In late September Andrei, a middle-aged Moldovan, was set upon by two men in a park in the center of this city. They had found his number on a gay dating site, arranged a meetup and, after calling him a faggot, beat him and kicked him in the face. Then, for good measure, they stole his bag and wallet.
“It was vicious, and when the police arrived they started asking me all these degrading questions,” says Andrei, who asked that his name be changed.
Moldova, one of the poorest nations in Europe, is set to join the European Union's Eastern Partnership aid-and-trade program today in what could be the first step of its eventual absorption into the union. It has been trying to strike a balance between EU rules on respect for minorities, including gay people, and the views of a staunchly conservative church and society.
Caught in the middle is Moldova’s small lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, which for years has struggled against open hostility in the media, from the pulpit, and across much of Moldovan society.
In some respects, Moldova's schism mirrors that of Russia, which passed a law last year that outlaws the display of homosexual orientation and has been at loggerheads with Western critics of its LGBT policy in the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
This summer a controversial anti-propaganda law, seen by many as a direct attack on the LGBT community, passed through the Moldovan parliament, but was struck down by the country’s constitutional court for limiting gay and transgender rights.
The anti-propaganda law was pushed by the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which demanded a ban on “propaganda” related to “homosexual, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, pedophilic, zoophilic, incestuous, and perverse behavior,” according to a statement released at the time.
“Like in Russia, the situation for LGBT members here is very bad,” says Anastasia Danilova, executive director of GenderDoc-M, the only gay-rights NGO in Moldova.
“The Orthodox Church is one of the main enemies of the LGBT community in Moldova,” she says.
Shadows of Russian influence
Since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Moldova, a country of 3.6 million sandwiched between Romania and the Ukraine, has lived in the shadows of Russian influence. It has also been plagued by widespread corruption and political instability. In recent years, however, it has moved closer to the West and has been lauded as a successful example of EU expansion into the former Soviet Bloc.
With Ukraine delaying its entry into the EU's Eastern Partnership program under pressure from Russia -- which wants to keep its sphere of economic and political influence -- developments in Moldova have taken on even greater significance.
The passing last year of Moldova’s first anti-discrimination law was praised as a positive step towards greater rights for minorities, albeit one that took eight years to get off the ground. It had to overcome opposition led by the Orthodox Church, which at one stage threatened to excommunicate any politician who had signed it into law. Conservatives expressed concern that it would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriages.
“I don’t think we would have passed the anti-discrimination law without the EU process, but hopefully it will now be hard to reverse it,” says Artiom Zavadovschi, a Moldovan gay activist who received a UN human-rights award in 2012 for his work.
“Lack of any civil rights in Moldova is a nightmare for the gay community,” he adds.
Nor are gay people the only community that struggles for respect and acceptance in Moldova. The country only ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, and activists say that people with disabilities still lack access to education and jobs, while the Roma community is looked upon with general suspicion.
Verbal, physical abuse
However, it is the LGBT community that seems to bear the brunt of verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse and discrimination.
“People in Moldova struggle to find work if they are openly gay, and they are afraid to go to the police if they are attacked because of the reaction they will get,” says Igor Stoica, a program coordinator at Amnesty International Moldova.
Mr. Stoica says 35 cases have already been brought to Amnesty this year in which gay men or women have been physically or psychologically assaulted. About half of those bringing the charges have been willing to take them to the police, and about five of them have reached court.
"The whole process is very slow," Stoica says. “With the new law the situation is a bit better than two or three years ago, but the LGBT community is still very isolated and under regular verbal attack."
So far there are no openly gay Moldovan celebrities or politicians, and gay men in particular have to remain on guard against the possibility of physical assaults.
Veaceslav, who asked that only his first name be used, was contacted last year by a supposedly gay couple via a dating site. They said they wanted his advice, but after he invited them to his apartment to talk they pulled a knife on him, beat him up, stole his money and electronics, and left him tied up on the bed.
“This is one of the main dangers of being gay in Moldova,” he says, adding that he still has knife marks on his back from the attack.
The men were caught and earlier this year sentenced to six years in prison, but Veaceslav is still upset that they were charged with grievous bodily harm, rather than a hate crime.
Gay pride march
However, there have been some signs of improvement. The first legally sanctioned gay pride parade took place in Chisinau in May, with EU officials and foreign ambassadors marching in support and police offering protection to the marchers.
For Moldova, this was something of a turnaround. In 2005 the same parade was banned, while an attempt to hold a parade in 2008 was cancelled after bystanders threw rocks at the marchers, while police stood passively by.
LGBT community members say that things are slowly changing, thanks in large part to Moldova’s growing involvement with the EU, but that the pace is too slow.
“Now we are waiting to see what happens next and if things really change,” says Andrei, a scar on his chin still visible almost two months after his beating in the park in September.