by Tamara Grigoreva and Ismail Djalilov
A wave of brutal crackdowns on LGBT communities in the post-Soviet space has exposed civil society’s shortcomings — and is destroying lives.
B+W illustrations: Anastasia Vikulova.
Every day, before leaving the house, Milan zips his jacket all the way up to his chin. He puts on his sunglasses, hat and earphones with the volume cranked up to the max and walks to a language class.
“People can barely see my face that way, and I can barely hear what is happening around me. I go to class, and then sometimes I meet with the social worker or go to the doctor. Then I have something to eat and set off to walk around the city until I’m so exhausted I can barely walk. Only then do I go home,” Milan says, adding that the thing he is most afraid of is closing his eyes and not being able to fall asleep.
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“This is why I prefer to come home so tired that I literally pass out. Otherwise, every time I close my eyes, I feel the cold concrete floor against my stomach, I can taste the blood on my tongue, hear the shouting of the guards and see those smeared walls.”
Almost a year after Russia’s Novaya Gazeta broke horrific accounts of the roundups and severe torture that gay men were subjected to in Chechnya (the exact number of deaths remains unknown), the crisis is far from over.
Though many gay men in Chechnya, like Milan, fled abroad with the help of Russian LGBT rights defenders, they still have to hide their real identities and locations to prevent possible harassment from the Chechen intelligence — just like in Chechnya.
Over the summer of 2017, reports of similar crimes across the North Caucasus increased, and in September, reports of similar roundups, humiliation and torture against LGBT people (who allegedly had STDs and were involved in sex work) emerged from Azerbaijan — and in October, Tajikistan created a registry of LGBT citizens after police conducted operations to identity them.
While each crisis had its specifics, they all were used by the authorities to demonstrate their ability to crush any vulnerable community in an atmosphere of impunity, as well as to divert attention from other issues and extort money from the victims.
The crises also exposed weak points, such as the lack of evacuation mechanisms, the fragility of the LGBT communities in question and inadequate collaboration between LGBT rights and general civil society groups in Eurasia.
“The crisis is ongoing, we definitely receive more case files and requests. Not on the scale of last year, but there are still many cases that get referred to us,” says a spokesperson for LGBT Network, the rights group in Russia that handled the majority of the cases of Chechen gay victims in 2017.
“We are receiving requests for help not only from Chechnya, but also other neighboring republics in the North Caucasus: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and beyond. We are still not sure what to make of it.
Was that the overall situation in the North Caucasus on the eve of the last year’s crisis, or did the other republics in the region simply adopt the pattern of the Chechen authorities? The attention created by the crisis is fading away, but it’s still ongoing.”
While these crises share similarities, the causes are not necessarily the same
Gulnara Mehdiyeva, an Azerbaijani LGBT rights defender, also cites ongoing problems in her work with victims of Azerbaijan’s LGBT purge. “Now, a few months after these roundups in Baku, the risks for the LGBT community aren’t as high as before. But those whom we helped back in September say they are continuously receiving threats and being targeted by the law enforcement.”
In Tajikistan, the news that the General Prosecutor’s Office had created a list of “proven LGBT people” with hundreds of names was more a confirmation of existing information, according to Dilrabo Samadova, a Dushanbe-based human rights lawyer.
This list first came out in 2015 after Tajik officials went after sex workers, “uncovering” the country’s LGBT community in the process.
Former military offices in Argun, Chechnya, where gay men were detained, humiliated, tortured and subject to extortion in 2017. Image: Following Tajikistan, the news of similar attacks on a smaller scale started to pop up elsewhere across Eurasian.“
Any such negative developments tend to have a negative effect and find their way across the region at some point. We’ve seen that with the ‘gay propaganda’ law and other similar events,” says Kyrgyz Indigo’s activist Amir Mukhambetov, commenting on Kyrgyzstan’s 2014 gay propaganda law.
But while these crises share similarities, the causes are not necessarily the same.
Show of power and corruption
Dmitry Dubrovsky with Saint Petersburg’s Human Rights Council says it’s hard to explain why the attacks on gay people happened in Chechnya. Dubrovsky says that previously, for example, honour killings of women were widespread in Chechnya, but “they were carried out by the families, while gays were targeted by the Chechen authorities.”
He adds that “homophobia in general in Russia is quite high”, citing a recent homophobic video on social media that called on Russians to participate in the March 2018 presidential elections as an example.
“The Chechen authorities were always hostile towards anyone who could be labeled as ‘the other,’” says the LGBT network spokesperson, adding that the LGBT people had always suffered physical attacks in the past, as well as attempts to extort money from them.
Illustration: Anastasia Vikulova. “This is the first time it was so massive. In an instant, the gays became the whole focus of the Chechen authorities… What we’ve learned is that it just happens in Chechnya that someone, some group just becomes ‘the other’ at one point or the other: drug users, traffic violators, etc. There’s no one who is on the safe side living in that area, anyone can easily become a victim,” she adds.
In Dushanbe, Samadova also cites the rise of homophobia and says events like the crackdown in Chechnya or Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law affect the state of LGBT rights in Tajikistan. “The government harasses the LGBT community to extort money. However, interestingly, the harassment partially comes from the State Committee on National Security [known by the abbreviation GKNB] and if GKNB does it, it means the state is portraying the LGBT community as a threat to national security.”
“Right now, this [the evacuations] is happening ad-hoc, which is not helpful in terms of security. There’s a need for fast evacuation routes”
In Azerbaijan, according to Mehdiyeva, there were dozens of explanations floating around regarding the reasons for the crackdown, but she attributes the situation in October to corruption, adding that “the LGBT people who had an STD at the time of an arrest had already been registered with the Ministry of Health.
Also, in Azerbaijan, if anyone in any district wants to do any kind of work, the police know about it. The same is true of sex work. They [the police] were told to catch the LGBT people, so they caught the ones they already knew and demanded others’ phone numbers from them, and then engaged in extortion.”
But no matter what the causes, these crises have exposed major problem areas.
Exposing the fault lines
One of the biggest problems that these crises faced was the lack of swift and well thought-out evacuation mechanisms for victims. Referring to his own experience of observing evacuations of LGBT Chechens, Dubrovsky says “there were no mechanisms that worked well. Right now, this [the evacuations] is happening ad-hoc, which is not helpful in terms of security. There’s a need for fast evacuation routes in the cases when there are threats to one’s freedom and/or life.”
Another problem is that the “public narrative in many of these cases is such that it’s the victims’ fault,” says Amir Mukhambetov.
In Azerbaijan, Mehdiyeva says the narrative fits the same pattern, noting that “the officials caught those who were too loud in the streets, or had STDs.” Unlike Chechnya, Mehdiyeva adds, the victims of the LGBT crackdown in Azerbaijan didn’t receive a lot of help in terms of relocation to safety. However, she links the lack of assistance to the fact that in Chechnya there were instances of people dying as the result of torture, and “in Azerbaijan, the worst we had was the use of a taser.”
The spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network says their organisation, on the contrary, had seen a lot of support from the international community, including help with ensuring safety.
However, “there were a lot of governments that were hesitant to address this crisis in public speeches or take it up with president Putin. There was a lot of back channeling, but some were hesitant to speak out publicly. [Had they done so,] more countries could have opened their borders and accepted more refugees.”
Illustration: Anastasia Vikulova.
Mehdiyeva says in Azerbaijan, the lack of support on behalf of civil society at large was obvious. “The public thought that there was really some crisis as it was portrayed by the Ministry of Health.
Members of civil society at large could have said something, but they chose to remain silent.” Mehdiyeva mentions that the international media’s attention to the matter was much higher than their local counterparts, though the Azerbaijani Service of the BBC, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Germany-based Meydan TV later started reporting as well.
Samad Rahimli, a human rights lawyer based in Baku who represented a number of the victims in court, describes Azerbaijani civil society’s reaction as “less than desirable”. “On the one hand, there was no condemnation, and on the other, a small part of civil society reacted with homophobic statements.”
“In a nation like Azerbaijan, where homophobia runs high, the political opposition cannot touch the issue or support it”
Rahimli adds that the situation did not pertain solely to the LGBT community. “Since we witnessed blatant discrimination on the one hand, and violation of fundamental rights such as the use of torture, restriction of the right to liberty and due process, it was directly within the purview of the civil society groups and organisations.”
“The potential reasons for such a reaction,” Rahimli adds, “is the fact that, quite unfortunately, a sizable portion of the civil society organisations see themselves as part of the political opposition and identify with them. In a nation like Azerbaijan, where homophobia runs high, the political opposition cannot touch the issue or support it.
They are afraid to lose votes and are wary of the people’s reaction or that the government would use their support in a smear campaign. Civil society, sadly, shares this hesitation.”
In Russia, the situation has developed along a somewhat different path. The LGBT Network’s spokesperson calls the current state of things “a new era of human rights-related crimes” and adds that the shift towards severe attacks on communities has shown that “we are not protected anymore”, and “there should be more unity in resolving such crises.”
Unity is key
The same spokesperson with the LGBT Network in Russia says they’d like to see more of Russian civil society at large addressing LGBT issues.
“In Russia, we still have the ‘normal’ people’s rights and the rights of LGBT,” they say, adding that a number of civil society groups “started to make a huge leap towards appreciating the need for supporting the LGBT people in Chechnya, as well as acknowledging their existence in the first place.”
“There is a clear need for more communication and collaboration between the LGBT rights community and the civil society at large”
However, both the LGBT Network and Dmitry Dubrovsky state that in Russia speaking out about the violations of the rights of the LGBT community can at any time be interpreted as LGBT propaganda, which is punishable under the provisions of the notorious gay propaganda law of 2013.
“There is a clear need for more communication and collaboration between the LGBT rights community and the civil society at large,” says Dubrovsky, pointing out that “the LGBT rights community is a group of self-defense, and the rights defenders at large are more a group formed around principles.
These groups have a lot of common points, but also conceptual differences. It is important to understand that their strategic goals are not always the same. For example, from the point of view of the rights defenders, discrimination at a university must be publicized, but from the point of view of a student, this will greatly complicate their life.”
Maxim Lapunov, centre, who came forward publicly to seek justice after he was detained and tortured by Chechen police. Source: Human Rights Watch. Existing personal relationships help collaboration at the time of crises like the one in Chechnya, says the LGBT Network’s spokesperson, adding that it’s important to “at least try to establish our points of collaboration”.
One of the frequently mentioned areas for collaboration is research. Going forward, those knowledgeable of the issue point out that conducting research on LGBT topics could help push for change.
Lack of research
Recent crises have shown that there’s little systematic data on the issue of the LGBT rights or communities in general across Eurasia, and all that’s available is anecdotal data. “When there’s a more systematic data, then these issues are taken more seriously,” Dubrovsky says.
Mehdiyeva agrees that substantial research would help in the areas such as litigation, legislative changes and advocacy. Rahimli also mentions the lack of any substantive public opinion data or research in the country. He cites a public attitudes study carried out by ILGA-Europe, a leading LGBT rights advocacy group based in Brussels, which described Azerbaijan as the worst place to be gay in Europe in its LGBTI index of 2016.
Milan and most other victims will continue living in hiding and in fear that something similar could happen again
“Only after such a study is conducted can we talk about creating a sound framework to address the LGBT issues in Azerbaijan, such as strategic litigation, the scope and size of discrimination faced by the members of the community or enacting anti-discrimination legislation,” Rahimli says.
A year later, the world has moved on to address other challenges. Milan has moved on too — after he managed to relocate. His steps brisk, his shoulders wavering and long arms flapping, is yet again on one of his walks “till exhaustion” when his phone rings. He says he understands that the world can’t be transfixed with Chechnya forever, but “you all need to know this crisis isn’t over.”
Milan and most other victims will continue living in hiding and in fear that something similar could happen again. In an environment of impunity and lack of local and international accountability mechanisms, further spread of such attacks on other countries and other vulnerable communities is inevitable.
What is being done right now, Milan says, only addresses the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but “there should be something else. So that the government knows they can’t treat people like they’ve treated me. There should be some sort of retaliation. If it is not punished, the government will do something like this again.”