Gay rights is getting caught up in the geopolitics of eastern Europe

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World.
The battle over gay rights in Russia is getting a lot of attention. That's because of the recently passed Russian law that bans so-called gay propaganda, and because gay rights activists are protesting that law ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. But Russia isn't the only country in its neighborhood where homosexuality has become the focus of intense debate. Something similar is happening in other former Soviet nations.
J. Lester Feder has been reporting in Ukraine as a foreign correspondent for Buzzfeed.

J. Lester Feder: Well, we're seeing in Ukraine, as in a lot of other countries, an intense interest in the same kind of propaganda laws that were passed in Russia. And after that was passed, you saw an interest in that and other places, Ukraine being one of them. And we've seen now, as Ukraine moves towards signing an agreement to formalize its relationship with the European Union, a real intense interest, both in that law, and more broadly in using opposition to gay rights as a way to make an issue out of what association with the EU would mean.

Werman: And so... why? I mean, does Russia lead all former Soviet republics on this issue of gay rights, or rather, lack of gay rights?

Feder: I think we see, throughout that part of the world, a lot of homophobia on a cultural level. It's not like that was invented now, but it's become a very useful political issue. When Russia passed its propaganda law, it was using that in part to define itself in opposition to the West. And it was useful to Vladimir Putin as a way of defining a broader view of the world in his domestic political context as well. But the anxiety over relationships with the West is something that is playing out throughout Eastern Europe, as the EU continues to expand towards Russia, and as Russia is fighting very hard to hold onto its influence in this part of the world.

Werman: So there's one group, kind of comes across as a slightly... Anita Bryant-esque organization, called Ukrainian Choice. Is it a homophobic organization, or are they kind of a proxy of Vladimir Putin?

Feder: So Ukrainian Choice is a broader organization than just dealing with gay rights. They were organized to more broadly oppose affiliation with the European Union, and instead advocating aligning more forcefully with Russia. It has become a hub of promoting this kind of homophobia, because this issue is one that they feel like they can rally people around. We've seen in Kiev, now, of Billboards going up that say things like, "European Union means gay marriage, from Ukrainian Choice." It is funded by a law maker, a former law maker and a wealthy businessman, who does have very close, personal ties to Putin.

Werman: So give us a picture, Lester, of what gay/lesbian life is like in Ukraine, in 2013.

Feder: We're still seeing in Ukraine, as in a lot of other parts of this area, a lot of violence, a lot of suppression of political rights. The first pride parade happened in Kiev, only after they defined a police ban and moved the location. We have had seen a number of high profile hate crimes. We're now seeing that organizations, that had been operating in Russia... like Occupy Pedophilia being the most well known of these, which sets up these sort of stings where they entrap gay man and then film videos humiliating them. They've been operating also in Ukraine. It's not a comfortable place to be. It's not, by any stretch I think, as bad as Russia has become, and in part because of the countervailing pressure from the European Union to ensure some level of gay rights. But on a cultural level and a political level, there's still a lot of suppression.

Werman: Compared to this story in other parts of the world, and LGBT rights around the globe, what strikes you about Ukraine?

Feder: That you can't really talk about LGBT rights in isolation here. There's a much bigger geopolitical debate happening. You have real competition between two very large economic and political powers in the region. And this debate, how that works out in places like Ukraine, will be heavily shaped by those actors, by Russia and EU, not necessarily by activists whose primary concerns are LGBT rights.

Werman: J. Lester Feder, a foreign correspondent for Buzzfeed, and 2013 Alicia Patterson Journalism fellow. Thanks very much.

Feder: Thank you for having me.