People hold posters depicting victims of homophobic violence at a public event in St. Petersburg.

©2013 Mads Nissen/Panos

In April, news broke of a widespread anti-gay purge in Chechnya; in September, gay men and transgender women were rounded up in Azerbaijan; and in October reports emerged of a registry of gay men and lesbians compiled by authorities in Tajikistan. How might we understand these disparate events as part of a trend in these three former Soviet Union countries?   

The regional leaders’ rhetoric and their modus operandi show that these events are linked by a discourse on “traditional values” that situates LGBT people as the aberrant “other.”  The idea of a timeless, unchanging tradition is particularly powerful in these times of social uncertainty, political instability, and economic pressure. 

This chain of events began in earnest in 2013 with Russia’s federal “propaganda law,” banning the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.”  The law had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Violence with impunity against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia spiked.  The propaganda law doesn’t ban sexual relations between members of the same sex. Rather it targets all media and public activities that “try to portray homosexuality as normal behavior.”  

Similar propaganda-style legislation has been discussed in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine, leading to an increase in public discourse on “traditional values” as a way to sabotage the rights of LGBT people throughout the region. The echoes of “traditional values” rhetoric can be heard of course much further afield including in Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Uganda.  Russia is not directly responsible for this proliferation of laws outlawing the promotion of homosexuality, or for the renewed zeal for using existing morality laws against LGBT people, such as in Egypt. But Russia has positioned itself as the champion of traditional values, both domestically and internationally.

Russia and Egypt have long led the charge against the advance of the rights of LGBT people at the United Nations, focusing their efforts on “traditional values” and “family values”’ and opposing any mention of sexual orientation, gender identity, or even gender. 

 “Traditional values” is the staple language of Russia’s alliance with countries from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Africa Group at the United Nations.  The rights of LGBT people are the wedge issue used to undermine the universality of human rights and to position Russia in opposition to the West on the global stage.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, used this approach in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014:  "A number of countries have recently seen a sudden and sometimes rather aggressive rise in the activities of those who support ultra-liberal ideas, advocating permissiveness and hedonism and demanding a revision of norms of morality and ethics shared by all world religions.” Lavrov articulated a powerful rhetorical divide in which the world is split between decadent modernity and wholesome tradition. It has served its purpose well, as a clever shorthand against human rights.

It is in this geo-political context that the words and actions of leaders in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Chechnya, a region within Russia, need to be understood. 

In April, news broke that security forces in Chechnya had been systematically rounding up gay men, torturing them, forcing them to reveal the names of others, and finally releasing them beaten and bruised to their families in a shaming ritual that encouraged so-called “honor-killings,”

This is what Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, had to say at the time.   “If there were such people [gays] in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” In other words, gay people are erased from Chechnya – they do not exist and if they did it would be such an aberration that their own families would get rid of them.

Kadyrov said a few weeks later, “These [homosexual relations] are not traditional things; they are psychiatrically abnormal things. We don’t understand them.”  Here Kadyrov situated homosexuals outside the parameters of culture and tradition.

Magomed Selimkhanov, State Duma deputy of Chechnya, told the media around the same time: “In Chechnya, there are no gays, so there is no attitude toward them. Personally, I think they belong two meters under the ground.”  Elimination is the logical progression of the rhetoric that situates LGBT people outside the parameters of the social order.

In Azerbaijan, notwithstanding that homosexual conduct was decriminalized in 2000, authorities rounded up at least 83 of men beginning mid-September, and, like their Chechen counterparts, tortured them, including using electroshocks, and forced them to reveal the names of others.  Unlike in Chechnya, authorities did not deny that gay men in Baku were rounded up in official raids. They justified the raids on social and public health grounds.

Ehsan Zahidov, spokesman for the Internal Affairs Ministry, said in a September interview with EurasiaNet.org that police were responding to complaints from residents in Baku that gay men were visible on the streets. He is quoted as saying: “People complain that such people walk around us, walk in our streets, and sit in our cafés. ‘These are people who do not fit our nation, our state, our mentality, please take action against them.’”

This is the familiar politics of exclusion that underpins the “traditional values” rhetoric. It characterizes sexual and gender minorities as outgroups and hence convenient scapegoats. LGBT identities, rhetorically linked to modernity and globalization, can readily be blamed for social ills and the perceived erosion of the moral order. This has dangerous consequences for LGBT people in the region. The Azerbaijan spokesman’s explanation echoes the language of social cleansing used by Chechen leader to justify the brutal purge there. 

Government officials have also justified the Baku raids in the language of public health, claiming that the gay men arrested were tested for sexually transmitted diseases. And public health is the justification for the “registry” reportedly compiled by authorities in Tajikistan of 367 citizens presumed to be gay or lesbian. Details were unveiled by the newspaper Zakonnost, published by Tajikistan’s state prosecutor, which said that they “put on a register due to their vulnerability in society and for their safety and to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.”

The registry appeared in the context of a worsening homophobia in Tajikistan. While homosexuality has been de-criminalized there since 1998, LGBT groups have described to us a consistent pattern in which law enforcement targets people perceived as gay or lesbian for detention, ill-treatment, and extortion, threatening to out them to their families, employers and wider community.

Zakonnost’ reported that a working group set up last year produced the registry based on two state operations beginning in 2016, entitled “Morality” and “Purge.”  The connection between the idea of public health, and a contaminated social body is not hard to see in that terminology.  This is a classic recipe for a moral panic – a vulnerable minority is blamed for social ills. If that group can be isolated and purged, so the perverse logic goes, then all will be well.

LGBT people are certainly not the first to be persecuted following this logic.  But through a persistent rhetoric, powerfully promoted by Russia and its allies, LGBT people have come to embody all that is antithetical to so-called “traditional values.”  And when that rhetoric lays the groundwork for ostracizing LGBT people, it takes little to tip the balance against their basic security—raids, round-ups, and purges are the violent consequence of political homophobia.