Media reports from Chechnya bring Nazi persecution to mind and are leading to protests against the Russian government. Yet our own government regularly turns away LGBT asylum seekers — attacking that injustice is the best thing we can do to help Chechen gay men, writes Colin Wilson.
Protest at the Russian embassy (photo: Steve Eason)
There are appalling reports in the media about what is happening to gay men in Chechnya. Some accounts say that over a hundred people have been rounded up and three killed, while others mention a concentration camp. The state authorities are entrapping men, and once they have them in prison are beating them and torturing them with electric shocks. Men are put under pressure to reveal the names of other gay men they know. All this is horrific enough in itself, but it becomes even more sickening for anyone with a knowledge of history, recalling as it does the Nazis’ attacks on LGBT people in 1930s Germany. People were imprisoned in camps, where they were tortured and beaten; details of friends and lovers were taken from their address books, and those people in turn faced the same abuses. Thousands were killed between 1933 and 1945.
The current reports fit all too well with what we know of the Chechen government, headed by Ramzan Kadyrov. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya tried to establish its independence from Moscow, but was defeated by the Russian military in 1999-2000. Kadyrov is a Russian client. The main street in Grozny, the Chechen capital, is called Putin Avenue, while Russian money has poured in to rebuild the city, which now boasts skyscrapers and high-class restaurants. Meanwhile, the regime organises battalions and special units to maintain its power, and the office of the last human rights group was burned down over two years ago.
Most Chechens are Muslims, which for some people commenting on LGBT websites, this is all you need to know to explain the current atrocities — all Muslims, apparently, are violently homophobic, so what do you expect? It’s true that the government has, for example, pushed to enforce an Islamic dress code on women. But such developments aren’t inevitable because of the supposedly reactionary nature of Islam. Rather, they have to be understood in the context of a regime which rules by methods including kidnapping and torture, and has utilised the most conservative religious ideas as part of that project.
Decades of war, nationalism and repression mean that tens of thousands of Chechens have fled to western Europe — there exist communities of over 40,000 in Austria, 10,000 in Germany and France, and thousands in UK. Some LGBT Chechens, media reports suggest, are likewise doing everything they can to flee the country. This highlights an obvious way that Western European countries, including Britain, could help. They could do everything in their power to help people who want to leave Chechnya to do so. Yet the Guardian reports that “European embassies will only grant asylum if a person has already arrived in the country, and will not give any kind of visa to those planning to seek asylum on arrival.” Britain could give LGBT Chechens visas so they can get out — but that’s not happening.
It’s not happening, of course, because the May government’s agenda around asylum seekers is one driven by UKIP, Migration Watch and the Daily Mail. When it comes to LGBT asylum seekers, they respond in one of two ways. The first is to tell people to go back home and “pretend you’re straight and the best of luck”, as a Human Rights Watch researcher put it in February, when the government produced guidelines suggested gay people can be deported back to Afghanistan, a country where not a single person is living openly as LGBT. The second approach is to deny that people actually are LGBT. That was the Home Office’s response last month to Lydia Nabukenya, who fled Uganda in 2014 after her sexuality was discovered — officials stated that she wasn’t a lesbian because she didn’t live with her partner, despite the fact that the Home Office had itself sent them to live in different places.
Offering asylum is only a partial answer to the Chechen situation — not everyone under threat will want to leave Chechnya, and not everyone who does will want to come to Britain. Still, it could be done, and it would save lives. But the campaign so far, while motivated by genuine outrage and a desire to help, has been dominated by a different strategy, that of demanding the Tories act, and expressing moral outrage at the Russian government and demanding that it puts pressure on Chechnya to stop the abuses. But applying pressure in Britain to get our own government to let Chechen asylum seekers in seems far more likely to be effective than pressuring the British government to pressure the Russian government to pressure the Chechen government to treat LGBT people well.
For one thing, how strong is the British government’s commitment to LGBT rights? May is committed to a pale neoliberal version of equality, in which we’re all equal before the law and our money is as good as anyone else’s. But, in the context of austerity, this can come down to nothing more than making pious statements without taking any action. On Thursday, Boris Johnson tweeted that the Chechen government’s treatment of LGBT people was “outrageous”. But asked by the Guardian if this meant admitting asylum seekers, the government gave no commitment to doing so. This is appalling, and for campaigners to fail to mention the issue lets the Tories off the hook when they should be coming under pressure.
Even if the Tories were solidly on our side, how likely is it that Putin will take up the cause of LGBT freedom? The overall Russian approach to the West is summed up in a tweet from the country’s London embassy last autumn. A cartoon showed a masculine Russian bear flexing its biceps, while at the bear’s feet lay a rich but decadent Eurozone – inhabited by agitated piggy banks and flying a rainbow flag. Both Putin and Kadyrov are politically mobilising claims about LGBT rights in a way comparable to figures like Uganda’s President Museveni, whose strategy I outlined six years ago. That strategy consists of identifying LGBT rights as alien to your national culture, and then posing as an opponent of US/EU imperialism because you stand up for homophobia. This typically involves creating a fake “national tradition” from which you own country’s history of same-sex desire has been erased — in the case of various pre-colonial African cultures, for instance, there are many examples of same-sex desire and gender-variant behaviour being accepted. The strategy is particularly useful for governments which are in reality completely subservient to the IMF and the World Bank, who can hope to gain some popular support by a purely rhetorical attack on the West — often accompanied by much more murderous attacks on scapegoated local LGBT people.
Museveni’s claims that homosexuality was imported into Uganda from Europe bear no relation to reality. But in Eastern Europe there is a connection between LGBT rights and the EU, which insists on the legal protection of minorities as a condition of membership. When the Serbian government clamped down on riots which took place against Belgrade Pride in 2010, for example, commentators noted that they had toughened their stance because Serbia was desperate to join the European Union. Latvia, meanwhile, has joined the EU — a longstanding LGBT activist there commented last year that “The EU has helped. Latvians want to fit in… We want to be the good guys in school.”
This patronising approach — that Eastern European populations are potentially naughty and homophobic children who need to win the good opinion of the enlightened EU grownups — has horrible dangers as a strategy for winning LGBT freedom. Tying LGBT rights to the ups and downs of governments’ relations with the EU can backfire in several ways. For example in 2001, when Serbia’s first Pride march was attacked by right-wing nationalists, the Serbian government did nothing to condemn those attacks. Back then, Belgrade was in the EU’s good books — only the day before, Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić had been in Brussels to access $1.25 billion in aid, in effect a reward for turning in former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević to the Hague Tribunal. There was no need to impress EU rulers, and so Đinđić more or less blamed the LGBT people who had been attacked for the violence, stating that “I think it’s too early to stand this test of tolerance.”
So having the world’s most powerful countries enforce enlightened attitudes isn’t a strategy that works. The only way of winning lasting and reliable improvements in acceptance of LGBT people anywhere in the world is through changing public opinion. In this country, that happened as LGBT people and our supporters campaigned. We marched against the Tories’ Clause 28, collected in support of the miners and won over the Labour Party, the unions and the left. Local Pride marches and people coming out to friends and family won over many more. This wasn’t something which could have been imposed from above by some worthy government campaign lecturing people to be nice to the gays, like the ones about eating more fruit and veg. The same is true of public opinion in Chechnya — gains for LGBT people will have to be won by Chechen campaigners if they are to mean anything.
A protest over the Chechen attacks on gay men took place on Wednesday night in London outside the Russian embassy. We should have every sympathy with people who want to show solidarity with other LGBT people worldwide, but we also need to ask if attacks on Russia are the best strategy for helping gay men in Chechnya. We don’t say that because we have any sympathy for Russia – unlike some on the left, rs21 has always rejected the view that because America is the main defender of capitalism worldwide, you should side with America’s opponents. The long-standing slogan “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” still applies today. Both Trump and Putin are warmongers abroad and oppressors at home. But anti-Putin rhetoric doesn’t amount to a strategy for saving lives, and it seems likely to do more good for gay men in Chechnya if protests were held outside the Home Office, calling on the Tories to admit LGBT asylum seekers from Chechnya and elsewhere, rather than outside the Russian embassy.
That’s particularly true at the present moment, when relations between Russia and the west have sunk to a new low after Trump’s attack on Syria. Horror at Chechen atrocities is entirely justified. But there is the risk that protests against Russia not only fail to do much for people in Chechnya, but become part of a narrative which portrays Russia as bellicose and irrational, the real enemy of peace and civilisation in the world. If you needed proof that the US is more than capable of exceeding Russian barbarity, you had it on Thursday when Trump dropped America’s largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan. With the May government doing everything it can to love up to Trump, our first priority has to be to oppose our own rulers, and that’s also how we best help gay men in Chechnya.