CHISINAU -- In late May, the Moldovan lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community held a landmark tolerance festival that was hailed as a step toward liberalization for the poor, conservative, former Soviet country.
But just three days after the festival ended it became known that lawmakers in Chisinau passed a law that gay-rights advocates say mirrors similar legislation adopted in Russia and Lithuania.
The revelation that the measure was passed on May 23 and signed into law by President Nicolae Timofti on July 5 has surprised observers who see it as running counter to the ruling coalition's drive toward closer relations with the European Union. At the bloc's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, Chisinau hopes to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.
Angela Frolov is the head of the gay-rights NGO GenderDoc-M in Chisinau. Although her group monitors such developments carefully, she says they learned about the new law only after it was officially published on July 12, the date the measure came into effect. It's a development she finds alarming.
"We consider -- and not only us, but all our international partners -- believe this amendment contradicts the constitution and Moldovan law, especially the [EU-backed] antidiscrimination law and some international treaties that Moldova has signed," she says.
The new law is an amendment to the Contravention Code that specifies fines of up to 8,000 leu (about $625) for "the distribution of public information aimed at the propagation of prostitution, pedophilia, pornography, or of any other [intimate] relations [other] than those related to marriage or family."
Voting Details Not Publicized
Although the measure does not mention homosexuality explicitly, activists say it is "virtually identical" to laws passed in Russia and Lithuania. In June, the Council of Europe found that such laws are "incompatible" with the values of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Moldovan measure was passed together with a raft of some 16 laws adopted in the two-day session at the end of May with no public notice or discussion. The parliament has not publicized details of the voting.
Timofti's spokesman, Vlad Turcanu, scoffed at the idea that the president was unaware of what he was signing but otherwise declined to comment on the measure.
Frolov believes the stealthy handling of the measure is a signal that its purpose is the same as the controversial Russian legislation, which bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." She believes most lawmakers were unaware of what they were voting on.
"I believe the amendment was passed out of ignorance -- that most of the MPs did not read it," she said. "It was sponsored by just three deputies, who we know are strongly against homosexuals and who have been fighting against equal rights for the LGBT community."
Two of the measure's sponsors are members of the Liberal Democratic Party and one is a former communist who recently joined the Democratic Party. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Democrats are members of the pro-Western ruling coalition.
One of the law's sponsors, Liberal Democrat Ghenadi Ciobanu, defended the measure, maintaining that it merely added penalties to a law that was passed openly in March following a public debate.
"We voted on a new law [in March], which I also sponsored, on protecting children from harmful information," he said. "This law was passed after two readings. But that law does not mention the measures to be taken against those who do not respect it. So we used the Contravention Code -- it is possible either to include the sanctions in the body of the law itself or in the Contravention Code. We chose the Contravention Code because that is the usual way to do it, both here and in many countries around the world."
The March law, he noted, contained the same language about "any other relations than those related to marriage or family" that has alarmed gay-rights advocates.
Ciobanu insisted he was not "inspired" by the Russian "gay-propaganda" law in drafting the legislation and said it "complies with all European standards and normative documents on freedom of expression."
Frolov said that GenderDoc-M has already begun working with lawmakers and others to have the amendment repealed. They have sent notification about the measure to international rights organizations, the European Commission, and diplomatic missions in Moldova.
They plan to organize a roundtable discussion of the situation with the participation of parliament deputies.
She remains optimistic that the amendment will not withstand scrutiny.
"I am sure that, sooner or later, these changes will be canceled because it is a very serious obstacle for Moldova's integration into the European Union and the liberalization of the visa regime," she said.
Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague