Fighting for democracy is a real challenge in Belarus, to say the least. Fighting especially for gay rights is even more difficult. In a country where homophobia is widespread, LGBT activists hardly get any support to their cause. Despite the risk it creates for their safety, they still believe that if being visible is a risk, it is also the only chance to change things.
Last year, the first Gay Pride to be held in Minsk was marred with violence from the police and 11 participants were arrested.
In January, a group of activists formed IDAHO Belarus, a local branch of the French-based LGBT NGO. A month later, they scored their first success with the organisation of the first ‘gay-labelled’ rally sanctioned in Minsk.
Hazard, or change of attitude?
The group is still struggling to get their organisation registered by the government – and some of its members have been pressured to spy for the notorious KGB, the local secret service.
In less than a month, they still plan to hold the first Equality Festival which will include a March to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17.
The co-chair of IDAHO Belarus, Sergey Yenin – a young Belarusian activist who was ‘sacked’ from his university over political activism and arrested at last year’s Minsk Slavic Pride rally, answers our questions.
Q: Only one month after you formed IDAHO Belarus, the City Hall authorised your first rally for gay rights while all previous attempts were banned. Can you tell us more about it?
A: It’s true that it’s the first ever picket for gay rights to be authorised in Minsk. But we submitted dozens of applications before this one was authorised. Honestly, we still do not really know why they authorised this one and not the others. We were positively surprised. The picket was dedicated to Valentine’s Day and therefore took place on February 14. The City Executive Committee allowed it, but they put some limitations.
We were not allowed to use rainbow flags and instead we prepared posters against homophobia. But we could live with that. For us, it was very symbolical to have this public action authorised. We were even protected by the police.
We showed that it is possible to have such actions conducted in our capital. There was no problem. It did not last long because the temperature was very low. The thermometer showed minus 20C! We were completely frozen – but so happy!
Q: But despite the big hopes that this rally created, you are still facing troubles to get your organization registered. Why?
A: Firstly you must know that there are no LGBT organisations registered in Belarus and this is why we are trying to get IDAHO Belarus officially registered. Secondly, you also need to know that according to our laws, activists of non-registered organizations can be prosecuted. All the different LGBT groups which have been operating in the last years did so illegally. The government is not interested in registering those organisations which fight for the rights of minorities and demand equal rights. By not registering us, they keep a way to pressure us. Also, the process of registering was made especially complicated and bureaucratic.
We’ve been trying to register since January and all the time we try to apply, there is a new difficulty. For example, twice in a row, the agreement we had to rent our office was called off at the last minute – as if the landlord was pressured by someone. And without a judicial redress, there is no registration possible. But we are not giving up and I hope we will get it at the end. We are registering as a local branch of the French IDAHO Committee.
Q: Most recently, your members have triggered the interest of the KGB? Are you pressured to stop your activities? Are they spying you?
A: One of our outstanding activists, Varvara Krasutskaya, was pressured by KGB. They identified her as she was beaten and arrested while taking part to a peaceful public action against the falsified result of the Presidential election on December 19. The authorities used the same trick against her than they did with me in the past. The Dean of her University told her that she would not be expelled from the University but she will not be given any diploma. They often do that because they know that if they sack you officially from the University, it is often easier to go and study abroad. But if you are not sacked, it is much more difficult to prove your case. Later, she was contacted by KGB to cooperate with them. They even offered her a contract and a salary! Her job would be to collect as much as possible information on the activities of our organization and our activists. Of course, she denied.
Q: In this context, is it safe to continue your activities?
A: We are not going to surrender. If everyone sits at home, will things ever change in this country? On our side, everything is going according to our plans. KGB interference always existed. We know that they listen to our home phones and mobiles. We know that they follow our internet traffic. And we know that when we want to organise some actions we are being followed. This is something we have to live with – and we need to adapt.
For example, recently, we launched our new website. We use a server based outside Belarus and we purchased several extensions (.org, .com, .net, .info, .eu) which are beyond the control of the Belarusian government. They cannot shut down our site and cannot cancel our domain names. We also do not discuss important matters by phone, but via other different means.
Q: Last year’s Slavic Gay Pride in Minsk was banned and met with police violence. What do you expect this year?
A: A year ago, we were all part of the Slavic Gay Pride. The rally was banned by the city authorities and 11 of us were arrested. I was beaten and insulted during the two days I spent in custody. Ultimately, seven of us were sentenced to pay a fine. It could really have been worse but we were ready.
We knew what we were doing and this is why there were not so many of us in the streets. It was a much tensed situation, really hard to manage but we got a lot of support from Moscow and St Petersburg Gay Pride organisers, who were already experienced in this kind of action.
Next month, we plan to commemorate the first anniversary of what we call our ‘Stonewall’ by organising an ‘Equality Festival’. Our aim is to get all the discriminated social groups together – and to march together, thus, exercising our right to freedom of assembly.
The festival will last several days and include events in the area of culture, education and human rights. We truly hope that the festival will be authorised by the authorities, as no country has a right to be called “democratic” until it fulfils all the aspects of human rights – and the right to freedom of expression is one of them.
The Equality March will be the main action of the whole festival. Human rights are a problem today in Belarus and it’s even more difficult for discriminated groups such as LGBT, religious minorities, HIV+ and others. Achieving equality can only be obtained if you are visible. You have to show yourself, explain, convince. It does not work immediately though, and we have to go through all these issues of opposition but I believe that on the long term this is the only strategy. We could also sit at home and discuss homophobia in our closet but that would not help advance equal rights.
Q: Still, are you not scared to go in the streets again if the march is banned?
A: The activists of IDAHO Belarus are determined. Most of us took part to the first Slavic Gay Pride in Moscow in 2009, but also in Prides in Moscow and St Petersburg last. They were arrested in Moscow and in Minsk for exercising their right to freedom of assembly.
- Read more from IDAHO Belarus on the organisation’s Website available in English, Russia, Polish and Belarusian.