Olena Shevchenko of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBT advocacy group, was among the hundreds of thousands of people who protested in Kiev’s Independence Square against then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision last fall to reject an agreement that would have brought his country closer to the European Union.
The demonstrations that began last November were initially peaceful, but they grew increasingly violent as protesters demanded an end to government corruption and human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic.
Shevchenko said a friend was shot in the leg during violent clashes in the square known as Maidan in February that left dozens of people dead and hundreds of others injured. She said another friend’s mother is “almost blind” after she was beaten.
“All those killings were really scary, but we didn’t realize that because you are trying to protect yourself and your friends and somebody next to you was shot,” Shevchenko told the Washington Blade during an April 9 telephone interview from Worcester, Mass., where she is attending a leadership program for human rights advocates. “You just don’t get it. It’s just a protest.”
Shevchenko is among those Ukrainians who feel closer ties between the former Soviet republic and the E.U. will help advance the country’s LGBT rights movement.
Insight over the last two years has lobbied Ukrainian lawmakers to pass an anti-discrimination measure that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
E.U. members are required to ban anti-gay employment discrimination within three years of joining the bloc.
Ukrainian lawmakers last month approved a new anti-discrimination measure without sexual orientation. BuzzFeed reported a spokesperson for the European Commission disputed Acting Ukrainian Justice Minister Pavel Petrenko’s claims that Brussels “removed their demands concerning the indication in the law of guarantees for sexual minorities.”
Shevchenko told the Blade she realizes the situation is “really complicated” because of the escalating tensions between Ukraine and neighboring Russia that includes last month’s annexation of Crimea. She nevertheless expressed disappointment over the lack of LGBT-specific provisions within the anti-discrimination bill.
“We understand they will vote for it and it will not be sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Shevchenko. “On one hand I understand this, but of course from the other hand as a member of the LGBT community I am pretty interested in the adoption of such anti-discrimination legislation.”
Shevchenko added anti-LGBT violence and hate speech remain serious problems in her country.
“A legislator puts [forth] some repressive laws [that] will increase the violence on the streets because all those radical people think it gives them a green light to actually go on the streets and to discriminate and to violate someone’s rights,” she said. “They give legitimacy on such violations.”
Shevchenko said Ukrainian police and other officials do not monitor incidents of anti-LGBT hate speech and violence.
“They don’t know anything about hate crimes,” she said.
Shevchenko spoke to the Blade as pro-Russian activists continued to seize government buildings and facilities in Donetsk, Kramtorsk and other cities in Eastern Ukraine. Acting Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchynov on Tuesday announced what the BBC described as an “anti-terrorist operation” against them.
Shevchenko said some LGBT Crimeans with whom she said she recently spoke told her they support Russia’s annexation of their region.
“I told them about all those laws that exist in Russia; it means no freedom for you,” she told the Blade. “It’s propaganda on the TV because in Crimea they’re basically watching Russian TV and they think it will be more money for them, higher salaries and social benefits. I don’t know why they think so because in Russia they have nothing.”
Russia’s LGBT rights record that includes a law banning so-called propaganda to minors that President Vladimir Putin signed last June overshadowed the 2014 Winter Olympics that took place in Sochi in February. President Obama last month authorized sanctions against the Russian lawmaker who introduced the measure over her role in the escalating tensions between Moscow and Kiev ahead of the March 16 referendum on whether Crimea should declare its independence from Ukraine.
Ukrainian lawmakers since 2012 have considered two gay propaganda measures, but they have not had a final vote. Legislators in Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia and Kazakhstan have proposed bills similar to the one that Putin signed into law last summer.
Shevchenko sarcastically described Putin as a “warrior for morality and everything else,” referring to Russia’s traditional values resolution the U.N. Human Rights Council approved in September 2012. She added she feels the Kremlin will continue to try to exert its influence over other former Soviet republics.
“It’s an issue of migrants; it’s an issue of LGBT,” Shevchenko told the Blade. “It all goes through this perception of fighting for traditional values.”