For almost two years the world has watched as the West and Russia have battled over competing visions for Ukraine’s future which have left the country divided. Reports continue to tell of deteriorating conditions in the pro-Russian separatists’ controlled regions in the east. In June, the UN estimated the death toll at 6,400. Evidence of human rights abuses including executions, human trafficking, illegal detentions, and forced labour, have been well documented. Everyday activities have become near impossible in areas under attack, often left without electricity and proper infrastructure for months on end.
One topic that has been left largely unexplored is what life has become like for those who were already on the periphery of Ukrainian society before the war – those who were and continue to be discriminated against because of who they are – whether they have a ‘different’ sexual identity, ethnicity, religion, disability, speak a minority language, or live in an orphanage.
In August the Equal Rights Trust released its latest country report In the Crosscurrents: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Ukraine which, for the first time, provides a comprehensive account of discrimination and inequality experienced by the most vulnerable groups in the country. The report is based on research carried out throughout Ukraine in partnership with the Ukrainian lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organisation Nash Mir.
In the Crosscurrents finds that Ukraine’s alliance with Europe has meant it has adopted legal and policy standards which could lead to radical improvements in protection from discrimination if implemented effectively. Ukraine’s Law “On Principles of Prevention and Combating Discrimination” is in line with international best practice. But at the same time, a perception of European intrusion has fostered opposition at many levels, in both Ukrainian and pro-Russian domains, propelling the politicisation of human rights issues to an extreme.
For example, since the crisis, Russian propaganda has been trying to discredit Ukraine’s pro-European stance suggesting that the country’s historic and cultural roots are threatened by aligning with Europe and its support of LGBT rights. Consequently, discrimination against the LGBT community has augmented throughout the crisis, particularly in Crimea and separatist-held territories where there has been an increase in homophobic attacks, and where authorities have openly expressed homophobic views. Adding fuel to the fire, Ukrainian authorities have refused to speak out for LGBT persons in an attempt to remain popular among its ‘traditional’ voting base.
Overall, support for LGBT rights has been degraded to a price that has to be paid for European integration. “We’d rather have a gay pride in the streets of Kyiv than Russian tanks”, a Ukrainian politician pronounced at the peak of the conflict.
The annexation of Crimea and the war in the east have also created an entirely new pattern of discrimination against internally displaced persons fleeing the affected zones. Suspected of being sympathetic to Russia, they have already faced discrimination in securing jobs and homes.
Disturbingly, the report confirms that there continue to be a very high number of Ukrainian children – almost one in 100 – living in institutions where they are frequently exposed to appalling violence and deprived of their basic human rights. In this regard, Ukraine is firmly aligned with Russia and not with Europe, as Russia has notoriously bad record of ill-treatment of institutionalised children.
Of all the risks which threaten stability and democracy in Ukraine, we found the greatest is posed by identity politics. The conflict itself has politicised pre-existing ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions and a new anti-Russian bias has emerged. To take language for example, in Kyiv in particular, a division has begun to emerge based on whether a person prefers to speak Russian over Ukrainian.
If the government wants to secure the country’s choice in favour of a European type of polity, it should not regard human rights as currency with which to pay for visa liberalisation and further European integration. It should genuinely guarantee equal rights for all, regardless of a person’s ethnic, linguistic, religious or sexual identities. Further, if it allows equal rights to be overrun by identity politics, and in particular if the ingrained Russian dimension of the Ukrainian nation is antagonised rather than embraced and celebrated, the Kyiv government will be handing in the victory to Mr Putin. And no amount of support from the West will be enough to change this.