Recently, Ukraine’s LGBT community attempted to test the country’s new Western path by holding an equality festival in the city of L’viv. The outcome was deplorable: L’viv, which markets itself as the most European city in Ukraine, tried to prevent the festival by taking the organizers to court. When the roughly 70 participants gathered in a hotel, it was surrounded by a mob of 200-300 masked thugs chanting, “Kill, kill, kill,” at which point the attendants were evacuated by police.
Afterward, Misanthropic Division, a neo-Nazi organization, claimed responsibility for showing the “degenerates” who are in charge of L’viv. The group celebrated by displaying photographs of members giving the Nazi salute on its Facebook page.
LGBT activists have good reason to be pessimistic when confronting persecution in Eastern Europe. The region’s entrenched homophobia, reinforced by decades of Communist dictatorships as well as burgeoning far-right movements, makes it tempting to concentrate equality efforts on more realistic goals. Ukraine, however, is a unique case.
Ever since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution brought a new government to power, Ukraine has aimed to break away from Russia and join a free and democratic Europe. In recognition of this goal, the U.S. and the EU are providing Kiev with enormous amounts of aid. For the past two years, Ukraine has been a nation in flux, with a government in close contact with Washington, and a significant percentage of the population ready to adopt Western values.
The road toward embracing these values has been slow. When two men filmed themselves holding hands in Kiev last May, they were quickly assaulted by thugs. Last June, members of Right Sector (another far-right group with neo-fascist leanings) brutally ended a Pride parade in Kiev, injuring police and participants alike. Several LGBT activists told Western journalists that violence against the community has risen after the revolution.
Support from the Kiev government has been patchy at best. Prior to last year’s Kiev Pride parade, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko publicly stated that the LGBT community had a right to conduct the march — the announcement was a giant, almost unbelievable step for Ukraine. And yet, many lawmakers have either remained silent or issued horrendous statements backing the far right. “Our ancestors would have trampled these people with their horses,” is how one parliament deputy responded when Ukraine was working to pass a simple workplace non-discrimination law in November.
The most disappointing response has been not of Ukraine, but of the West. Over the past two years, American and European leaders have vociferously condemned the homophobic policies of the Russian government of Vladimir Putin. When it comes to violence against the LGBT community in neighboring Ukraine, however, the West has been largely restrained.
To be fair, Moscow’s actions — from its shameful homophobia during the 2014 Sochi Olympics to the criminalization of “promoting homosexual propaganda to minors” — have given the West plenty of opportunities for condemnation. But if America is tough on Russia, why does it remain oddly silent when it comes to Ukraine, a nation that receives billions of dollars in aid precisely because it seeks to embrace democratic, Western values?
One may be tempted to think Washington’s reticence stems from the fact that America is so heavily involved in Ukraine; after all, it’s never politically expedient to criticize an ally. In reality, however, D.C. has a track record of taking Kiev to task in a harsh and unequivocal manner — just not on human rights matters.
The United States has repeatedly criticized Ukraine for failing to root out the endemic corruption, which continues to paralyze the country. Last December, Vice President Joe Biden flew into Kiev to warn a parliament full of stone-faced lawmakers that this was their “last chance” to reform the government. After politicians continued scuttling reforms, the IMF froze the release of an aid package crucial to keeping Ukraine’s economy afloat. Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate that “dirty money and dirty politics” are threatening to ruin the country.
These harsh statements by high-level diplomats stand in sharp contrast to the silence surrounding the L’viv events. In fact, the closest thing to an official Washington response to 300 neo-Nazis attacking LBGT activists came via several tweets by Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Neither the State Department nor the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus issued so much as a press release.
If Washington plans to continue investing sizeable resources into Ukraine’s nascent democracy, it needs to address not only economic wrongs, but also human rights violations – especially when they are as glaring as what happened in L’viv.
Many speak of human rights; the organizers of L’viv’s festival risked their lives for the cause, and will continue doing so in the future. Surely the U.S. government can recognize their courage with more than a tweet.
Lev Golinkin is a New Jersey-based writer who specializes in human rights and immigrant experiences. His work has appeared in the New York Times and other outlets.