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A Violent Struggle Over National Identity

This article was originally published in Coda Story. It is the second part of a two-part multimedia series.

By Andrew North

We knock again, hard. But still there is no sound of anyone coming to the door. A journalist colleague and I had been invited for dinner at the home of Nika, a gay man who recently set up a small LGBTQ support group in Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital. Only after we phone him do we finally hear muffled sounds from inside of first one, then two heavy metal doors being unlocked. “This is how we live now,” said Nika, taking in my glance at his security arrangements.

Two years ago, the Kyrgyz parliament followed the lead of its powerful near-neighbor Russia and introduced a series of amendments outlawing the promotion of same-sex relationships. Popularly known as the “anti-gay propaganda law,” it has unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation against the LGBTQ community, with a near 300 percent increase in reported attacks since the legislation was announced. Some people have been savagely assaulted, including one gay man we interviewed who was beaten unconscious and gang-raped this year. Several sources told us of lesbians being subjected to so-called “corrective rapes,” and many attacks go unreported. LGBTQ activists have gone underground after the Bishkek office of one advocacy group was firebombed.

“I get phone calls and text messages saying things like: ‘we’re gonna cut out your tongue and shove it up your ass’ and ‘you are ruining this country,’” said Nika. “The new law encouraged everyone to go after us, without fear of being punished.” The police are often accused of being at the forefront, with many LGBTQ individuals detailing instances of officers threatening to expose their sexual identity unless they pay bribes.

Nika showed us into his living room where his other guests are already seated around a coffee table, while others help bring dishes from his kitchen next door. It is a friends’ get-together just like anywhere else—except they say this is now the only safe way they can meet because of the spate of homophobic attacks. “If I could afford it, I would leave tomorrow,” said Slava, one of his guests.

It was never easy being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchal, Muslim-majority society. Nonetheless, in a region where the Soviet past hangs heavily and ossified dictatorship is the norm, the smallest of the Central Asian “Stans” was seen as a relative beacon of tolerance and democracy. And while there were occasional attacks in the past, the LGBTQ community was mostly left to itself. Until recently there were even several gay clubs in Bishkek. But over the past few years, internal and external forces have “dragged the LGBT community into a battle for Kyrgyz identity,” said Medet Tiulegenov, chair of international and comparative politics at the American University in Bishkek.

Poor and landlocked, Kyrgyzstan has been a geopolitical and economic supplicant ever since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, always vulnerable to bigger powers. While the U.S. needed the Manas airbase outside Bishkek after 2001 to ferry troops in and out of Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz government tilted westward. But the Kremlin proved the greater force, unhappy at an American presence in its backyard, and successfully pressed Bishkek to close the base. And since winning power in 2011, President Almazbek Atambayev has cemented this shift away from the West toward Russia. “We cannot have a separate future,” he declared when President Vladimir Putin visited Kyrgyzstan in 2012.

He has been an assiduous courtier, extending Russia’s lease on its own military base outside Bishkek, before enthusiastically copying anti-Western crowd-pleasers in the Kremlin’s legal arsenal. First came a virtual clone of Moscow’s offensive on NGOs, with legislation demanding all groups receiving external funding declare themselves as “foreign agents,” targeted at human rights groups, including those advocating for the LGBTQ community. And then, in March 2014, members of parliament from the ruling coalition announced the “anti-gay propaganda” measures, with even harsher penalties on paper than the Russian version. They were necessary to “protect the rights of the majority rather than of the minority,” said one of the co-sponsors, Talantbek Uzakbaev, a member of the pro-Russian “Dignity” party. “We cannot tolerate gay propaganda.”

These moves had enthusiastic support from powerful nationalist and religious constituencies at home—both Muslim and Orthodox Christian. Self-styled nationalist groups like Kyrk-Choro (Kyrgyz Knights) have been at the forefront of assaults on both the LGBTQ community and sex workers—with its leader claiming he has official backing. (Raids on brothels and prostitutes quickly subsided though, because unlike the LGBTQ community, analysts say, they have establishment defenders.) In effect, being anti-Western and homophobic have become two ends of the same bone in a Kyrgyz version of dog-whistle politics. “Being anti-LGBT has been very profitable for the nationalists,” said Tiulgenov.

But less so for Kyrgyzstan, as Moscow has given little in return for President Atambayev’s fealty. Hammered by low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, Russia has instead cancelled several major investments, including plans for a $2.5 billion hydro-power scheme, just as crucial remittance income from Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia has also collapsed. And while it’s been a symbolic boost for President Vladimir Putin to have Kyrgyzstan join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, for Bishkek it’s been an expensive let-down so far, as new customs fees have hit its lucrative transit trade with China.

In the meantime, homophobic violence has risen. It’s impossible to get definite figures but staff at one Bishkek LGBTQ activist group—who asked me not to publish its name—said they’ve been helping the victims of five or six attacks a month in the past year, nearly three times the rate of two years ago. But, says Amir, one of the group’s activists, “these are only the ones we know about.”

The television in the corner competed with the dinner chat as Nika’s guests tucked into a delicious selection of meat and vegetarian dishes. There are nine men and women, from a mix of ethnic Kyrgyz, ethnic Russian, and other backgrounds. The conversation though is all in Russian, one of Kyrgyzstan’s two official languages—one of many ways Moscow can be sure of maintaining its influence here, even if it is running low on cash.

Stalin has paid the price for his cartographic crimes in Kyrgyzstan, but Bishkek is still dotted with Lenin statues and streets named after other communist celebrities who were removed from other parts of the former Soviet bloc years ago. So the Kyrgyz government’s manifestations of loyalty were almost like a free handout for the Kremlin, observers say—it already has the mainstream of Kyrgyz public opinion in the bag. “If there was a world war tomorrow, I would be with Russia,” was how one Kyrgyz businessman put it, as we talked about relations with Moscow.

For the LGBTQ community, this only serves to amplify their troubles. Russian TV channels, with their explicit anti-Western, homophobic bias, have a solid audience. “It makes me feel guilty about being gay when I hear some Russian programs,” said Nika. Local media outlets tied to the government and nationalist groups take a similar line, helping stoke an atmosphere of permissive victimization. “‘Look there’s the faggot,’ another student shouted out when he saw me in my university café,” said Ilya, one of Nika’s dinner guests. There is no point going to the college authorities, he said, “because that will just bring me more trouble.” And Ilya said he was recently ejected from his gym. “The manager said other clients had complained about me being there. He didn’t say it was because I’m gay, but it was clear that’s what he meant.”

And it’s political suicide to come to the LGBTQ community’s defense, say analysts. LGBTQ advocacy groups would also be hit if the parallel “foreign agents” law is passed—as most receive Western funding—but the rest of the NGO community have conspicuously avoided coming to their defense.

Yet more than two years since the Kyrgyz parliament first introduced the “anti-gay propaganda” measures amid a flurry of pro-Russian rhetoric, it has stalled on actually making it law. Members of parliament gave the bill large majorities on its initial two readings, but no date has been set for the necessary third reading, and it would still need the president’s signature afterwards. There’s similar uncertainty over the "foreign agents" bill targeting NGOs, which was first introduced in 2013. And no one knows if or when parliament will debate them again.

Even so, the police have reportedly been using the anti-gay propaganda legislation to justify going after LGBTQ individuals and then extorting bribes. “They say they are enforcing the law,” said Pasha, a gay man who was forced to hand over 4000 Kyrgyz Som (about $60—a large sum in a country with an average wage of less than $300 per month). Some Kyrgyz journalists have reportedly resorted to self-censoring stories on homophobic attacks, or anything to do with the LGBTQ community, in case they are accused of publishing “pro-gay” propaganda. “The liberal sector in society is coming under increasing stress,” said Medet Tiulgenov of the American University.

I made repeated requests to talk to Kyrgyz members of parliament and other officials about their Russian-inspired legislative plans, and the associated rise in homophobic attacks. All said they were too busy, or never returned my calls. Perhaps that is a sign of what one diplomatic source calls “buyer’s remorse,” particularly over the anti-gay propaganda measures. “The president has said privately he doesn’t think it’s a good law now,” said the source, “but politically it’s hard to roll it back.”

Viktor had been receiving threatening text messages for several months, messages like: “Why are you spoiling our country” and “Leave, you freak, or we’ll cut your head off.” He moved to another part of Bishkek, hoping he would be safe.

But one evening this January, walking home from work, he was ambushed and beaten to the ground. “I didn’t hear anything because I had my headphones on,” he said. “‘Why are you still here,’ they were shouting. ‘We warned you we would find you.’” They kicked him unconscious, and when Viktor came round he found he had been driven to a wooded area, and his attackers were tearing off his clothes. Then they took turns to rape him. “One held my head down so I couldn’t see their faces,” he told me, pausing and sobbing several times as he tells the story.

“From the moment the bill was first discussed, Kyrgyz society took it as permission for extermination,” said Viktor. “Some don’t even understand what it says, but they take it as a call to hunt.” Yet after past experiences of harassment, he never even considered going to the police. “They would just say ‘we don’t take cases from gays and faggots.’”

Several sources told me of cases of lesbians being subjected to “corrective rape,” after their sexual orientation was uncovered. “Sometimes it’s the brothers who do it,” said one LGBTQ activist. Some lesbians are forced into marriage; many are reported to have fled Kyrgyzstan for good. Through intermediaries, three victims of corrective rape said they were too scared to talk to us, and activists believe many more such attacks are never reported.

But some are trying to take a stand. On May 17, 2015, activists from a Bishkek group called Labrys and several other LGBTQ advocacy organizations were gathering at a Bishkek restaurant for the “International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia” when it was attacked by a nationalist mob. They stormed the restaurant, chanting abuse as they went, and one woman was injured in the ensuing scuffles. Though it was frightening, compared to other recent anti-LGBTQ violence, it was a relatively minor incident. But this time activists called the police.

With so many eyewitnesses, Evgenia Krapivina, their lawyer, believes the police had no choice but to open a case, and two suspected members of Kyrk-Choro have been charged with hooliganism and property damage. To no one’s surprise, there’s been little progress since, and they hold out little hope of winning, but one of the Labrys activist who was there sees it as part of a much bigger battle. “The LGBT community is not the only target,” he says. “Some of the nationalists who attack us say everyone should speak Kyrgyz, and that there’s no place for Russians here. And tomorrow someone else will be the target.”

*****

*****

The names of all the LGBTQ individuals have either been changed or not published, at their request, because of concerns for their safety.

Andrew North is a freelance journalist and artist.

[Images by Andrew North]

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