Ukraine snubs free travel to Europe over anti-gay law

Dmitry Zaks
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Activists hold a Gay Pride march in Kiev on June 6, 2015

Activists hold a Gay Pride march in Kiev on June 6, 2015 (AFP Photo/Volodymyr Shuvayev)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine's parliament Thursday scuppered the ex-Soviet country's chances of visa-free travel to most EU nations by blocking legislation that would have banned discrimination against gays in the workplace.

The pro-EU leadership that replaced the Moscow-backed president last year has made it a priority to join the Schengen zone -- a club of EU countries that allows visa and passport-free travel to more than 400 million people.

But the European Union said in 2010 that Ukrainians being allowed free travel depended in part on Kiev adding a clause to its Soviet-era labour code that would ban all forms of discrimination against gays at work.

Homosexuality was a criminal offence that landed people in jail or mental institutions in the Soviet Union and even withstood the superpower's 1991 collapse.

Ukraine decriminalised it in 1992 -- a year ahead of neighbouring Russia.

But anti-gay prejudice remains high in large swathes of this overwhelmingly religious and conservative east European state.

A gay pride parade held on the outskirts of Kiev in June lasted just minutes before a far right group attacked it without any apparent intervention from the police.

President Petro Poroshenko said in a nationally televised address late Wednesday that his crisis-torn nation -- it's economy battered and the pro-Russian separatist east out of Kiev's control -- faced "an extremely important day".

A "yes" vote would allow "Ukrainian citizens to visit EU countries without visas as early as next year," the 50-year-old leader promised.

But the chamber -- controlled by a loose pro-government coalition that has often seen members break away to join nationalist or populist groups -- gave the change a resounding "no" in the first of two required readings.

Only 117 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament supported the changes demanded by Brussels.

Such a minority reflects not only public opinion but also the slim chance the legislation has of collecting the required 226 votes in a second vote whose precise date has yet to be set.

Poroshenko's government was dealt another blow when a member of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's own party denounced the bill in a passionate back-bench address.

"As a country with a thousand-year-old Christian history, we simply cannot allow this," lawmaker Pavlo Unguryan said.

"Today, a special status for sexual minorities is simply unacceptable."

His remarks mirror Russia's ban of "gay propaganda" aimed at minors that prompted travel boycotts by prominent Western artists and condemnation by human rights groups.

- 'Serious blow' -

The European Commission is tentatively due to decide next month whether Ukraine has fulfilled its commitments and qualified for the free travel west it wants.

Some analysts believe that the European Union's executive body -- grappling with its own migrant crisis -- will use Ukraine's refusal to adopt the legislation as an excuse to keep an additional inflow of people from coming in.

Poroshenko's European ambitions were dealt another blow when many members of his bloc simply abstained from the vote.

"This is a serious blow to our chances of getting visa-free travel to Europe," Poroshenko ally Iryna Gerashchenko told lawmakers after the vote.

Gerashchenko heads parliament's European integration commission and brings up the issue at most meetings she has with her Brussels counterparts.

Ukrainian activists called on lawmakers to make appropriate bill changes that would finally open the border to vacationers and business people alike.

"Our failure to adopt the anti-discriminatory amendments reflects our inability to overcome the mistaken stereotypes of our Soviet past," Amnesty International chief Tetyana Mazur told AFP.