KIEV, Ukraine — In the breakaway region that calls itself the Luhansk People’s Republic, in what used to be a Ukrainian government administration building, the place where rebels get together to exchange their most radical ideas is the smoking room. In the dense atmosphere of tobacco and conspiracy, one hot topic has been the death penalty. The council reinstated capital punishment earlier this year. But even such basic questions as what sort of political power should be established have not been resolved. Should Luhansk aim to be a Western democracy? A Communist republic? A monarchy?
Failing to decide such key questions, the council opted for a law everyone in the smoking room seemed to agree on: punishment of homosexuals. They voted to imprison people convicted of being gay for two years and six months. And they voted the death penalty, no question about that, for the rape of a minor whether of the same or opposite sex. The law did not stipulate execution for homosexuals, as some media reported. But the question of how it will be interpreted, like so much else in Luhansk, remains an open question.
One would think they had more vital issues to deal with. Part of the territory of Luhansk is still occupied by Ukrainian nationalist forces, and fighting continues despite an agree ceasefire. The violence has taken the lives of more than 3,000 civilians. The war has devastated several parts of the city. For weeks, the residents lived in basements under shelling, bringing water to their homes on bicycles during the breaks between explosions. Banks stopped working. To shop for food at newly opened so-called people’s stores or other grocery shops still selling food products, people often had to cross the town. Morgues were filled with hundreds of dead.
But the debate went on about gays, with opinion diverging only on the question of what kind of punishment should be given. Alexander Klodchenko, responsible for international relations, told me over the phone he did not agree with the execution part: “The perverts should be treated at psychiatric hospitals,” Klodchenko said.
In fact, the perverse logic of the Luhansk lawmakers is a reflection of their close ties to Moscow and their hunger for old-time religion, old-time politics, old-time strongmen. Klodchenko says he figures that, after the war ends, Luhansk will be a liberal and democratic republic but, personally, he favors a monarchy. "Luhansk needs a strong Tsar,” he said, suggesting that the separatist region’s elections on November 2 may help point the way. (The rest of Ukraine is voting for a new parliament in Kiev on Sunday)
Without reservation, Klodchenko said it is important that Moscow control the separatist parliament: “See, most of my colleagues at the Parliament don’t have any education, so without the Russian Duma’s help, without their instruction and financial aid, we would be nothing,” Klodchenko said. This week, the deputy took a “consulting course” with the Russian state parliament’s parties.
We all know how much the Russian parliament under Russian President Vladimir Putin has done to make LGBT people feel uncomfortable, unwanted and unsafe. But the so-called parliament of the self-declared Luhansk republic decided to go one better. Their anti-gay law was passed with a show of hands on September 26, and anyone who failed to take it seriously would do so at his or her own risk. When the law actually will go into effect is unclear, but the rebels are not shy about demonstrating their strict rules and meting out public punishment. Commanders of the Luhansk Cossacks recently flogged militia soldiers for cursing and drinking, then posted a video of the beatings. The Luhansk anti-gay law discussed by the Luhansk parliament was intended to “defend moral, cultural and religious values,” local reports said. Back in the smoking room, deputies discussed what to name their new legislation, Klodchenko told me on the phone. “The law defends the Christian traditions of Luhansk’s people from harmful influence by enemy states, such as the European Union, Canada and the USA,” he suggested. What about the death penalty? “When the war is over, we’ll most likely cancel the death penalty, “ Klodchenko said.
But when the war really will be over is anyone’s guess.