Homophobia, racial bigotry in new EU members expose social rifts with western Europe
By TIMOTHY JACOBS Associated Press Writer
(AP) - RIGA, Latvia-Pers Bogomazovs thought nothing of it when two men stopped him and his boyfriend on the street last month, asking for cigarettes.
"They were OK at the beginning and were talking to us, but then they realized we were a couple and started yelling," said the 31-year-old hairstylist. "They kicked me in the head, but we jumped into a cab that pulled over and thankfully we didn't get seriously hurt."
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Rights activists say hate crimes against gays and ethnic minorities are on the rise in many of the former communist states that joined the European Union in 2004 - raising questions about whether the new members are prepared to accept the more liberal social values prevalent in western Europe.
The issue is a key concern as the EU debates whether to continue its eastern expansion to countries like Ukraine, Serbia and predominantly Muslim Turkey, which has come under pressure to improve its human rights record.
Estonia and Latvia have seen a recent spate of attacks on gay pride events. In Poland, leaders of the conservative ruling party make no secret of their distaste for gays, and recently invited a far-right group to join the coalition. Xenophobia is rife across the new member states.
The U.S. State Department warns on its Web site of the threat of racist attacks in Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic nations - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Old Europe has certainly had its share of problems with homophobia and ethnic strife in recent years, but analysts say many EU newcomers are fundamentally out of step with the principles of tolerance that have taken root in the bloc's more established countries.
"I simply don't think everyone understood what joining (the EU) would mean, the overriding interest to join was so strong," said Ilze Brands-Kehris, head of the Latvian NGO the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.
"And it's also possible the EU was so eager to expand that maybe it didn't look hard enough at the situation either."
Gay rights and racial diversity are relatively new issues in eastern Europe, where the former totalitarian communist regimes drove homosexuality underground and virtually closed the borders to outsiders.
Homosexuals were viewed as deviants, facing public humiliation or even arrest if found out, and the view persists of homosexuality as a perversion that can be cured with psychological counseling.
"The other countries on this EU train have had 50 years of cooperation and have gone through these issues at relatively the same pace. And we expect these 10 new countries to catch up and to implement all these changes at once? It's a lot to ask," said Linda Freimane, a lesbian who helped found the Latvian gay rights group, Mozaika, last year.
Still, Freimane said she was surprised by the outpouring of hatred directed at her and other gay rights activists at the country's first gay pride gatherings this year and last.
The Latvian capital, Riga, banned a gay pride parade last month, saying it could not guarantee the safety of the participants. Gay rights activists meeting for a smaller event were pelted with feces, eggs and insults as police stood idly by.
The Latvian Internet portal Delfi registered over 1,600 comments, most anti-gay, on a story about the gay pride gathering. Many expressed anger at the EU and the West for the perceived imposition of "non-Latvian" values on the country, said Delfi editor Jara Sizova.
"Many people wrote 'What have we gotten ourselves into?' tying the notion of 'tolerance' to some EU directive and blaming the EU," Sizova said.
To join the EU, parliaments in the ex-communist states had to draft legislation reflecting the bloc's views toward human rights and tolerance. But that appears to have had little effect on changing attitudes.
"It's easy to change legislation, but institutional and societal change takes much longer," said Brands-Kehris.
Human Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized lawmakers in the EU newcomers for setting a tone of intolerance. Racist or homophobic statements by government officials in eastern Europe that would cause an outcry in the West often go unchecked - or even unnoticed.
Kazys Bobelis, who served three terms in the Lithuanian Parliament, attracted little attention when he stated publicly that tolerating homosexuality could lead to tolerating bestiality. Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who banned gay pride marches when in 2004 and 2005 when he was mayor of Warsaw, expressed similar homophobia when he was Warsaw's mayor, saying: "It would be dangerous for our civilization to put homosexual rights on equal footing."
Hans Glaubitz, the Dutch ambassador to Estonia, asked for a transfer this summer, saying his male partner, who is black, had been repeatedly harassed and threatened on Tallinn's streets. "(Estonian) society is far from ready for two men being together, particularly if one of them is black," Glaubitz said.
Several nonwhites have been attacked in downtown Riga in broad daylight in the past two years, with no one in most cases coming to their aid.
"The bottom line is that the people here look at anything that is not considered 'ours' and they immediately distrust it," said George Steele, an African-American who moved to Riga 12 years ago.
Anti-Semitism remains a problem throughout the region. In the most recent high-profile attack, Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was punched in downtown Warsaw in May by a man police said had ties to a Neo-Nazi group.
But human rights groups say some progress is being made to better protect minority rights.
Lawmakers in the Czech Republic, for example, overrode a presidential veto earlier this year and legalized same-sex unions. Thus far, however, only about a dozen couples have registered.
And this year, a Latvian court for the first time convicted three men of committing a racially motivated attack, although each was given a suspended sentence.
Despite being the victim of anti-gay attacks, Bogomazovs, the Latvian hairdresser, said he has no plans to test his newfound freedom as an EU citizen and move west. Instead, he has begun carrying pepper spray when he goes out and travels at night only by taxi.
"I'd have to start from scratch," said Bogomazovs. "I may leave in a few years, but not for these reasons."
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