Yesterday, news emerged that Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Court had quietly rejected a bill that would have banned “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” on grounds that it included vague language. The ruling came three days after a group of former Olympic athletes published an open letter to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) saying that the law was not consistent with the IOC charter’s clauses on discrimination. The bill, which has been in the works for some time, was first proposed last August and was passed by both houses of the Kazakh Parliament.
In late February, when the bill was passed by the Kazakh Senate, Aldan Smayil, a member of the Majilis (the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament) who had sponsored the bill, said that “the draft provides a ban on information products depicting cruelty and violence, provoking children to life-threatening acts, including suicide, containing scenes of pornographic, sexual, and erotic nature, promoting non-traditional sexual orientation.”
The proposed law was ostensibly aimed at “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development,” but sections specifically targeting so-called gay propaganda drew negative attention from human rights organizations and to some extent the international community, particularly because of Kazakhstan’s 2022 Olympic dreams.
Last week, a group of former Olympic and professional athletes published an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach through Athlete Ally, an organization which fights for the rights of gay athletes. The letter outlined the athletes’ concerns regarding the pending Kazakh law and the country’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Almaty.
Casey Michel, writing for The Diplomat, noted that by targeting Kazakhstan’s Olympics bid, activists aimed at the one spot they may have leverage:
… this letter may well present the last, most feasible hope at stemming legalized homophobia in Kazakhstan. Astana has shown a susceptibility when its international image is at stake. And with the Olympic Games potentially offering a major boost to Astana’s credibility, both internationally and domestically, the letter may have located the correct mechanism for stemming the legislation.
The Kazakh Olympic bid’s vision includes the statement that the country is “famous for its natural tolerance.” Kazakhstan, as many countries around the world, has wrestled with the clash between traditional and modern concepts of gender and sexuality, conflicting political influences from the West and Russia, the impact of social media and connectivity on personal expression, and a general trend of rising conservatism across the region.
In September 2014, Bolashak, a Kazakhstan national movement, organized a press conference in Almaty in support of the proposed legal changes. Dauren Babamuratov, the group’s leader, said that “unconfirmed reports suggest there are about 14 gay clubs and bars in Almaty,” which have effectively “made Almaty the gay capital of Central Asia.” He went on to suggest that LGBT people in Kazakhstan had become more brazen because the country no longer banned homosexuality (same-sex relations were legalized in 1998, although same-sex marriages or unions and adoption remained illegal). Babamuratov said a blood test could reveal “the presence of degeneratism in a person” and that he could tell when a person was gay, saying ”these are young people in colored pants” in Kazakhstan’s malls.
A similar law is under consideration in Kyrgyzstan, and both are modeled on a 2013 Russian law. Negative responses, however, to the Russian law did not impact the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It seems that international pressure has had some sway in Astana — for the time being (as the RFE/RL Kazakh service points out, it’s unclear whether the bill is completely dead or merely up for revisions).
The Kazakh government has been busily promoting its Olympic bid. Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov wrote that Almaty, the old Soviet-era capital, “had a lot to offer” and that the 2022 Winter Olympics, if held there, “could be one of the most cost effective in decades.” As other contending cities dropped out, Kazakhstan surged forward. Only Almaty and Beijing remain in the running, with the IOC set to announce its decision on July 31.