🌈 One Year Later: Chechnya’s Concentration Camps For Gays

During spring 2017 the Western world was shocked about horrible stories from young gay men living in Chechnya. They were detained in so-called concentration camps for gay people. In these camps they were being tortured. There are also some reports of deaths. European leaders called for immediate action by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin promised an investigation and also conducted it. The investigation resulted in a denying by the Russian government about the existence of concentration camps in Chechnya. Despite this, several Western and Russian media were able to speak to gay people who fled from Chechnya to Moscow and/or Europe. It was the most popular Russian non pro-government magazine Novoya Gazeta who brought the first reports on the subject. Afterwards Western media like Vice News and Buzzfeed followed. Lithuania was the first EU member state that accepted so-called gay refugees from Chechnya.

“Islam has served as Chechnya’s cultural glue for the past two decades” – The New Yorker

Some new intelligence from inside Chechnya tells us that the government stopped the active prosecution of gay people after international pressure. So now it’s time to look how this could have happened. Where does the anger towards gay people in Chechnya come from? Does the media point out the right culprit? A first study of what the media wrote on the subject shows that they pinpoint Radical Islam as the cause for what happened. In the coming paragraphs I will argue that this causation is incorrect. Since their is no serious Islamic text approving the torture and murder of homosexuals, we need to find other causes for the existence of concentration camps against LGBT people.

A necessary glimpse of a struggle towards Chechen identity

To understand the contemporary situation in Chechnya it is necessary to look back at it’s recent history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union several previous regions attached to the USSR declared independence. Several regions declared independence around the Baltic and Black Sea, the Southern Caucasus and in Central Asia. Chechnya was one of the few, if not the only one, that was not able to do that. This led to a very bloody civil war between the Chechen rebels and the Russian military.

These Chechen rebels were searching for a shared identity and acquired Islam as a common religion. The word “acquired” in my previous sentence is very important. During the Soviet period the majority of people living in Chechnya were atheist. There was no evidence of a Muslim-majority. The Chechens became Muslim only two decades ago.

Russia portrayed the form of Islam that was acquired by the Chechens as very radical and dangerous. They saw not military intervening in the Chechen struggle for independence as jeopardising their own internal security. Also the international community believed somehow that support for Russia would secure themselves from radical Islam. Many academics argue that this is a total misunderstanding of the Chechen crisis. The struggle of the Chechen is a fight for their independence. It is not a fight for religious dominance (Parker, 2015, 3).

You could even argue that their struggle is just the same struggle all Russians experienced after the collapse of communism. Russia, and Chechnya, do have an identity crisis. They do not know how to define themselves since the fall of communism. Both Russia and Chechnya searched for their identity and a common enemy. Internationally they found quite easy their old enemy back: the West. The internal enemy of the Soviet Union was religion. The Russian Orthodox Church grew considerably in the last two decades and has a huge influence inside the Kremlin nowadays.

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President Putin meeting Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Chechnya

The last years showed that Russia shifted their anger on religion towards an anger against non- traditionalism. Women and LGBT rights have often been attacked by Russian officials. After several bloody years, Russia came to an agreement with Kadyrov, one of the high-ranking rebels. Since that moment Putin and Kadyrov are thick as thieves.

 

 

Chechnya institutionalised what Russians want to institutionalise

In 2013 there was a law introduced in the Duma (the Russian parliament) to ban the promotion of LGBT issues. The lawmakers did not want LGBT activists convincing children about their lifestyle. This law literally banned every single possibility to organise a Gay Pride or even publish a personal coming-out on YouTube. By this law the closet was institutionalised in Russia.

It is also in law with what the majority of people think about homosexuality in Russia. Only 16% of the Russian population thinks that homosexuals should be accepted by society (Pew Research Center). There are no numbers focusing on the region of Chechnya, but one can assume that you will find the same numbers in this Chechen region.

In Russia itself human rights organisations often reported about violence against LGBT youngsters by far- right groups. These allegations were never taken seriously by any official institution. This created an atmosphere of anarchy towards LGBT people. You could do whatever you want with these people, the police was never going to intervene.

I argue that this stance of the Russian government is the biggest cause why the Kadyrov regime started with the concentration camps against gay citizens. Since the agreement between Kadyrov and Putin, the influence of Russia on the Chechen society and government rose considerably. Kadyrov wants to become a strong regional leader within the Russian Federation. So he has to keep up a strong leadership towards Chechens and be a reliable partner for Putin.

Putin’s ignorance of LGBT-rights in Russia led to the legitimising of the concentration camps against Chechen gay citizens by the Chechen political leader.

A true Muslim does not kill, nor torture

Sufism is a central part of the identity created by the Chechen government. Scholars argue that the government uses sufism to ban criticism on their policies. Since they are claiming that every act the Kadyrov regime is undertaking is in the name of Sufism, every critique on the regime is a critique on Sufism. (Hankey, 2015, 69)

Despite many Russian politicians arguing that the reason for the Chechen conflict is a radical form of Islam, academics argue that Chechen Muslim political elites alien to the Sufi Islam. As Wilhelmsen argues: Chechen warlords are not international jihadis, but separatists (Wilhelmsen, 2005).

Vatchagaev argues that the Chechen Sufi fraternities are highly politicised. He argues that mysticism has given priority to politics already a long time ago (Vatchagaev, 2013, 2). In 1991 Boris Yeltsin had chosen his representative a new representative for Russia in Chechnya. Akhmed Bagaudinovich Arsanov was part of the Qadiris fraternity, one of the most influential Sufi fraternities in the region. The first president of Chechnya Dadaev also came out in favour of this fraternity (Vatchagaev, 2013, 3).

After the Chechen-Russian war the Kremlin didn’t want to create a multi-party system in Chechnya anymore. They start to become allies of the Sufi fraternities. Ramzan Kadyrov became there first-hand ally. Kadyrov’s rule is contested, because his coalition does not have a majority. For instance the Naqshbandis fraternity is against Kadyrov’s rule. Despite this, nowadays the Sufi allies can be found in all levels of power in Chechnya Vatchagaev, 2013, 6).

Sufism is a more mystical tradition, that is very politicised in Chechnya. The fact that Chechens follow Sufism, very much argues why religion is not the main factor for the prosecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. The traditions of Sufism “is based on a homo-erotic relationship between 13th century men, Mevlana Rumi and Shams of Tabriz.” (Barzan, 1998, 25) Despite the explicit language of the verses describing this story, many Muslims still ignore this fact. The homo-erotic component is highly contested. But a lot of Muslim scholars acknowledge the existence of a natural relationship between men and boys (Van Weven, 2015, 7-8).

Chechnya’s identity struggle

Many Western media simplified the prosecution of homosexuals in concentration camps in the first half of 2017. The Muslim tradition of Sufism is based on a mystical relationship between men. Some consider it even a homo-erotic relationship. But according to Vatchagaev the Sufi fraternities in power, dropped the mystical tradition to become more politicised. Sufi allies can be found in every level of power in Chechnya. This means that the reason for the prosecution has to be found somewhere else.

The struggle for a Chechen independent identity within the Russian Federation is the main factor for this. Since relations between Moscow and Grozny have been improved, the Chechen leadership wants to befriend the leadership in the Kremlin. Since the introduction of the anti-propaganda law in 2013 in the Duma, the LGBT community has been marginalised in the whole Russian Federation.

At the same time Chechnya is undergoing it’s own identity crisis. First the Chechen leadership wanted to separate themselves fully from Russia. Now they want to be a strong independent region within the Russian Federation. By prosecuting homosexuals, the Kadyrov regime want to show force and make a statement towards the mostly anti-LGBT population within the Russian Federation.

Gays were the victim of a growing up state. The concentration camps had everything to do with the Chechen integration in the Russian Federation.

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Russia’s Queer Social Media Generation

Homophobia and Russia fit together like twins. Russia is known as one of the worst world powers for LGBT people. Besides these facts, in recent months a few youngsters established an online queer culture that looks very Western. Discover social influencers like Misha Maksimov, Tasha Tale and their entourage!

In the country where you can get imprisoned for 15 days for organising a Gay Pride and where the  ‘golden shower’ was invented, young queers are collecting hundreds of thousands of followers on  their social media. How do they do that? Just by showing how they live their lives. And waving a rainbow flag is just a part of that life. This will not be a very academic piece of writing. First of all this article wants to show positive image of the LGBT-movement in Russia. Second this article will have some gossip in it. But it is our task to show that youngsters around the world are fighting for equality.

As long as you don’t explicitly say you are gay, they won’t have a ‘problem’ with it.

Let me begin with Misha Maksimov. The 18 years old Moscovian has 334.000 followers on Twitter, 258.000 fans on YouTube and 225.000 people on Instagram. In particular on that last social medium he is feeling comfortable about his sexual identity. His Instagram Story looks like a city guide through Moscow with a rainbow flag on his back. ‘Tasha Tale’ and Kristian Kostov are two very good friends of him. You probably remember Kristian as the guy that got the second place on Eurovision Song Contest this year for Bulgaria. Bulgarian and Russian press are spreading rumours about his sexual orientation in the last weeks. He is definitely good in not answering the question. Tasha Tale’s YouTube-videos have been watched over 6 million times. On Instagram she is posing with her Vans and a rainbow flag. Remarkable: there are no subtitle for the image. This summarises exactly the perception of the metrosexual Moscovians on LGBT-issues: as long as you don’t explicitly say you are gay, they won’t have a ‘problem’ with it. That’s why Misha is always waving his rainbow flag, but never uses the word ‘gay’.

You should not expect a YouTube video with the title ‘Coming Out’ like Ellen Page, Troye Sivan and Tom Daley made, in Russia. What happens if you still try to do this? The 23 years old violinist Artem Kolesov can tell you everything about it. As part of the Дети-404(‘Children-404’) project, that has to help Russian youth with psychological problems attached to the discovering of their sexual orientation, the United States emigrated violinist made a coming-out video. From the moment he put it online he is not any longer on speaking terms with his parents. He also fears to be arrested from the moment he would arrive back in Russia. A similar story can be heard by the previous Kontr TV-presentator Anton Krasovsky. In 2013 he came live on air out of the closet. He was immediately fired afterwards. Nowadays he is a full-time LGBT- and HIV-activist.

Homophobia is more buried in the Russian society than just Putin saying to Oliver Stone that he does not want to shower next to a homosexual male. The queer culture in metropoles like Moscow and Saint-Petersburg cannot be compared to these in Western Europe. But there are a few youngsters that are going against the grain. They are living their lives like they want to live it and meanwhile they are convincing a lot of young people inside homophobic Russia on equality. To end this article I would like to quote LGBT-icon Troye Sivan: “Let yourself be the person you’ve secretly always wanted to be”.

Changing Positions on LGBTQI-Rights by Far-Right Parties in Western Europe

”Ask yourself who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community, Donald Trump with actions or Hillary Clinton with her words?”, stated by Donald Trump in a speech during the USA presidential election campaign in 2016 after the shooting at an Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) venue in Orlando by a radical muslim. For the first time during the campaign, and during his life the upcoming USA president showed support for the LGBT community. He continued his speech by showing even more support for the LGBT cause “And by the way the LGBT community is just — what’s happened to them is just so sad and to be thinking about where their policies are currently with this administration is a disgrace to that community, I will tell you right now.”. It was the first time a right wing populist showed support for the LGBT-community on world stage in history.

Especially The Netherlands and Belgium have a much longer history of tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality. The annual report of the European department of the International Lesbian & Gay Association (ILGA) reflects the the legal and policy human rights situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people in their countries. As first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage in 2001, The Netherlands is only ninth (62%) in the Rainbow Index 2017 nowadays. Nonetheless in the Eurobarometer of 2015 96% (1st place) of the people agree that LGB people should have the same rights as heterosexual people. Belgium was the second country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 2003 and is now fourth (72%) on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index. 81% of Belgians think that LGB should have the same rights as heterosexuals. France only legalised same-sex marriage in 2013. The country was in 2017 (71%) fifth on the ILGA Europe ranking. The 2015 Eurobarometer shows that 81% of the French population thinks that LGB-people should have the same rights.

Geert Wilders uses the acquired LGBT-rights in The Netherlands as a conservative weapon against the Dutch Muslim community

The Netherlands, Belgium and France have a longer history with populist politicians showing support for LGBT-rights. The openly homosexual Dutch populist politician Pim Fortuyn criticised the Muslim integration in the Dutch society till he was murdered by an environmentalist in 2002. Pim Fortuyn started a way of thinking that eventually led to the emergence of the far-right Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV) (Freedom Party). A longread on Buzzfeed shows how Geert Wilders uses the acquired LGBT-rights in The Netherlands as a conservative weapon against the Dutch Muslim community. One of the five vice-presidents of the French Front National (FN) (National Front) is homosexual. The magazine Closer revealed Florian Philippot’s homosexuality. He stated afterwards that being LGBT in the Front National causes no problems.

In all Eastern European countries the LGBT-cause still only gets political support of progressive left wing parties. But in Western Europe the LGBT-community also gets support by far-right parties. Far-right parties mostly have one common enemy: the Islam. They use the acquired LGBT-rights in their countries to fight against the conservative moral values of the Muslim community. This paper tries to explain why some of the far right-parties made a shift in their views towards the LGBT- community.

European Disagreement

There is a huge division between attitudes and legislation concerning LGBTQI in the European Union. Eastern European countries tend to be more conservative about their moral values. The Catholic Church still plays an important role in these countries. The Rainbow-Index 2017 gives a 18% percent score to Poland and a 17% to Latvia and Lithuania for instance. The Eurobarometer of 2015 shows that only 37% of the Polish society believes that LGB people should have the same rights as everybody else. In Latvia 42% and in Lithuania 44% of the people think the same.

Western European countries like The Netherlands, Belgium and France have totally different acceptance-rates. The Eurobarometer of 2015 show that 96% of the Dutch population believes that LGB should have the same rights. In Belgium and France 81% of the population tend to agree with this statement. As mentioned before, these countries have a much longer history of LGBTQI liberation. So their history is the main factor for this huge division between the Eastern and Western part of Europe. Also the role of the Catholic Church (or other religious institutions) in everyday’s life influences the acceptance rates in countries.

Far-Right Parties all over Europe have close contacts with the Kremlin. In 2014 the French National Front took a loan of 9 million euro from the First Czech Russian Bank . This bank is close to the Kremlin. Politicians of the Belgian Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) also have close contacts with the Russian government. On the second of June 2014 Filip Dewinter posted a picture of himself with the Russian vice premier Dmitry Rogozin on his website. He stated that they were talking about immigrations, islam and multiculturalism.

Academics like Alina Polyakova acknowledge that there are differences between far-right parties in Europe if it comes to LGBT-rights. She stresses that it’s not her purpose to underline the differences, but mark what they have in common. She says that they have a so-called “putinism” in common. Putin stands for more traditional values. The acceptance rates of LGBT in Russia have more in common with Muslim countries than they have with European countries. European Far- Right parties, like The Greek Golden Dawn, and the French National Front discussed in 2013 the challenges posted by the emergence of LGBT-rights all over Europe. The United Kingdom Independence Party and and the Austrian FPÖ were agains same-sex marriage. The Hungarian Jobbik proposed a law to ban “gay propaganda” in the country. Polyakova states that these far-right parties and Russia use the LGBT-liberation as evidence for the cultural decline of the European Union and the whole Western world.

But the reality shows a more complex division between these far-right parties. Obviously all of them have more conservative values towards the LGBTQI-community than liberal and progressive parties, but the levels of acceptance differs considerably. Especially the Belgian, French and Dutch examples differ a lot to parties like Golden Dawn and Jobbik. The following three sections will give an overview of the history and contemporary perspectives of the populist far right in Belgium, France and The Netherlands.

The Belgian Example

The Belgian parliament legalised same-sex marriage in 2003. The only Flemish party that voted against the introduction of same-sex marriage in Belgium was Vlaams Blok, the precursor of the Flemish Interest. In a press release of 2002 they stated: “In the opinion of the Flemish Interest the traditional family is the fundamental building block of our society. The Flemish Interest does not forbid people to live together. If gays and lesbians wish to register their partnership, they should conclude a civil partnership contract, but legalising same-sex marriage is just one step too far and is not ethical.” (translated from Dutch).

During a debate in the Flemish parliament in 2008 about an anti-discrimination campaign by the Flemish minister of equality Kathleen Van Brempt the Flemish Interest MP Filip De Winter states that this kind of campaigns are against the norms of the society. He asks for more respect for the traditional, man and women, relationships. This kind of campaigns “create the impression that homosexual relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships, instead of exceptions” in the eyes of De Winter.

In 2014, 11 years after the introduction of same-sex marriage, Flemish Interest member of parliament Filip Dewinter states in the Belgian Dutch-speaking newspaper De Standaard that they would approve same-sex marriage now. A year later De Winter attended a protest called Mars voor het Gezin (March for the Family) in Antwerp by the organisation Pro Familia. The organisation is against LGBTQI-rights and abortion. It shows that the point of view of the Flemish nationalistic far-right party is complex. Also the president of the Flemish Interest Tom Van Grieken stated in 2015 in the Belgian weekend newspaper De Zondag he is not totally opposed to same-sex marriage anymore: “You need to make legislation for the big majority, not for the exceptions. But I would never say that homosexuality is an illness. This are people like you and me. Same-sex marriage is an acquired right. It does not need discussion anymore.” (translated from Dutch). During the same interview he also stated that it is in the interest of the child to have two parents of a different gender.

The Flemish Interest their views on homosexuality changed obviously in the last decade. The reason why they changed their views on homosexuality is complex. Dave Sinardet (PhD at the Free University of Brussels) gave this explanation for the phenomenon in the newspaper De Morgen “The Flemish Interest link their views against the Islam to more liberal rights acquired in Western Europe. But values like gender equality and LGBT-rights, are values they always fought against.” (translated from Dutch) . The Flemish Interest use the progressive rights acquired by others than themselves to fight a conservative war against the Islam.

The French Example

Ten years after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Belgium, France introduced it (2013). The Eurobarometer of 2015 showed that 71% of the French population thinks that same-sex marriage should be legalised throughout Europe. So France is just like Belgium and The Netherlands one of the most tolerant member states of the European Union for LGBT-people.

Florian Philippot his unwilling coming-out did not lead to any big controverse.

Since several years Marine Le Penne wants to execute a “normilisation” in the National Front. She wants to break with the history of antisemitism, homophobia and sexism introduced by her father Jean-Marie Le Penne. In 1984 Jean-Marie called homosexuality an “anomalie biologique et sociale” (biological and social abnormality). By weaken their rough stances they want to broaden the party and attract a bigger portion of the French population. Since Marine Le Penne leads the party they started this process. She said in 2011: “Whether man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual, christian, jew, muslim or atheist, we take France first!” (translated from French). This was the first time in the history of the party that the leader places heterosexuals and homosexuals on an equal level. Since then more and more homosexuals became member of the National Front. In 2015, the magazine Cover revealed that one of the vice-presidents was homosexual. Florian Philippot his unwilling coming-out did not lead to any big controverse. After the revelation he stated that he wanted to keep his sexual orientation private, but that this does not cause any problems for him within the National Front.

A study conducted by gay dating app Hornet among it’s French users revealed that 36.5% of the the app users favoured Marine Le Penne as the president of the French Republic instead of Emmanuel Macron. Especially the younger generation (18 to 29 years old) favoured Le Penne with 45%17. This is very surprising considering the fact that the National Front was very hostile towards the introduction of same-sex marriage in France in 2013. Even during the presidential election campaign of 2017, they stated that they wanted to repeal same-sex marriage if they win the presidency18. The sympathy for the National Front by a big minority of the French LGBT- community has everything to do with the anti-Islam stance of the party. A research by SOS Homophobie in 2015 shows that the situation for LGBT people did not change a lot since 2005. This is kind off surprising, because France introduced same-sex marriage in 2013. This study also show that 12% of the homophobic incidents happen in the public sphere19. It could be possible that some LGBT blame muslims for the lack of progression. Many politicians, from left to right, presume that religious institutions like the Islam are much more conservative.

The Dutch Example

The Netherlands has always supposed to be one of the most progressive countries in the European Union and the world. They were the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001. The Dutch acceptance rates for LGBT-rights are always among the highest in Europe. In 2015 the Eurobarometer revealed that 96% of the people of The Netherlands think that lesbian, gay and bisexual people should have the same rights as everybody else.

They see the ‘islamisation’ of the Dutch society as a threat towards the way of living in The Netherlands. This way of living also includes woman and LGBT-rights.

It is possible to assume that The Netherlands was the first country in the world where populist politicians exploit the LGBT-issue. The openly gay populist politician Pim Fortuyn introduced criticism towards multiculturalism, in particular Muslim culture, in the Dutch society. But despite Fortuyn being homosexual himself, he was against the legalisation of same-sex marriage in The Netherlands: “Gay marriage is ridiculous. I don’t see what’s the necessity for it. The marriage is an institute that is worldwide reserved for a commitment between a man and a woman, with the purpose of a family…” (translated from Dutch). After the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, and later also the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, Geert Wilders created his Partij Voor Vrijheid (PVV) (Freedom Party). The PVV is obviously the successor of the ideology introduced by Fortuyn and Van Gogh. They see the ‘islamisation’ of the Dutch society as a threat towards the way of living in The Netherlands. This way of living also includes woman and LGBT-rights. The PVV openly ‘protects’ the LGBT-community . In a press release about homophobia in Dutch schools the education spokesman of the PVV Martin Bosma accuses the Dutch government of misleading the population by not pointing out the ‘perpetrator’: “The muslim culture is full of hatred towards gays, especially the agricultural-tribal culture of our New Dutch citizens. Look at the Sharia, based on the Quran has the most horrible punishments in store.” (translated from Dutch). At the other hand the Freedom Party did not want to sign an election manifest written by COC, the biggest Dutch LGBTQI-organisation, during the parliamentary election campaign of 2017.

Conclusion

The LGBTQI-movement is often called the new worldwide post-materialist human rights movement. It is the successor of the woman rights movement. The fight for equality by lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people started in the seventies and took huge proportions since the first decade of the 21st century. Some countries made more and faster progress than others. Some may have gone even backward. There is an overall consensus that in the Western world, especially in the European Union, the situation for LGBTQI-people has been improved in the last decades. Still there are huge differences within the EU if it comes to legislation and tolerance towards homosexuality. Eastern European member states have made much less progress in the last decades. The Eurobarometer of 2015 showed that most of the member states situated in the East of Europe have acceptance rates below 50%. Most of the Western member states of the EU have thrown marriage open for couple of the same gender and their acceptance rates are sometimes double the rate of their Eastern European counterpart.

In three Western European countries even far-right populist parties took more a more progressive stance towards LGBTQI-persons: Belgium, France and The Netherlands. The Flemish Interest, the National Front and the Freedom Party have shown support for the LGBTQI-movement in the last years. Some polls have also shown that a big minority of the LGBTQI-people support these parties in the last years. This is rather surprising because the “rainbow”-movement has always been seen as a liberal, progressive and more left wing movement. People seem to support the anti-Islam position of these parties. The Islam, and their believers, are often considered by these parties as a conservative religion with hostile policies towards homosexuals. They use the acquired LGBTQI- rights like same-sex marriage as a conservative weapon in the fight against multiculturalism. But Belgian, Dutch and French far-right populist parties are very picky if it comes to when and what they support from the LGBTQI-community. They still value the traditional family. The National Front even stated during the presidential election campaign of 2017 in France that they wanted to repeal same-sex marriage. So the relationship between the far-right parties and the LGBTQI- movement is a very complex one.

This paper is written as an assignment for the course ‘Rebellion and Populism – the rise of social unrest in contemporary Europe’ lectured by Dr. Mikołaj Rakusa-Suszczewski. Rémy Bonny, the author of this paper, was able to follow this course at the University of Warsaw, department Centre for Europe, with thanks to the Erasmus+ program by the European Commission. Normally he is a student at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).