Gay-rights activists in Russia have expressed concern about provocative comments by a senior official in the de facto government of Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that was annexed by Russia in March.
Sergei Aksyonov, the de facto prime minister of Crimea, on September 2 said "we in Crimea do not need such people," referring to gays and other sexual minorities.
In addition, he said, if activists try to demonstrate in the region "our police and self-defense forces will react immediately and in three minutes will explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to."
"For a politician and for the head of a region it is a very upsetting comment. For one thing, it is not for Aksyonov to decide who can and can't live in Crimea," says Igor Kochetkov, director of the Russian LGBT Network in St. Petersburg. "Regardless of sexual orientation, no one should have to ask Mr. Aksyonov or his officials where they can live. It is an absolutely awful statement."
Gay-rights activist and lawyer Nikolai Alekseyev wrote on September 2 that "Aksyonov's statements are purely political words since such actions violate the law [on public gatherings] and Russia's international obligations."
"If Crimea has become part of Russia, naturally, it must follow federal law, which does not delegate such authority to subjects of the federation," Alekseyev was quoted as saying on September 3.
Gay rights activists face persecution in Russia.
Aksyonov's harsh remarks reflect a growing climate of official social conservatism in Russia that was characterized by the adoption last summer of a law banning "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.
In April, Alekseyev's request to hold gay-pride events in Sevastopol and Simferopol was rejected by the authorities, citing the antigay propaganda law. Alekseyev said the rejection is being challenged in courts in Crimea and in Moscow and he continues to hold out hope the ban will be overturned.
According to Alekseyev's website, 164 applications for gay-pride events have been rejected by cities across Russia to date. In response to an appeal by Alekseyev's group, the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 ruled that Moscow's ban on gay-pride events in 2006, 2007, and 2008 was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Ukrainian gay-rights organization Gay Forum Ukraine estimates there are about 10,000 gays and other sexual minorities living in Crimea. Russian activist Kochetkov says they have been caught up in the "general deterioration of human rights" in the region since it was annexed by Moscow.
LGBT activists in Russia have complained of increased rights violations and violence since the new law was passed last year. Alekseyev and fellow LGBT activist Kirill Nepomnyashchy were assaulted in Kostroma by two unknown assailants on September 1 while attempting to participate in a court hearing over that city's ban on gay-pride events. Alekseyev was also attacked during another trip to the central Russian city last year.
Kochetkov says that conservative and nationalist groups have "turned their attention to other targets" in recent months, but the situation remains dire for sexual minorities. Nonetheless, he says, Russian officials and institutions have been busy "enforcing" the antigay propaganda law.
"We are seeing new challenges, including a wave of firings of teachers and university instructors on the basis either of their sexual orientation or their public position calling for equal rights for all people without regard to sexual orientation," Kochetkov says. "These people are either being fired or have been threatened with dismissal."
In the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, LGBT activists have been accused by local security services of forming a "gay-terrorist" organization with the goal of fomenting an "Orange revolution" in Russia.
Several activists, many of whom have spoken out publicly against President Vladimir Putin and Russia's policies in Ukraine, have undergone searches and questioning by regional law enforcement.
Activist and blogger Andrei Marchenko told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the investigators who came to his home in Khabarovsk "were very rude and threatened me with four years in prison."
"They didn't find anything extremist -- no dollars or anything," Marchenko said. "But they got very happy when they saw I had a business card from Elizabeth MacDonald," a U.S. consular representative in Vladivostok whom Marchenko says he met last year.