No one who is in a position to know can claim the defense of ignorance. Activists in places as far afield as San Francisco, London and Amsterdam have come together in demonstrations of solidarity. Yet governments around the world have largely confined themselves to statements of concern. The White House has said nothing on the subject, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to bring it up during his first visit to Moscow.
Yet perhaps the most appalling silence has come from Russia’s neighbors to the west. Usually quick to condemn Moscow’s violations of human rights and international law, many Eastern European countries have been notably reluctant to side with the victims of this latest campaign. This is not only a scandalous failure of moral judgment. It is also politically shortsighted.
Take Ukraine. Since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, then launched another war in the country’s east, Kiev has worked to contrast its own respect for international law with Moscow’s contempt for it. Last week Ukraine scored a symbolic victory at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where judges offered support for Kiev’s complaints about Russia’s violations of minority rights in occupied Crimea. Ukrainian officials, politicians and civil society leaders rightly celebrated their triumph.
Yet their conspicuous refusal to address the horrendous human rights violations in Chechnya reeks of hypocrisy. It doesn’t help that Ukraine’s only LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) law, passed with European Union pressure in 2014, is now under threat in parliament. Despite some modest victories for LGBT rights in the country in the past three years, Ukraine still lacks even basic protections such as hate-crime laws. Local courts and law enforcement show little inclination to investigate or punish violence or discrimination targeting queer Ukrainians. Many of them are still scared to come out. (In the country of 45 million, I’m one of the few to have done so.)
Poland, another staunch Russian adversary, has not only refused to address the persecutions in Chechnya but also illegally denies Chechen refugees the right to cross the Polish border. The current Polish right-wing government pursues extremely conservative and populist policies of the sort one might more readily expect from the Kremlin than an E.U. country: assaults on the independence of the constitutional court and public broadcasting, attempts to ban abortions, whipping up sentiments against migrants and minorities. Systematic homophobia, needless to say, is entirely of a piece with such policies.
Lithuania is one of the loudest E.U. voices warning about the military threat from Moscow. Yet Lithuanian officials, too, appear to be deaf to the crimes taking place in Chechnya. This may have something to do with the fact that Lithuania is the only E.U. member with a Russian-style anti-gay propaganda law on its books. Local activists have been fighting an exhausting battle against the law for seven years now — as well as trying to counter new homophobic initiatives that seem to pop up every year.
Human rights defenders in Georgia probably have the closest relation to the ongoing tragedy in Chechnya — they’ve been helping queer refugees from this neighboring Russian region for years. Their own government doesn’t share the sentiment, though. It, too, has notably failed to criticize the continuing LGBT pogrom just across the border. Once again, this reluctance has much to do with a domestic political climate in which local politicians often incite hate against LGBT minorities and in which religious leaders keep pushing for a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. A series of attacks on transgender Georgians in the past year, including several murders, deeply shocked the Eastern European LGBT community.
The political and cultural leaders in Eastern Europe need to take a hard look at their own behavior. Their refusal to condemn these crimes against humanity in Russia is a testament to their own political immaturity. They don’t seem to understand that their contempt for the victims of this violence erodes their moral standing in the international arena. Next time they cry wolf, fewer will be inclined to listen.
In my travels across the region, it has become increasingly obvious to me that military strength alone will not suffice to protect the countries suffering from Russian colonial ambitions. Perhaps even more important are a smart approach to foreign policy, a strong emphasis on domestic reforms and a commitment to progressive social transformation. As Ukraine learned the hard way, violation of your territorial integrity doesn’t automatically bring friends to your side. You need to take bold moral stances — and stick to them — so that other members of the international community will have reason to stand up for you.
The persecution of gay people in Chechnya is a wake-up call for the advocates of democracy and progress in Eastern Europe. Those who speak loftily of a “civilizational war” with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutish program of “traditional values” will have little credibility if they fail to observe core values of humanity and basic compassion. It is time for Eastern Europe to put itself on the right side of history. Silence can lead only to defeat.