Russia's ban on gay "propaganda" and copycat laws throughout the region have created a "license to commit violence against" LGBT people, "give the permission" for "street violence" and "create legitimacy for violence," according to human rights advocates working in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyszstan who spoke last night at a panel at Columbia University.
Russia's spate of anti-gay laws has quickly influenced neighboring countries, part of what Columbia professor Tanya Domi called "the Putin project" of solidifying Russia's influence in the region.
American activists including National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown, anti-gay agitator Scott Lively, and the World Congress of Families – which receives support from a who's who of American anti-gay groups – have lent support to Russia's anti-gay laws.
Matthew Schaaf, a Russia expert at Freedom House, said that while there were plenty of logistical questions about the enforcement of the ban on gay "propaganda" to minors that was passed last year, one effect of the law is clear.
"What we've actually seen is that this law in Russia and other restrictions on LGBT people and people who advocate for LGBT rights is essentially a license to commit violence against them, to discriminate against them," he said. "It creates an environment where these people are positioned as being others, as not being us, as an influence that we need to control and to destroy."
Schaaf said that the anti-gay bills are "part of an overall crackdown on civil society in Russia."
He mentioned the newly released Russian state cultural policy, which explicitly rejects "the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance" and denies state support to "cultural projects which impose alien to society values."
"What is common to all of these different issues is a rhetoric of some kind of external, existential threat to Russia, to Russian culture, to Russia as a country, to the borders of Russia, to the Russian people, to the Russian economy, and so on," Schaaf said. "So, if you're hearing this message, you're hearing a message that's frightening: that the country is under assault by these horrible, horrible forces."
"This is what Russia is exporting to other parts of the world, and they're aggressively pushing this agenda on many, many, many levels," he added.
Olena Shevchenko, who chairs the Ukrainian LGBTI advocacy group Insight, said that pushing anti-gay laws is part of a "Russian foreign strategy" as Russia is "pushing this border between [its] traditional values concept and human rights in Western Europe."
Anna Kirey of Human Rights Watch put it in terms of LGBT rights being a unit of geopolitical "currency."
"It feels like it's this big political game where Russia is creating this certain currency that they sort of use politically…to mobilize supporters," she said. "LGBT rights now in this region are definitely one of these currencies to create opposition to the West and more support for the Eurasian Customs Union in different countries."
Shevchenko noted that Russia's move toward anti-gay legislation "influenced Ukraine immediately."
In late 2012, Ukraine – which was the first former Soviet republic to decriminalize homosexuality – took the first step toward passing its own "propaganda" ban imposing fines or up to five years in prison for "any positive depiction" of LGBT people.
The BBC interviewed the pastor of an evangelical church in Kiev who had pushed for the bill, which he described as a "national security" measure. "Here's the issue," he told the BBC. "In a real democracy, my freedom and rights are limited by the freedom of someone else."
Shevchenko said that a similar sentiment was behind wide support for anti-gay laws in Ukraine. "Many people think that equality for LGBT people will be a threat to the rights of majority," she said. "Basically it will be a threat to the right to discriminate."
She added that anti-LGBT hate speech from politicians and the media essentially "give permission [for] street violence towards LGBT people" and lead to the "legitimization of violence."
"Basically, they think it allows them to go on the streets and discriminate and to beat them and to rape, when it comes to LB and transgender women," she said.
Kirey, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has done extensive work in Kyrgyzstan, spoke of a similar situation in that country, where a Human Rights Watch report in January found a pattern of police violence and extortion against gay men.
Kyrgyz authorities met the HRW report with denial and even laughter, she said…and then two months later introduced their own Russian-style gay "propaganda" ban.
"Right now in the region, any conversations about LGBT rights are immediately put in the box of 'propaganda,'" said Kirey. She added that such legislation not only "create[s] legitimacy for violence" but also "shrinks the space where LGBT activists are able to raise their concerns, which is very upsetting."
"Literally, people are now thinking that they have the permission of the government to continue these homophobic crimes, which is a very scary development," she said.