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November 06, 2014

To Succeed as a Democracy, Ukraine Must Protect LGBT Citizens

Last week, Kyiv’s oldest movie theater was burned to the ground during an LGBT movie screening as the arsonists shouted anti-gay slurs. Despite serious injury to some attendees, police have refused investigate the incident as a potential hate crime. Other attacks on cinemas and galleries showing LGBT content have gone uninvestigated as well.

Ukraine stands on the tipping point between East and West, Russia and the European Union. How the country handles threats to its minority populations is one indicator of how the scales may be leaning. The chronic lack of police concern for LGBT citizens is a worrisome sign.

So is the new police chief. The Ukraine Minister of Interior appointed Vadim Troyan, a member of a paramilitary group with a history of far-right connections, as the head of Kyiv’s police force.

Yet many Ukraine citizens yearn for a more democratic society, with robust rule of law and government transparency. In a protest over the theater burning, activist Olena Shevchenko, a rainbow flag draped over her shoulders, shouted into a loudspeaker, “We need an investigation that is transparent. We need to see results. I want to remind you to not allow our government or the police to keep these crimes unpunished… these crimes have no place in our country.”

Maxim Eristavi, co-founder of independent media start-up Hromadske International, notes on his TV show that protecting LGBT citizens is part and parcel of broader democratic reforms: “It’s less about LGBT attacks and hate crimes, more about accepting this whole package of being a western society where you understand that you need to protect and tolerate your minorities.”

After the Maidan Revolution and the ousting of Russia-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine elected a slew of pro-European politicians and some new faces. Nevertheless, the old oligarchs still hold considerable control. And although the far-right parties did poorly in last month’s parliamentary elections, Troyan’s appointment as police chief suggests extremist elements still have meaningful influence.

Some politicians have used the war in the east with Russia-backed rebels as an excuse to back away on civil and human rights protections. In July, what would have been Kyiv’s second pride march was canceled because the police refused to guarantee they would protect marchers from anti-LGBT protestors.

But such logic is faulty. As journalist Oliver Carroll said on Eristavi’s broadcast, “The war isn’t going to be won on the frontlines, it’s going to be won on the reforms we talked about and through the idea of a civilizational choice… a choice of values and tolerance.”

Ukraine still has a chance of developing a full-bodied democracy—but reforms cannot wait until their next election cycle