Gay rights row hits Ukraine’s hopes of visa-free EU travel

Parliament debates reforms amid uptick in fighting with Russian-backed separatists

Gay rights activists attend a rally outside the parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Gay rights activists attend a rally outside the parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

 

Ukraine has moved closer to making key legal changes to help secure visa-free travel to the European Union for its citizens, but hit a stumbling block on Tuesday over a controversial law to ban all forms of discrimination in the workplace.

Deputies voted through anti-corruption measures and other reforms in what has become known as the “visa-free package”, but a vital step aimed particularly at protecting sexual minorities did not secure a majority in the chamber.

It was not clear whether parliamentary leaders would seek another vote late on Tuesday night on the Bill, which suffered its second rejection within a week despite the efforts of senior EU officials to convince Ukrainian deputies of its importance.

Prejudice against gay people is rife in Ukraine, despite homosexuality being decriminalised in 1992, and people have attacked gay pride events and claimed they contravene the country’s traditional and spiritual values.

The head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, sent a letter last week to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko underlining the importance of anti-graft and anti-discrimination reforms; on Monday, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini delivered the same message in person during a visit to Kiev.

In voting on Tuesday, however, the Bill garnered only 207 of the 226 votes required for approval.

Some Ukrainians accuse the EU of placing obstacles in the way of a decision to grant visa-free travel to citizens of the 45-million-strong nation, at a time when the bloc is struggling with its biggest refugee crisis since the second World War.

Needed to modernise

Referring to the main street in central Kiev, Yuri Lutsenko, a leading ally of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said it was better to have “a gay parade on Kreshchatik than Russian tanks in the centre of the Ukrainian capital”.

“I think that if we are going into Europe, we should recognise the accepted rules of European society . . . Unfortunately, in two or three parliamentary factions there are grave doubts.”

When the anti-discrimination Bill was first voted down last week, a member of prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party, Pavlo Unguryan, declared: “As a country with a thousand-year-old Christian history, we simply cannot allow this. Today, a special status for sexual minorities is simply unacceptable.”

Ukraine relies on EU and US financial and diplomatic support as it seeks to recover from a 2014 revolution and defeat a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern regions.

Ukrainian and separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have reported intensified fighting in recent days, and accused each other of using weapons that are supposed to have been withdrawn under a fragile ceasefire deal.

At Tuesday’s start of a terrorism trial in a Kiev court of two Russians captured in the conflict zone in May, they denied earlier statements that they were members Moscow’s military intelligence service, claiming the confessions had been made under duress.