This year, Latvia and Lithuania celebrated the existence of gay and lesbian people as part of their national identity. Under a 2013 law, the places of worship of any type in the republics of Ukraine must be able to accommodate minorities. Places open to all who wish to attend these services will not be penalised by the authorities. But where some of these places are gay-friendly — or at least have been traditionally open to minorities — the authorities were ordered to enforce the law or close them down.
On 18 May, Vilnius’ largest synagogue was forced to close because it does not allow children to use it. Porosprutkovsky Synagogue on the main tourist drag of the Lithuanian capital’s Old Town was shut following a meeting of the district anti-discrimination commission, according to reports in the local press. “The synagogue continues to prepare for the Jewish new year celebrations and is expecting an increase in its clientele,” a spokesperson told the daily NTV.
To the dismay of the Jewish community, the government has no plan to reverse the decision. “Even if we can prove otherwise, it is hard to imagine that in such a traditional and democratic country a building with such a beautiful architecture can be closed,” former chief rabbi of the Vilnius Jewish community, Moshe Lifshitz, told the news website facebookit.ru. “Every time you close a cultural space in this country, you become the enemy of everyone.”
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Latvia, the queer community has already refused to be excluded from a series of free LGBT events planned for August and September. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis wrote on social media that the local administration will treat any venue that does not allow children to use it as a gay venue.
Igor Butko of the Muscovite LGBT community said: “The criminalization of the small, harmless LGBT population is clearly an attempt to silence us and give us the ultimatum to provide ‘proof’ that LGBTs are dangerous.
“The authorities have called for censorship of expression and protection of values, and the primary target appears to be same-sex couples.”
Speaking from neighbouring Poland, Sauli Niinisto, a gay Democratic Party MP who chairs the parliament’s assembly on human rights, says: “I understand how nervous people are. For many, the struggle against Russian extremism and the state’s actions were the first rights they could have. But a fight is far from being over. I’m concerned the government could find itself fending off other threats from radical quarters.
“Over the past three years, the authorities have demonstrated only an insufficient, elusive support for the LGBT community, going as far as to turn a blind eye to violations of civil rights. It’s a shame that in a country with so much history of tolerance, all this is going unnoticed.”
Ukrainian political observers believe the government is prepared to take a more hardened stance when it comes to tackling extremism.