From behind two heavy metal doors, Nika, a gay man who recently set up a small LGBT support group in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, gingerly opens the door. “This is how we live now,” he says.
Two years ago, the Kyrgyz parliament followed the lead of its powerful neighbour Russia and introduced a series of amendments outlawing the promotion of same-sex relationships. Popularly known as the “anti-gay propaganda law” it has unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation against the LGBT community, with a near 300% increase in reported attacks since the legislation was announced.
Some people have been assaulted, including one gay man who was beaten unconscious and gang-raped this year. Several sources also claim lesbians have been subjected to “corrective rapes”, but many attacks go unreported to the police.
Now, activists have gone underground after the Bishkek office of one LGBT group was firebombed. “I get phone calls and text messages saying things like ‘you’re ruining this country’,” says Nika. “The new law encouraged everyone to go after us, without fear of being punished.”
The police are often accused of being at the forefront, with many activists detailing instances of officers threatening to expose their sexual identity unless they pay bribes.
Nika shows us into his living room where his other guests are already seated around a coffee table. It’s a friends’ get-together – except this is now the only safe way they can meet because of the spate of homophobic attacks. “If I could afford it, I would leave tomorrow,” says Sergo, one of his guests.
It was never easy being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Kyrgyzstan’s patriarchal, Muslim-majority society. Nonetheless, in a region where the Soviet past hangs heavily and ossified dictatorship is the norm, the smallest of the Central Asian “Stans” was seen as a relative beacon of tolerance and democracy. And while there were occasional attacks in the past, the LGBT community was mostly left to itself. Until recently there were even several gay clubs in Bishkek.
But over the past few years, internal and external forces have “dragged the LGBT community into a battle for Kyrgyz identity,” says Medet Tiulegenov, chair of international and comparative politics at the American University in Bishkek.
Poor and landlocked, Kyrgyzstan has been a geopolitical and economic supplicant ever since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, always vulnerable to bigger powers. While the US needed the Manas airbase outside Bishkek after 2001 to ferry troops in and out of Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz government tilted westwards. But the Kremlin proved the greater force, unhappy at an American presence in its backyard, and successfully pressed Bishkek to close the base.Since winning power in 2011, President Atambayev has cemented his shift away from the west towards Russia.
Since winning power in 2011, President Almazbek Atambayev has cemented this shift away from the west towards Russia. “We cannot have a separate future,” he declared when president Vladimir Putin visited in 2012.
Atambayev has been an assiduous courtier, extending Russia’s lease on its own military base outside Bishkek, before enthusiastically copying anti-western legislation in the Kremlin’s legal arsenal. First came a virtual clone of Moscow’s offensive on NGOs, with legislation demanding all groups receiving external funding declare themselves as “foreign agents”, targeted at human rights groups, including those advocating for the LGBT community.
Then, in March 2014, MPs from the ruling coalition announced the “anti-gay propaganda” measures, with even harsher penalties on paper than the Russian version. They were necessary to “protect the rights of the majority rather than of the minority,” said one of the co-sponsors, Talantbek Uzakbaev, a member of the pro-Russian Dignity party. “We cannot tolerate gay propaganda.”
These moves have had enthusiastic support from powerful nationalist and religious constituencies at home – both Muslim and Orthodox Christian. Self-styled nationalist groups like Kyrk-Choro (Kyrgyz Knights) are thought to have been at the forefront of assaults on both the LGBT community and sex workers –with its leader claiming he has official backing. In effect, being anti-western and homophobic have become two ends of the same bone in a Kyrgyz version of dog-whistle politics. “Being anti-LGBT has been very profitable for the nationalists,” says Tiulgenov.
In the meantime, homophobic violence has risen. It’s impossible to get definite figures but staff at one Bishkek LGBT activist group – who asked to remain anonymous – said they’ve been helping the victims of 5 or 6 attacks a month in the past year, nearly three times the rate of two years ago. But, says Amir, one of the group’s activists, “these are only the ones we know about”.
The television in the corner competes with the dinner chat as Nika’s guests tuck into a selection of local dishes. There are nine men and women, from a mix of ethnic Kyrgyz, ethnic Russian and other backgrounds. The conversation is all in Russian, one of Kyrgyzstan’s two official languages – one of many ways Moscow can be sure of maintaining its influence here.
For the LGBT community, this closeness with Russia further amplifies their troubles. Russian TV channels, with their explicit anti-western, homophobic bias, have a solid audience. “It makes me feel guilty about being gay when I hear some Russian programmes,” says Nika. Local media outlets tied to the government and nationalist groups take a similar line, helping stoke an atmosphere of permissive victimisation. “‘Look there’s the faggot’ another student shouted out when he saw me in my university café,” says Ilya, another dinner guest.
The liberal sector in society is coming under increasing stress
Yet more than two years since the Kyrgyz parliament first introduced the “anti-gay propaganda” measures amid a flurry of pro-Russian rhetoric, it has stalled on actually making it law. MPs gave the bill large majorities on its initial two readings, but no date has been set for the necessary third reading, and it would still need the president’s signature afterwards.
There’s similar uncertainty over the “foreign agents” bill targeting NGOs, which was first introduced in 2013 – no one knows if or when parliament will debate them again.
Even so, the police have reportedly been using the anti-gay propaganda legislation to justify going after LGBT individuals and then extorting bribes. “They say they are enforcing the law,” says Pasha, a gay man who was forced to hand over 4,000 Kyrgyz Som (about £41) – a large sum in a country with an average wage of less than £200 per month.
Some Kyrgyz journalists have reportedly resorted to self-censoring stories on homophobic attacks, or anything to do with the LGBT community, in case they are accused of publishing “pro-gay” propaganda. “The liberal sector in society is coming under increasing stress,” says Tiulgenov.
Despite repeated requests to talk to Kyrgyz MPs and other officials about their Russian-inspired legislative plans, all said they were too busy, or never returned any calls.
‘We’ll cut your head off’
Viktor had been receiving threatening text messages for several months, but one evening in January, walking home from work, he was ambushed and beaten to the ground. “I didn’t hear anything because I had my headphones on,” he says. They kicked him unconscious, and when Viktor came round he found he had been driven to a wooded area, and his attackers were tearing off his clothes. Then they took turns to rape him. “One held my head down so I couldn’t see their faces,” he says.
“From the moment the bill was first discussed, Kyrgyz society took it as permission for extermination,” says Viktor. “Some don’t even understand what it says, but they take it as a call to hunt.” Yet after past experiences of harassment, he never considered going to the police. “They would just say ‘we don’t take cases from gays’.”
Several sources told of cases of lesbians being subjected to sexual attacks too. “Sometimes it’s the brothers who do it,” claims one LGBT activist. Some lesbians are forced into marriage; many are reported to have fled Kyrgyzstan for good. Speaking through intermediaries, three victims of corrective rape said they were too scared to talk to journalists about their experiences, and activists believe many more such attacks are never reported.
But some people are trying to take a stand. In May last year activists from a Bishkek activist group called Labrys and several other LGBT advocacy organisations were gathering at a restaurant for the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia when they were attacked by a mob.
They stormed the restaurant, chanting abuse, and one woman was injured. Though it was frightening, compared to other recent anti-LGBT violence it was a relatively minor incident. But this time activists called the police.
With so many eyewitnesses, the activists believe the police had no choice but to open a case, and two suspected members of Kyrk-Choro have been charged with hooliganism and property damage. To no one’s surprise, there’s been little progress since and though the lawyers hold little hope of winning they say this is part of a much wider battle.
“The LGBT community is not the only target,” says one of the Labrys activists. “Some of the nationalists who attack us also say all the Russians should leave [Kyrgzstan]. And tomorrow someone else will be the target.”
This article was originally featured on The Guardian.