In an effort to bring Ukraine closer to the West and avoid offending powerful conservative sensibilites in the new government in Kiev, the European Union has told human rights activists that it may backtrack on demands that the country improve legal protections for sexual minorities, which had previously been called a requirement for liberalizing visa rules between Ukraine and the EU.
The fight over LGBT rights comes as European officials are scrambling to come up with a response to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and has raised the possibility that Brussels may sacrifice demands that Kiev improve its human rights record as part of strengthening ties with Europe.
By liberalizing the visa agreement between Ukraine and the EU, Ukrainian citizens would be allowed to travel freely across member states. EU officials had said that such an agreement would only be implemented if Ukrainian lawmakers passed a tough anti-discrimination law, but the EU now appears to be backing away from that requirement.
On Monday, Ukraine's acting Minister of Justice Pavel Petrenko said that the EU would withdraw the demand and that the union had "found an understanding" with Ukrainian officials. During meetings with civil society leaders and members of the LGBT community earlier this week, officials from the European Commission said that the requirement could be suspended until a later phase of the visa liberalization process, according to activists present in the meetings.
"Now is a moment when the Ukrainian government has a unique opportunity to change the country, to reform, and they need direction and pressure," said Tanya Mazur, the director of Amnesty International Ukraine and who was present in meetings on the matter with EU officials.
Representatives of the European Commission deny that the visa liberalization plan will be changed. "The identified legislative gaps will have to be addressed, including anti-discrimination on basis of sexual orientation," Silvia Kofler, a spokesperson for the EU delegation to the United States, wrote in an email to Foreign Policy.
But according to activists who have met with EU officials, the Ukrainian government has proposed substitute measures to protect the rights of sexual minorities. Those measures would include strengthening the publicly-appointed human rights advocate, using the Ukrainian judiciary to re-interpret existing laws to strengthen rights protections, and changing the country's labor laws to prevent discrimination.
"What we're concerned about is the symbolism of these concessions," said Matthew Schaaf, program officer at the U.S.-based democracy NGO Freedom House. Bjorn van Roozendaal, a program director for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, called it a "dangerous precedent."
The question remains when gaps in protections for sexual minorities will be addressed and whether the Ukrainian government's proposed alternatives will be sufficient for the European Commission to proceed with visa liberalization. According to Kofler, the commission is "assessing the information received."
EU pressure on Ukrainian authorities remains crucial for the country to introduce reforms to LGBT-rights laws, which Anna Kirey, a gay rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Kiev would be unlikely to put in place unless the EU continues to demand progress. Mazur said that during a meeting with Petrenko, the justice minister, he told activists that the government would consider the anti-discrimination law because that was what the European Union wanted.
The problem is a lack of political will. Several members of the new Ukrainian government are very conservative, and the far right played an important role in the anti-government protests that overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after Russia put in place laws last year that outlawed what the government called "gay propaganda," Ukrainian officials considered adopting similar measures. Though the government did not emulate Moscow's crackdown on gay rights, Roozendaal called an anti-discrimination law a "hard sell" within the country's borders.
Meanwhile, hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity continue to plague Ukraine. According to Kirey, who is currently writing a report on violations of LGBT rights in the country, gay Ukrainians routinely experience violence at the hands of both family members and what she described as "vigilante groups." That violence can extend to schools. Kirey described a 16-year-old boy whose classmates would burn his hair every day. Workplace discrimination against sexual minorities remains rife. And with the lack of institutional support, gays and lesbians rarely seek out assistance for violence discrimination.
At the same time, the Ukrainian LGBT-rights community is active, with over 40 such groups around the country. But without pressure from the EU, the government will likely continue to ignore them.