Germany

Germans Take Clear Stance on Homophobia in Eastern Europe

A recent crackdown on a gay pride parade in Moscow which injured a prominent German politician may have achieved more than meets the eye according to gay rights activists in Berlin.

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The demonstration in Berlin had an unmistakable message

The last time Volker Beck participated in a demonstration for gay rights, he was punched in the face and arrested. But last Friday, the only danger to the openly-gay Green Party politician and member of Germany's parliament was that of being swamped by over-zealous camera teams.

Schwulen und Lesben Demonstration gegen Gewalt in Moskau

"Basic rights are valid for all, including gays and lesbians," reads the sign. Beck is on right

Sporting a band-aid on his face -- testimony to the crackdown on a gay demonstration in Moscow a week ago -- Beck was the star of a protest held in front of the gold-plated gates of the imposing Russian embassy in downtown Berlin, close to the historical Brandenburg Gate.

Organized by the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD) and attended by prominent German politicians and activists, the event was meant to draw attention to the repression of homosexuals in Russia and to a looming gay pride parade in Warsaw on June 10, which has just been given the green light by the authorities there.

Highlighti n g abuses importa n t part of the fight

A recent demonstration against homophobia and discrimination by homosexuals in Moscow degenerated into a scuffle with gay rights activists -- including Volker Beck -- abused by radical Christian groups, attacked by neo-fascists and detained by the police.

Amid calls by churches and religious leaders to stop the demonstration, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov promptly banned the event. He reiterated controversial statements this week that gays are a "contamination" and said that Russia's morals "are cleaner than that of the West."

Volker Beck bei Demonstration in Moskau angegriffen

The image of Beck's bloodied face went around the world

"In Moscow, politicians tolerate violent thugs and hate-preachers hounding gays and lesbians," said Günter Dworek, spokesman of the LSVD. "There's even a tacit agreement between them. It's absolutely unbearable."

But there was agreement Friday that Beck's participation in the Moscow parade along with other high-profile European politicians has helped draw international attention to an event that would usually not have attracted such coverage.

"We have to bring to the public's attention that there's a country in Europe that has signed up to the European Human Rights Convention but doesn't even uphold the minimum rights of gays and lesbians," said Volker Beck, adding that the least one can do is to shine the spotlight on such abuses. "That's why my Russian counterparts in Moscow said: it was good you were there and the cameras captured your bleeding face because nobody would have bothered about the bruises and injuries suffered by Moscow's gays and lesbians."

The sig n ifica n ce of holdi n g a parade

Though Moscow decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, activists say gays and lesbians still face rampant discrimination and public intolerance both in Russia and in most countries which were once part of the former Soviet Union. But some point out that holding the gay rights parade in Moscow last weekend was a victory in itself.

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Holding aloft a banner in Russian that read "Say No to Homophobia," Bali Saygili, a gay rights activist and member of the LSVD, remembered the first gay pride parade held in his country of origin, Turkey, in the late 1980s.

"We were promptly arrested after the parade in Ankara and put on a plane back to Germany," said Saygili who works with families of Turkish, Russian and Polish origin in Berlin to change hostile attitudes towards homosexuality. "But the parade really sparked a wave among the gays and lesbians in Turkey, strengthening and emboldening them. Such things can make a huge difference and I'm sure it already has in Moscow."

Ripple effect

Others feel that holding the gay rights parade in Moscow has already had one tangible effect -- changing Warsaw's stance on the matter. The city authorities have agreed for the first time to allow a similar demonstration on June 10. However, they have also approved a rival parade by a nationalist youth group to march on the same day in the same part of the city.

"After Moscow, Warsaw had to consider whether it wanted to be on Europe's side or whether it wanted to act like Putin's Russia," said Dworek of the LSVD, adding that Warsaw obviously opted to avoid the embarrassment of having prominent European politicians being beaten up in their city. "It also shows how important a networked Europe is."

Berli n urged to take tougher sta n ce

Despite the Berlin demonstration's victorious tone, deeper questions were raised Friday about whether the German government should take a harder line on Russia given the recent bloody turn of events and particularly in light of Russia's current presidency of the Council of Europe.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger YUKOS Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has long criticized human rights abuses in Russia

"Let's face it: Russia has an arbitrary justice system and an increasing lack of press freedom. The country's federal prosecutors and ministries stonewall on the simplest questions on the human rights situation," said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former federal justice minister and a member of Germany's free-market liberal FDP party. She added that the country's human rights violations had been exposed and condemned in several EU resolutions.

"The German government has to loudly and clearly raise its voice against the suppression of gays and lesbians in Russia and not create the impression that it's less interested in human rights than it is in gas pipelines from Russia to Germany," said Beck, adding that Chancellor Merkel had already sent the right signals during her recent visit to Moscow.

"But now actions have to follow and they have to be consistent."

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