A Home Truth

Europe says it will now welcome gay asylum-seekers -- even as the EU’s own LGBT communities suffer discrimination and violence.

BELGRADE, Serbia — On the night of Nov. 11, several hundred Polish nationalists celebrated their country's Independence Day by setting a 30-foot tall rainbow sculpture ablaze in downtown Warsaw and clashing with police and firemen who came to douse the flames. This marked the fifth time since it was installed last June that the rainbow had been burned for its supposed reference to the international symbol for gay rights -- even though its artist has said the sculpture is fact intended as an emblem of broad social inclusion. As the European Union (EU) codifies greater protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the attack on the multicolored monument underscores a growing cultural and political rift between western EU countries and their eastern neighbors.

The week prior to the incident in Poland, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) granted LGBT people facing discriminatory laws in their own countries the right to asylum in EU countries. The landmark ruling came in a case of three African men seeking refuge in the historically gay-friendly Netherlands. But with homosexuality criminalized in over 76 countries, including punishment by death in five, the verdict potentially opens the doors of the EU's 28 member states to new asylum-seekers from across the globe.

The decision has been welcomed by human rights groups. "The court has, for the first time, clearly stated that laws criminalizing homosexuality are to be seen as persecution and that EU member states cannot expect LGBTI-people to conceal their sexual orientation or restrain from expressing it," Robert Hardh, Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights NGO, tells Foreign Policy.

However, the legal precedent is unlikely to be well received in the farthest-flung corners of the EU, where socially conservative attitudes remain entrenched and the politics of the far right are experiencing a worrying revival. In Eastern Europe in particular, there has been vitriolic, nationalistic, and sometimes violent backlash against efforts to expand LGBT rights, including the right to marry, adopt children, and make other personal decisions. "The nationalist rhetoric varies between countries but resonates with voters because it deliberately plays on historical and populist concerns," says Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "I don't see how asylum for the LGBTI community is realistic here right now."

Radoslav Stoyanov, a gay-rights activist in Bulgaria for over a decade, regularly receives death threats and has been attacked in the street by skinheads. Fear of reprisals, he explains, was one of the main reasons he remained an anonymous online activist-blogger for so long. But in 2008 -- the year after Bulgaria joined the EU -- state lawmakers introduced a draft law defining a civil union as a relationship that could occur exclusively between men and women. Stoyanov decided the time had come to stop hiding. "[A]t a certain point I asked myself, 'If I don't do it now, who will? Somebody should do this, why should it not be me?'" he recalls, adding that the decision was not an easy one. "The LGBT community here is still largely closed, people are not free to express their identity. Being out can cause problems in day-to-day life."

As with all other newly joined EU member states, Bulgaria's national laws were brought into line with European anti-discrimination directives as part of an accession package deal. Whereas discrimination was once codified in the law, now there are guarantees of basic protections. "Sofia Pride has been held for six years, and this is a big achievement," Stoyanov says.  

It's been a far from smooth transition, however. Over 70 anti-gay protesters were arrested the first year of Sofia Pride. And this summer, the celebration was postponed after the government claimed it could not guarantee the security of participants following a period of political instability and a spate of violent incidents at an LGBT film festival in the city of Plovdiv in June.

Indeed, there is a distinct limit to the progress. A recent report by Amnesty international highlighted Bulgaria as one of the EU countries with the most inadequate provisions for the LGBT community under hate crime laws. Victims are hesitant to report homophobic or transphobic attacks because of the low probability of a prosecution going anywhere, as even the minimal protections on the books are often not enforced. "There is this feeling that nothing will change," Stoyanov says.

Moreover, there is significant support in the country's socially conservative society for the reversal of existing provisions regarding LGBT rights. A statement from the nationalist party Ataka, which currently holds 23 out of 240 parliamentary seats, recently called homosexuality "an ugly phenomenon alien to Bulgaria's national traditions and morality" that is permitted only "under pressure from outside of the country." The party supports the imposition of Russian-style "anti-gay propaganda laws" (a reference to controversial legislation adopted by Moscow this year).

Bulgaria is not alone. Nearly all countries in the EU's eastern region -- including Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, and Bulgaria -- have constitutions or laws prohibiting same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by gay couples. Croatia, the EU's newest member, is scheduled to hold a public referendum on whether to amend the constitution to define marriage as "a union between man and woman," after 700,000 people signed a petition -- organized by a conservative group -- calling for a vote on the matter.

More broadly, conservative mores, lingering economic malaise, and growing disillusionment with the EU, alongside mounting public concern over immigration, is creating a fertile breeding ground for far-right sentiment in several of the EU's peripheral member states. From Sofia to Budapest, charismatic far right political leaders are taking to podiums and platforms, aggressively delivering a potent cocktail of anti-EU, xenophobic, and homophobic rhetoric. "More and more frequently, the LGBT people are used by politicians as a perfect example of an enemy that undermine social and traditional values," explains Krzysztof Smiszek, president of the Polish Society of Antidiscrimination Law.

For instance, Gabor Vona, leader of the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik, who has referred to Adolf Hitler as the "the final product of liberalism," called the decision to hold the 2012 Gay Euro Games in Budapest "the end of the world." At present, Vona's party remains on the fringes of mainstream Hungarian politics; it won just over 10 percent of votes in the last election. Its anti-gay views, however, are not. In 2012, the ruling center-right government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, made controversial amendments to the constitution that civil rights activists say undermine judicial and media independence and effectively ban gay marriage. And video footage from this year's Pride parade in Budapest shows participants first being pursued down the streets by aggressive thugs and later being harassed by an angry mob screaming epithets and burning a rainbow flag.

Then, there are countries that are seeking to enter the EU.  During Montenegro's first gay pride parade, held this year in the coastal town Budva, businesses turned off their lights and music during the event as a statement of opposition. A local Orthodox priest, Boris Radovic, told the press at a "cleansing ceremony" performed after the event that he was "praying to God to repel this disease and devil's attack on Montenegro." Meanwhile, in neighboring Serbia, tipped to be the next in line for EU accession, the situation isn't much better. In 2001, Belgrade Pride descended into large-scale social unrest as hooligans attacked peaceful marchers and trashed the city. And for the last four consecutive years, planned Pride parades have been subject to last-minute bans by the state. Unsurprisingly, LGBT individuals from both Serbia and Montenegro have sought -- and, in some cases, been granted -- asylum in places like the United States and Canada.

Goran Miletic, an organizer of Belgrade Pride, says that the EU is not doing enough to support LGBT people: "The message being delivered to our government is that LGBT rights are not a condition for EU accession." HRW's Gall says, too, that it is time for the EU to take action. "Public expressions of regret or condemnation by politicians and the EU are just not enough. Perpetrators must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," she argues.

However, Ulrike Lunacek, a member of the European Parliament and co-president of the body's Intergroup on LGBT Rights, says there are limits on the EU's role -- both during the accession process and after. "A lot is done in the build-up to accessions to ensure countries bring in and implement anti-discrimination legislation," she explains. But, she adds, the EU law "only covers issues such as employment and the workplace, it does not extend to family issues such as gay-marriage and adoption."

Even more problematic is the lack of checks in place after a country has joined the EU. "[T]here are limited mechanisms to ensure European values are being upheld" Lunacek says. While the EU does have some options available to curb the behavior of errant states, such as suspending a member state's voting rights -- which has recently been discussed for Hungary -- the processes involved are complex and lengthy. "Here, there is a gap," Lunacek says.

The EU's commitment to improving the situation of LGBT asylum-seekers, indicated in the ECJ ruling, is certainly commendable. But members of the LGBT community already inside the bloc or living on its fringes are still wondering why more is not also being done to improve the situation of those suffering closer to home.



The Eye of the Storm

As the Syrian civil war bleeds into northern Iraq, a once-quiet oasis is brewing with tensions.

ERBIL, Iraq — In a region surrounded by political upheaval, Iraq's Kurdish enclave resembles the calm in the eye of the storm. The region, home to approximately four million Kurds, is booming: In the capital of Erbil, streets snake between old buildings and modern additions, and shopping malls and skyscrapers are now commonplace. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), however, now finds its image as an oasis of peace and security threatened by the ever-worsening war in neighboring Syria.

On Nov. 3, the government intelligence headquarters in the city of Akrah was the target of an attempted double suicide bombing. The assailants -- one Syrian and one Iraqi man of Arab origins -- were stopped by the intelligence services before the attack could be carried out. In a previous attack, officials hadn't been so lucky: A series of explosions hit Erbil on Sept. 29, killing six people and injuring dozens. It was the first such attack to hit the city since 2007.

The September bombings were orchestrated by the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in retaliation for the KRG's support for Syrian Kurds. Following a spike in the fierce fighting between Kurdish fighters and the ISIS in August, and as reports of mass killings of Kurdish civilians began to circulate, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani warned that Iraqi Kurdistan will "make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children, and citizens in Western Kurdistan."

In addition to these new security threats, the KRG is dealing with a huge demographic shift inside its borders. An estimated 235,000 refugees have flowed into the area from Syria, fleeing the worsening conflict. According to the head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hemin Hawrami, the city of Dohuk has witnessed a 15 percent rise in population in less than a year, straining the area's schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure to the limit. "The budget that we have, the capabilities that we have are for Iraqi Kurdistan," he said. "But not for this large influx of refugees."

On the streets of Erbil, the dialect spoken by Syria's Kurds, Kurmanji, is becoming increasingly common. New camps are being built on the outskirts of the city to accommodate the growing number of fleeing Syrians. "We're providing camps, education, and all of the basic services that they need. We have a human obligation as well as a national and ethnic one," said Hawrami. "But our aim is not to keep the refugees forever, because we don't want the Kurdish areas in Syria to become evacuated and be filled by other people."

The KRG has spent roughly $65 million to care for the refugees -- but the international community has often overlooked the refugee crisis here. Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG's Department of Foreign Relations, wants this to change. "It became too much for our capabilities, we are now pushing the international community for help."

While the strain from the influx of refugees could lead to tension among Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, another possibility is that the intermixing of Kurdish populations could help fuel Kurdish unity. While the KRG is adamant that it will not split off from Iraq, it is nevertheless prepared to consider its options in a time of increasing uncertainty. "We will not be the reason behind the disintegration of Iraq -- we are committed to a federal, democratic Iraq," said Mustafa. "But if the situation goes wrong, we do not want to pay the price if the other sides fail to sort out their differences."

There is, however, little reason to suspect that Syria and Iraq's Kurdish areas are poised to break off from their respective nation-states and unite into one country. Pan-Kurdish sentiment is not the unifying force many in the West tend to think it is, and the ongoing Syrian conflict has also highlighted the divisions within the Kurdish movement.

The prime example of this is Syria's main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is often at odds with its Iraqi counterparts. The party, for example, has vehemently refuted Barzani's repeated suggestion that Iraq's Kurdistan region could be a successful model for Syrian Kurds "The KRG is not an example for the Syrian people," said PYD leader Salih Muslim. "The people of Rojava [Kurdish Syria] govern themselves."

The Syrian Kurdish party fears that their Iraqi brethren are trying to force a political model upon them. And while there hasn't been an explicit attempt by the KRG to do so, the Iraqi Kurds have dispatched both humanitarian and military aid to the conflict zone -- a step viewed suspiciously by the PYD, which aims to dominate the area. "The PYD impose their will on the rest of the groups and don't allow anyone to be on the ground. That's the main problem," said Mustafa.

The powers that be in Iraq's Kurdish Region have not been shy about displaying their unhappiness with the PYD. In October, Salih Muslim was repeatedly denied entrance to the KRG, transforming another example of Kurdish political disunity into a media story. "The decision to keep me in Rojava was a political one," he said. "It is like a competition, we have different ideologies."

On Nov. 11, the PYD once again struck out on their own by announcing plans to create a transitional government in Kurdish Syria. Although the PYD appears cautious in defining the extent of this transitional government's autonomy, the party's increasing power over Syrian territory could lead to greater friction between with the KRG. The PYD's representatives have held out hope that the KRG could support their latest move, but it has so far not been forthcoming. "There has been no coordination with any group" on this issue, said the KRG's Mustafa. "It is a unilateral act from the PYD."

The inability to mend ties is not only an obstacle on the road toward a united Kurdish front, it is also a weakness easily exploited by stronger external players. Iraqi Kurdistan notably has strong economic ties with Turkey and Iran -- and yet, Turkey is supporting militant Islamist groups that pose a threat to the Syrian Kurds, while Iran backs the Syrian regime, which hopes to regain its control over its Kurdish areas.

This may appear a no-win scenario for Iraq's Kurds, but the KRG is hardly naïve. "Of course Iran and Turkey are neighbors and regional players, but Kurdish foreign policy is to keep the balance ... and not be part of the blocks in the Middle East," said Hawrami. "[W]e follow what is in the interest of the Kurds, not what is in the interest of Iran, Turkey or anywhere else."

But while the war creates deeper cleavages between Kurdish political factions, it has not affected the KRG's drive for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, Iraqi Kurdish officials clearly realize that both the Syrian war and its effects on an already fragmented Iraq could give them an opportunity to further consolidate their nascent state and assert themselves as strong regional players.

"The Middle East is witnessing a wave of changes, we as Kurds find that this is our opportunity to assert our identity, and try to achieve our rights in a peaceful way," said Mustafa.

That peace, however, could be shattered by further outbreaks of terror and violence by al Qaeda elements in Iraq and Syria. The battles ahead will shape the future of the Kurds in both countries.