Belarusian Gay activist keeps fighting the dictatorhsip

Submitted by Nikolay Alekseev, Human Rights LGBT Project

Belarusian Gay activist keeps fighting the dictatorhsip

In an interview to GayRussia.Ru, Slava Bortnik explains the main difficulties in Belarus’ gay life

After they organized their first gay pride marche in Minsk in 2001, and despite the increased repression that followed, Belarus’ gay advocates do not give up. In a regime that is still today considered as “the last dictatorship in Europe”, gays will host an International Conference at the beginning of November.

“The only thing we can wait from the current acting government is putting iron curtains on the closets where we’re spending our lives” says Slava Bortnik, Amnesty International Belarus.

Belarus is often portrayed as a province of Russia to an extend that rumors says both countries will one day merge into a big alliance. Political situation of Belarus is much more difficult : No opposition, no freedom of information, no freedom of assembly. In the light of its poor human rights records, the "guest statuts" of the country was suspended from the Council of Europe in 1997.

Alexander Lukashenko, who "leads" the country since 1994, was re-elected in a highly controversial election last march with 82.6% of the votes. Some says that his influence over his citizens is such that this result could have well been achieved without fraud.

Today, no international convention bounds Lukashenko not to recriminalize homosexuality for the sake of his own PR. Here is all the difference with other Eastern European countries which are still member of the Strasbourg based institution and bound by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Basically, nothing really changed since the end of the soviet era except that those who have money can travel abroad. But how many can ?

GayRussia: Can you explain us the political situation in Belarus after the last presidential elections ?

Slava Bortnik: Life became increasingly difficult for those who speak out against the authorities in Belarus. President Lukashenko appears to be asserting his control over civil society and clamping down on opposition with renewed confidence. The Belarusian authorities regularly employ harassment, intimidation, excessive force, mass detentions and long-term imprisonment as methods to quash voices of dissent in Belarusian society.

Although Belarus has come under increasing international criticism for its poor human rights record, most recently at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, this criticism is met with defiance by the regime.

The democratic-oriented part of Belarusian society has paid very high – and bloody – price for peaceful protests against unfair elections in March this year. More than 500 arrests have taken place throughout the country. Large numbers of demonstrators have been detained and beaten by riot police and anti-terrorist forces.

Despite threats by the KGB chief that those participating in demonstrations after the elections on 19 March would be considered terrorists and could face the death penalty, people of good will came to the squares of their hometowns to express the protest. There were many gays and lesbians among them. Most of those detained were charged for administrative offences such as participation in unsanctioned meetings or hooliganism, which carry sentences of 10 to 15 days detention.

Then, during the meeting on the Day of Freedom (25 March) and the Chernobyl march (26 April) that take place annually and have traditionally been a focus for opposition activists, large numbers of demonstrators have been beaten and detained again.

GR: Would you say that your President is homophobic? Did he ever express an official position on the issue of homosexuality?

SB : Like in every dictator’s regime, in Belarus everything depends on one single person – Alexander Lukashenko. For many years he didn’t express his attitude to homosexuality, but let other of his ‘chief players’ do it: Russian Orthodox Church, MPs, media, and psychiatrists.

Finally, at the consultation with the Belarusian Security Council on 28 September 2004 he said: “… we have to show our society in the near future, what ‘they’ [EU and USA] are doing here, how they are trying to turn our girls into prostitutes, how they are feeding our citizens with illicit drugs, how they are spreading sexual perversion here, which methods they are employing”. And just few weeks later state TV channels started to show what German and Czech diplomats (who are gays) do in Belarus.

According to our president, homosexuality goes hand-in-hand with Western paths to development.

GR: Is there anything to expect from the current government? Is there a room for improvement of the situation of the LGBT community ?

SB: The only thing we can wait from the current acting government is putting iron curtains on the closets where we’re spending our lives. One of the eloquent signs of this is the proposal in April 2005 of Belarusian MP Viktar Kuchynski to criminalize homosexuality. In this connection Kuchynski said that the Criminal Code should to be amended, and penalty for homosexuality introduced. I was surprised that other MPs didn’t support their colleague.

By the way, homosexuality in Belarus was decriminalized for the first time in March 1994, just several months before Lukashenka’s elections. Our parliament was forced to do it by the Council of Europe.

Later, in the beginning of 1997 we lost our membership of the Council of Europe because of the worst human rights record in Europe. Today when our ruler doesn’t express his interest to be associated with Free Europe, nobody can prevent him from intimidating homosexuals.

GR: What is the attitude of the public opinion towards homosexuals ? Is there any research available ?

SB : Homophobic attitude, suspicions and prejudices are still very strong in Belarusian society. According to the survey held by Belarusian Lambda League for Sexual Equality (Lambda Belarus) in April 2002, 47% of Belarusian citizens thought that gays should be imprisoned. Unfortunately, there has been no more serious research on the issue since then.

I don’t think that situation has significantly changed, bearing in mind that after that four years we don’t have any independent newspaper or civil society organization. The gay and lesbian community found themselves deeper in the closet, if it’s possible to say that!

GR: Does it sounds to you better in Russia?

SB: In many ways the situation is pretty the same. Like in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church has a serious influence on day-to-day life of Belarusian citizens. But, there are some specific differences between the positions of LGBT people in our countries.

Russia has better conditions for gay business (as a kind of business in general) that at least creates space for socializing and information exchange. In Belarus where 80% of economy is ruled by state it’s hard to imagine successful gay business.

On the other hand, we don’t have such strong and well-organized mass movements of ultra-right sense. It’s a shame that Russia became a hospitable home for ‘Neo-Nazis’ who hate and destroy life around themselves, but not for LGBT people who just love and want to be loved.

GR: How do you orientate your day to day work to make things progress ?

SB: I coordinate the work of Amnesty International Belarus LGBT Network which was created in 1999. As a grassroots-based membership organization we seek to promote human rights standards at the international and local level that bar discrimination and protect the basic human rights of LGBT people, to educate people and increase public awareness of human rights abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to mobilize people in Belarus to take action on specific cases of human rights abuses against LGBT people.

We work in coalition with LGBT, religious, youth and other groups to develop community-based responses to human rights issues facing the LGBT community today.

GR: How many LGBT organizations are active in Belarus?

SB: Officially there are no LGBT organisations in Belarus. But there are two organisations that work for gays and lesbians and have been officially registered by the state. One of them as an HIV/AIDS-prevention NGO, and another one as women’s NGO.

The trick is that one the one hand HIV/AIDS-prevention is going within gays, and on the other, women are lesbians. I won’t tell you the names of those organizations to avoid potential problems for them from the State. Besides those two, there is number of LGBT initiatives in the capital and big cities, but they exist and operate illegally. In most cases these are small, ill-organized groups of local activists with a lack of resources and sufficient experience.

Just recently I found out about quite big transgender group in Minsk. Good news came from youth wing of Belarusian Social Democrats – in May they created special committee which main goal is to promote human rights of LGBT people.

Now, it’s a hard time for Belarusian non-governmental sector. Even harder than a year ago, especially after the new amendment of the Criminal Code in December 2005.

Anyone who coordinates activities of an association or a foundation which has been suspended or liquidated may face a fine and six months in prison. In vaguely defined “serious cases,” one can be subjected to a “restriction of freedom” sentence for up to two years.

A new article on “discrediting the Republic of Belarus” punishes those who provide “false information” to a foreign government or organization, which is interpreted to misrepresent the political, economic, social, military or international situation of Belarus, its governmental agencies or the legal situation of its citizens by six months in jail, or a “restriction of freedom” sentence of up to two years. These amendments further constrain a civil society that has been under attack by the government since 2001.

In the last few years, almost all critical NGOs in Belarus have been systematically silenced by a series of repressive laws and regulations. Registering a new NGO or legally obtaining foreign aid has become impossible. The vague wording of the amendments provides wide discretionary powers to the authorities, allowing them to label activities of LGBT groups as illegal attempts to discredit or harm the Belarusian state. By the way, even Amnesty International is not registered in my country – and that means all of us are potential criminals.

GR: You were in the first row of the London EuroPride together with Slava Sementsov, another Belarussian activist, do you have a way to express yourself in your country ?

SB: I was holding our historic white-red-white flag, but not official red-and-green, which was originally styled in the communist era and doesn’t mean anything today.

The truth is that the first Belarusian pride festival took place in Minsk in September 1999 despite prohibition. Of course there were many ‘accidents’ involving police brutality. The following year, the planned pride march through the city was banned by the authorities 24 hours before it was due to take place.

Later the authorities acted swiftly to prevent any of the other programmed events from taking place. Uniformed police arrived at the inauguration performance which had already begun. They ordered the lights to be shut off and gave participants only minutes to evacuate the building. Police then followed the festival participants through the street to another club which they then ordered to shut its doors, trapping other customers inside. The following day, the authorities shut down the festival office and closed the entire building in which it was housed.

In 2001 the first ever gay pride march on the territory of the former USSR took place in Minsk. It was organized by Lambda Belarus. The parade of 300 people snaked its way from the parliament building and finished at President Lukashenka’s residence. We were really surprised that the authorities didn’t disturb the parade.

It sounds strange, but the gay march worked for Lukashenka. As it took place just two days before presidential elections, the government-controlled media smeared the opposition by associating it with homosexuality. Lukashenka knows how to manipulate with homophobic attitudes of his electorate.

The new attempts to organize pride events in Belarus have been violently suppressed by the authorities. As for the Belarusian events “in exile”, they have been organized by IGLCN in Stockholm and London last year – and had a wide media coverage.

GR: Is it possible for two Belarusian gay men to live openly together – and for two lesbians ?

SB: No, absolutely. Theoretically, it’s possible for two guys or two girls to live together, but they have to invent a strong ‘sotry’ about the nature of their relationship. In the eyes of society they could be, for example, classmates or relatives. For men it usually works till the age of 30, for women – 23 or 25 maximum. While getting older you have to start thinking about marriage (fake or real, doesn’t matter).

Most gays and lesbian in Belarus live in registered marriage. In many cases spouses don’t know about sexual orientation of their partners. As for me, I have been married to a girl from 2000 through 2004. It was fake marriage, but nobody in my town can say that I’m not a real man.

GR: Next November will take place an International LGBT conference in Minsk. On which topics do you want to share experience with foreign activist ?

SB: Yes, in the focus of the conference will be the following topics: perspectives for gay movements in repressive political regimes, human rights education as a tool of creation of tolerant environment, and international solidarity actions. Besides local activist we expect guests from France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Sweden, UK, and USA.

GR : Thanks. We’ll be there.


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