From 27 to 29 November, Vilnius will host the summit of the Eastern partnership, where Ukraine plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and enter into the second phase of a plan on visa liberalisation. Without exaggeration, this step is one of the most important events for Ukraine after obtaining independence.
In fact, this agreement will determine the country’s choice of identity: West or East, Europe or Asia. Although the Ukrainian side has fulfilled most of the “homework,” a number of unresolved issues still remain. One of them is the protection of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) community against discrimination.
Although the government submitted a bill in April which would amend the labour code and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place, the parliament has not yet managed to bring it to a vote. Ukrainian parliamentarians are caught between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, to move to the second phase of the visa liberalisation plan only requires them to adopt the anti-discrimination law, but on the other hand, they do not want to risk their reputation in front of a conservative electorate.
To avoid adopting the unpopular law, legislators are trying to prove its redundancy, referring to appropriate existing safeguards in the constitution.
But the bill’s proponents, representatives of civil society and human rights organisations, rightly point out that the rules of the constitution are declarative, and in order for them to be implemented effectively, more prescriptive laws and control mechanisms are necessary.
European officials have not been tricked by Ukrainian parliamentarians. Stephen Fuele, the EU commissioner dealing with Ukraine relations, in a recent interview for Kommersant Ukraina said the EU will not retreat from its demands on securing the LGBT discrimination ban in the labour code.
Voilodymyr Kirriazi, Ukrainian gay leader and a head of national lgbt movement, commented: “In my opinion, it is a very crucial moment for Ukraine in the development and advancement of the LGBT community, because our country is making its strategic geopolitical choice, and the first group that will feel the consequences of this choice is the LGBT community. Either we approach the equal standards of human rights for every citizen, or following Russia’s example, we’ll move toward censorship, discrimination and violence.”
Many members of the Ukrainian parliament position themselves as liberals. Vitaliy Klychko, for example, who leads the opposition party Udar, said his group would vote for the so-called bill 2342 despite a public backlash, because it “is a step towards European values.”
Although the Batkivshchina party of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has not made official statements, in informal conversations with LGBT activists, its MPs promised to back the law.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the ruling party, Oleksandr Yefremov, said that the Party of Regions will vote “freely,” i.e. each member will make his own decision on whether to support the bill or not.
LGBT activists are now working with parliamentarians, conducting formal and informal meetings and lobbying for adoption of the anti-discrimination bill.
The stumbling block is the forthcoming presidential election, to be held in 2015.
In this still highly conservative country, a recent survey by Gfk found that 79.4 percent of Ukrainian people are against same-sex relationships, and no political force wants “to spoil its reputation.”
The EU association agreement and the Vilnius summit is a turning point for Ukraine.
It is also a moment when Ukraine’s politicians are aligned in support of European values. This is why human rights and LGBT activists believe that if the bill against discrimination in the workplace is not passed before Vilnius, the chances of doing it afterward will decrease significantly.
The position of the government of Ukraine resembles a tango: Cuddling up to Brussels in a warm embrace, the government takes one step forward and two steps back.
It submits the LGBT bill to parliament, but it does not seek to build a parliamentary majority or table a vote. Politicians pass round the buck, each of them afraid of taking responsibility for entering the term “sexual orientation” into national legislation. In any case, on 28 November in Vilnius we will all see how the dance ends.