The first ever Pride march in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv descended into scenes of violence Sunday, as mobs of ultranationalist thugs hunted down and assaulted marchers at the end of the event.
Three marchers and two police officers were injured in the clashes, while police arrested 17 far-right demonstrators for their role in the attacks.
The march — the first ever held in the conservative eastern city — faced opposition before it even took place, with Mayor Gennady Kernes threatening legal action to try to prevent the event, and far-right groups threatening violence if it went ahead.
A heavy police presence prevented a 500-strong counter-demonstration, dubbed the “March for Traditional Values,” from disrupting the event, as an estimated 2,000 Pride marchers gathered for a demonstration of LGBTQ solidarity. But once the march was over and Pride participants dispersed, they became targets for the roaming far-right mobs.
Footage posted to YouTube showed ultranationalist thugs, some of them in balaclavas, chase a slightly-built teenaged boy with bleached hair through a busy park, launching flying kicks at him then kicking him repeatedly as he laid on the ground.
The same video shows another attack in which dozens of men chase to their targets through the streets. Then, the far-right mob, waving flags for the ultranationalist groups Freikorps and Tradition and Order, turns its anger on police. The men chant at officers before swarming a police van, ending in violent scuffles with officers. Two men were arrested for spraying tear gas at police officers.
“These groups of ultra-right youth hunted for participants of the march throughout the city and beat several of them,” Andriy Maymulakhin, coordinator for the Nash Mir Center, a Ukrainian LGBT rights organization, told VICE News.
He said that the violence was not a surprise. “In Kharkiv, ultranationalists are especially active and aggressive. They try to disrupt every LGBT event in the city.” In May, blackshirted members of Freikorps and Tradition and Order stormed into a hotel conference room and shut down a meeting building support for the Pride march; according to an account by rights organization Freedom House, which hosted the event, the groups said they would not tolerate “deranged and sick ideology” of LGBTQ rights in “a traditional Ukrainian city.”
And in February last year, Freikorps (“Free Corps,” a German term for far-right paramilitaries that were active after World War I) stormed a lecture on LGBTQ rights in Kharkiv, prompting police who attended to order those gathered to disperse, and not provoke the ultranationalists.
Since coming to prominence during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, in which a popular uprising overthrew the Ukrainian government and ousted pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych, ultranationalist groups have become an increasingly strident presence in Ukrainian public life, violently policing what they consider to be the influence of degenerate Western values. As well as attacking LGBTQ events, in recent years far-right groups have targeted International Women’s Day marches, feminist exhibitions, and animal rights demonstrations.
“They participated in Euromaidan which helped him them gain legitimacy; they present themselves as defenders of traditional Ukrainian values,” said Maymulakhin. “They’re very active in homophobic aggression, unfortunately.”
Ukraine has seen increased support for LGBT rights since the political upheaval of 2014, but homophobia remains widespread throughout society. Nearly half of Ukrainians think that the rights of sexual minorities should be limited, while 37.5% do not, according to a Democratic Initiatives survey last year.
While Ukraine’s LGBTQ community are increasing asserting their rights, they routinely come under attack from an emboldened far-right who consider displays of gay pride a provocation.
A Nash Mir Center report last year recorded 16 cases of people being attacked by ultranationalists in so-called “safari” hunts by far-right mobs before and after peaceful LGBTQ events, in cities including Kharkiv, leading it to conclude that “it is clear that the participation of LGBT people in the public life of Ukraine is becoming more dangerous.”
The violent anti-Pride protests mirror the situation in neighboring Poland, where far-right groups, stoked by a homophobic campaign by the conservative ruling party, have attacked participants at LGBT rallies this year.
Yet despite the expected attacks, Maymulakhin said that the 2,000-strong turnout in Kharkiv, a conservative city of 2.1 million less than an hour from the Russian border, was a victory for the LGBTQ community.
“It’s a big success without any doubt,” he said. “We can’t control the far-right nationalists, but this enthusiasm, the big level of participation, and the support from civil society are very positive factors for the Ukrainian LGBT community.”
Cover: Participants march with a rainbow flag during the Gay Pride parade in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Around two thousand LGBT activists and associations paraded in Kharkiv for the first time ever. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)