyn, an MP from the “OPPOSITION PLATFORM - FOR LIFE” party. In his interviews, Yurash explained that the association would oppose same-sex marriages and LGBTQ adoption rights.

In April 2020 bill No. 3316 was registered in parliament to establish criminal penalties for hate crimes.

Later in the same month Voloshyn registered bill No. 3316-1 which anticipates the establishment of criminal liability for “public calls for and/or propaganda advodating the refusal to have children, destroying the institution of the family, extramarital and unnatural sexual relations and debauchery" (this draft bill was rejected by the parliament on September 1, 2020). At the same time the Law enforcement committee with 13 votes to 7 voted for rejection of bill No.3316.

On July 22, people’s deputies Georgii Mazurashu and Olena Lys from the Servant of the People registered a new draft bill No.3917, which envisages establishing administrative responsibility for “homosexual and transgenderism propaganda”. It provides a fine for homosexual propaganda in the amount of 136,000 UAH (equivalent to $5,000). By a strange coincidence, the text of the draft bill is an almost literal translation of its Russian analogue.

It should be noted that for the first time in the local elections in October 2020, 5 open LGBTQ candidates are running, but none of them represents the pro-government Servant of the People party.

Ukrainian liberalism with Russian odor

The political situation in Ukraine is reminiscent of the famous Soviet saying: “There is no sex in the USSR” - i.e. There is no LGBTQ in Ukrainian libertarianism. However, there is a room for Russian propaganda (see "HOW RUSSIA EXPORTS HOMOPHOBIA INTO UKRAINE"), intolerance and hate crimes.

In particular, the monitoring of attacks on activists published in October 2020, recorded 74 cases. LGBTQ activists are at the highest risk and are most often verbally and physically attacked. For example, during the 2020 Pride in Odessa, 16 participants of the human rights protest were attacked.

Despite some Ukrainian progress since Euromaidan in 2015/16 (including a change in the labor code and a ban on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation/gender identity, simplification of the sex reassignment procedure, and change of documents for transgender people) we are witnessing a clear trend towards curtailment of human rights policies for the LGBTQ community. Taking into account recent events in Poland with homophobic initiatives of “LGBTQ-free zones”, Ukraine found itself surrounded by homophobic and transphobic countries. And this is another wake-up call for Ukrainian LGBTQ people, who, are battling for their rights, while at the same time running on an escalator, moving in the opposite direction.

Bogdan Globa — human rights and LGBTQ activist, leader, and co-founder of QUA - LGBTQ UKRAINIANS IN AMERICA (based in Washington, D.C.), first openly gay person to address the Ukrainian Parliament.

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