George Vasilev, lecturer in Politics at La Trobe, discusses gay rights activism in Eastern Europe.
Part 1 briefly looks at gay rights activism, and its impact, in different parts of Eastern Europe. Part 2 looks at the main factors that help explain the uneven rates of gay rights reform in Eastern Europe.
As revealed in Part 1, the rate of LGBT reform across Eastern Europe has been uneven. There are several overlapping factors that help explain this.
- Identification with ‘Europe’
Where prior identification with Europe is strong, the transformative power of LGBT activism is also likely to be strong. This is because LGBT equality has become a norm associated with European values. In this cultural environment, states with an aspirationally European identity are sensitive to the shaming activities of rights campaigners internationally publicising homophobia and revealing the disjuncture between national laws and attitudes on the one hand and the values synonymous with a European identity on the other.
The transformative power of prior European identification has been evident in Croatia and Slovenia, where a discourse of ‘returning to Europe’ has featured prominently since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The presence of this discourse has served as an opportunity to motivate LGBT reform, as the equality norms implied by that discourse have given activists a critical vantage point for holding self-identifying European politicians to account.
By contrast, in Serbia and Russia, identification with Europe has been weak, or Europe has simply been construed as a national adversary. In this identity narrative, LGBT activists have been easy prey to vilification campaigns waged by conservative politicians with no intention to be liked by Europe or to conform with what the rest of Europe does on human rights issues. These politicians have portrayed activists as foreign agents and promotors of values that are incompatible with the traditions of the nation, making it extremely difficult for activists to be taken seriously in public debate.
- Ideological disposition of governing elites
Ideological disposition is a determinant of reform by shaping the receptivity of domestic politicians to outside ideas. From this perspective, enhanced receptivity to LGBT reform is to be expected whenever liberal-minded or cosmopolitan politicians are in office, as they will ideologically be at one with the liberal international organisations issuing those reform directives from outside. By contrast, conservative or nationalist politicians are likely to be reform averse, as their domestic legitimacy is typically premised on standing against the directives handed down by external actors, particularly those directives promoting liberal ideals.
- The societal reach of religious organisations
The societal reach of religious organisations refers to their embeddedness within public institutions and their formative capacity on people’s identity. When the societal reach of religious organisations is extensive, they can condition reform by giving direction to the activities of the state and shaping popular preferences. Comparative research by Phillip Ayoub suggests that the broad reach of the Catholic Church in Poland and Lithuania was a contributing factor to the lack of LGBT reform witnessed there relative to states like Slovenia and Slovakia, where Catholicism was a dominant religion but played a more limited role in shaping public attitudes. In the former, the Church’s status as the symbol of the nation empowered it to influentially mobilise popular resistance towards LGBT rights, resulting in stalled reforms and heightened polarisation on the issue.
- Transnational linkages
Transnational linkage refers to the cross border ties between NGOs, formal governing bodies, and economic actors that facilitate the movement of information, ideas, capital, goods, services and people across borders. Where such ties are dense, it can be expected that the impact of LGBT activism will be notable due to increased opportunities for the spread of new ideas, greater international exposure to domestic malpractice, the institutionalisation of monitoring practices, and the consolidation of social structures enabling reputational enforcement, particularly where shared understandings of legitimacy exist between domestic and international actors.
Differences in transnational linkages help to explain the higher rates of LGBT reform in Eastern European states that are in geographic proximity to Western Europe or have undergone integration into liberal international governing bodies like the EU. These states have denser transnational linkages relative to the states of the former Soviet Union, whose relative remoteness and lack of international integration left them subjected to less outside scrutiny. These circumstances also deprived local activists of former Soviet states of the potential to become more organised through the development of friendship and associational networks with activists from states with more established traditions of LGBT political mobilisation.