How Russia and the West boosted Kyrgyz anti-gay violence


Attempted arson at Labrys headquarters on April 3, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Labrys)
Attempted arson at Labrys headquarters on April 3, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Labrys)

By Tom Ana

In April, Kyrgyzstan’s only LGBTI advocacy group, Labrys, became the target of an anonymous arson attack. The incident, although one of the most serious attacks in the group’s history, fortunately resulted in no injuries and only very minor damage.

Anti-homophobia graphic from Labrys
Anti-homophobia graphic from Labrys

That event was the latest in a growing list of violent attacks on the LGBTI community that Labrys says have become increasingly common since the government’s introduction of homophobic legislation in late 2014.

That bill, which would outlaw the promotion of “non-traditional forms of sexual relations,” would strip activists of their power to campaign on LGBTI issues and has severely impacted already heavily marginalised individuals within the LGBTI community.

The bill garnered significant attention when it was proposed, in part because of its strong connection to the Kremlin’s notorious “gay propaganda” law.

As relations between Russia and the West have suffered in recent years, the Kremlin has continued to pursue policies that strengthen its allies, whilst weakening their economic links to Europe and North America. The introduction of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) was the result of a desire to create stronger economic ties within the former Soviet sphere.

While Russia tried to pull their allies away from Western influence, those who signed up for the union (Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) gladly accepted the inevitable reforms that would bring them closer to the rouble. Kyrgyzstan, who will officially join the union in May, happily made political changes that pleased Russia.

Although many have blamed Russia’s strong influence on the country for these laws, this stance does not take into account the hundreds of other factors that helped create the current climate of fear and intolerance.

Arrow indicates the location of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.
Arrow indicates the location of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

Many complex factors resulted in the introduction of these laws, and it would be unfair to blame them on one single issue. However, Kyrgyzstan’s connection to Russia is definitely a leading factor, as well as being one of the most easily understood for observers from the West.

As in many countries with oppressive anti-gay laws, the new legislation has helped create a state-sanctioned scapegoat in Kyrgyzstan. The LGBTI community is blamed for a range of social problems. The hatred aimed at it has helped unite many groups. The NGOs that spoke out have been branded as foreign influences. As a result, all those that might once have protested against the government’s anti-LGBTI stance are now disconnected from the LGBTI community. The pro-democratic, pro-human rights groups that once stood to oppose official policy are now weakened, fractured and living in fear.

The exploitation of marginalised groups in this way is nothing new, and governments throughout history have often employed scapegoat tactics to control and divide a population. What is different about Kyrgyzstan is the factors of outside pressure and political isolation helped create the atmosphere that led to legislation being passed.

In the West, most activist groups were entirely silent about Labrys’ recent incident. Only one notable LGBTI group, Transgender Europe, publicly condemned the attack and the news came and went with very little outrage or discussion.

It is easy to see how the ongoing persecution of a minority group half way across the world can have less and less impact on the media when the same story is repeated over and over. However, in the example of the recent arson attack, this is not the case. The attack on Labrys comes out of a still very new environment of bigotry that shifted the social landscape of the country. It is still a fresh and new tragedy in many ways.

The way in which many of us in the West view the LGBTI community of Kyrgyzstan is, however, not just another example of Western desensitisation to tragedy. When we look at the issues surrounding LGBTI Russians as a parallel, for example, we can still observe a very active and powerful movement of support coming from Western groups. It is not just that we are unaware, or that we do not care for Kyrgyzstan; the problem lies largely in our perceptions of queer issues in the former-Soviet sphere.

In Western cultures the mainstream idea of Russia is still very heavily shaped by outdated perceptions. Russia is seen as the bad guy in the East; as a threat, with strange ideals and desires different from our own.

Our pre-existing idea of Russia as a culture is the leading factor that colours the way in which we perceive complex social problems in the country. When we look at LGBTI issues, this is no exception.

This misguided idea of Russia stems largely from a cold-war mentality that still lingers in much of the West. A time when LGBTI issues in the Soviet Union were hardly understood, and almost completely ignored outside of the USSR. The outdated view we still hold had a huge gap in it, a gap that was filled by Putin’s anti-gay laws. Now, when much of the Western public thinks of LGBTI issues in the former Soviet Union, we have an easy-to-understand analogy to clumsily force onto every situation.

Amsterdam protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Amsterdam protest in April 2013 against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The mainstream media in Western countries is very good at painting Eastern powers in easy-to-understand dichotomies. Russia in all its complexities is boiled down into black and white. Putin is the despotic leader; aggressive, patriotic and oppressive. All decisions in his government are the personal vendetta of his own agenda. And when we look towards coverage of former Soviet spaces we see headlines dominated by Putin’s Russia.

Although, of course, there are small pockets of truth in some of the commentary we see, the main fact is that the mainstream media narrative of former Soviet cultures has helped reduce complexities down to the point where it becomes incredibly difficult to engage with and even fully understand them.

The Russia-dominated, over-simplified, version of the former Soviet Union that is presented by the media narrative has helped groups such as Labrys to go largely ignored by an international community that normally would gladly support their efforts. It has also played into Russia’s tactic of isolating countries under its influence from the West.

After the end of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan gained the potential to move towards a more pro-democratic and pro-human rights form of politics. However, like many other nations, as the economics of the country grew further away from Western influence, so did their politics.

Now, the cultural influence of Russia has helped to turn the official policy towards that which actively supports the persecution of sexual minorities. Russia through its own politics has managed to draw outside focus to its internal policies while beyond its borders minorities across the former Soviet Union are attacked and demonised without arousing outrage in the West.

Protest against Kyrgyzstan's proposed anti-"gay propaganda" law
2014 protest against Kyrgyzstan’s proposed anti-“gay propaganda” law

The region’s struggles have been defined by the isolation that helped create its current atmosphere. Growing influence from Russia and the political indifference seen from the West helped create a situation in which lawmakers were able to target marginalised groups to further their own political ideology.

We should not look at the issues surrounding Kyrgyzstan as a battle of East vs West, but one of right vs. wrong. It is important to validate the local culture and protect it from Western encroachment while our attempts to support international justice are ongoing. But also it is important to ensure that our fight for LGBTI rights remains and international battle, touching on all areas of the world where it is needed.

We must ensure that our approach to distant issues is informed, sympathetic and not shaped by our misconceptions or prejudices and that we approach all problems as unique and separate issues. We must not allowed at-risk communities to remain in danger while the media concerns itself with their token bad guys. More than anything we must do everything we can to ensure that marginalised groups are supported and that attacks on LGBTI groups do not continue.

What you can do

You can support the LGBTI community by supporting the important work of Labrys. For more information on the group and how you can help, visit their website.

Tom Ana is a British writer and campaigner currently living in Budapest, Hungary. He has a strong interest in human rights, equality and geopolitics. He is a Mobilisation and Outreach Officer for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and also runs the blog Euroclash!. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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