Estonia has become the first former Soviet nation to legally recognise same-sex partnerships, after a bitter battle pitting activists and politicians seeking to emulate Scandinavia’s liberal society against conservative groups taking their ideological cue from Moscow.
In a close result reflecting the split in society, parliamentarians voted 40 to 38 in favour of the new legislation, which will from 2016 give gay couples the same legal rights as married couples.
“It sends a message to a group of people that this country values you as much as everybody else,” Lisette Kampus, a spokesperson for gay rights group SEKU, told The Independent. “You are no less, no more – you are Estonian and we value you and your family.”
For proponents of the bill, it represents another step for the nation on its path towards becoming a liberal and inclusive society. In two decades, Estonia has gone from being part of the Soviet Union to an enthusiastic member of NATO, the European Union, and the eurozone.
“Society has been transforming at a very quick pace,” said Kampus. “Mentally, we want to belong in Scandinavia and share those same liberal values – homophobia is one of the scales by which you can measure how tolerant and open society is.”
Many supporters also saw it as a rebuke to Moscow, with President Vladimir Putin going in the opposite direction and passing a controversial law last year banning “gay propaganda”, which activists says effectively criminalises public support for gay rights.
“The thousands who spoke out for human rights and equality are an inspiration not only to everyone in Estonia but to other peoples and states in the region,” said Kari Kasper, director of the Estonian Human Rights Centre.
But while younger Estonians may be looking West for inspiration, many of the older generation and members of the Russian-speaking community – which represents about a quarter of Estonia’s population of 1.3 million – feel left behind in this race towards a new society.
A poll by the public broadcaster ERR found that 58 per cent of the population was against the bill, with opposition higher among older respondents and the Russian-speaking community, which is generally more religious. Conservative groups also held demonstrations in the capital.
Gay rights activists have pointed out similarities between the materials distributed by opponents and the rhetoric coming from Russia.
Varro Vooglaid, head of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition and one of the most vocal opponents of the legislation, denied that his group had received funding from Moscow or evangelical groups in the US. But he did support the Kremlin’s stance.
“I’m not in favour of criminalising private life,” he told The Independent.
“But on the other hand, defending the ideals of family and marriage and not allowing the homosexual lobby to make its propaganda in society, especially among children – yes, I do agree.”
However, the opposition was not enough to convince lawmakers, and President Toomas Hendrik Ilves swiftly signed the bill into law, winning congratulations from supporters overseas.
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