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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 June 2007, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Elton John gig divides Ukrainians
By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Kiev

Elton John poster, Kiev
Elton John's free concert is likely to draw a big crowd

It was billed as the biggest social event of the year in Ukraine.

Elton John played a free concert in the capital Kiev to raise awareness about HIV/Aids.

But his show attracted some critics as there is widespread homophobia in Ukraine.

This former Soviet republic has one of the fastest growing infection rates in Europe.

There is a new case every 10 minutes, according to Ukraine's Anti-Aids Foundation.

Mega-stars do not often come to Kiev, so thousands were expected at the event on Saturday night.

'Religious hatred'

A religious group had urged Ukrainians to boycott the event, describing it as blasphemous.

Petro Polyantsev, gay rights activist
We live with stigma, discrimination and homophobia
Petro Polyantsev
Gay rights activist

"We believe that gay people are responsible for spreading Aids," says Svyatoslav Domalevsky from The Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine.

"Elton John is gay and we don't want him promoting that kind of lifestyle here."

Despite the Western outlook of Ukraine's leader, it is a conservative and predominantly Orthodox Christian country.

"Religion is responsible for a lot of the hatred people feel towards people like me," says Petro Polyantsev, an HIV-positive gay rights activist.

"We live with stigma, discrimination and homophobia. We constantly fear that we may be attacked just for being gay."

Soviet legacy

Petro became HIV-positive at the age of 19 when he was a student in southern Ukraine.

Elton John photo exhibition, Kiev
Photographs from Elton John's collection are on show in Kiev

He moved to Kiev as it is relatively more tolerant.

But even in the capital, very few men are openly gay while lesbians are virtually invisible.

Many blame the legacy of the Soviet Union.

Back then being gay was a crime and those found guilty faced being sent to the Gulag.

Ukraine decriminalised homosexuality in 1991 but prejudices persist.

"Many of the older generation still think that homosexuals should be prosecuted," says Petro Polyantsev of the All Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV/Aids.

An estimated 400,000 people are HIV-positive in Ukraine.

It is believed that gay men make up only a small percentage of that figure.

Disease spreading

Experts say that the disease was initially spread by drug-users but now that is changing.

"The situation is very bad - nobody really knows how many people are ill," says Oleg, a Kiev businessman who was diagnosed as being HIV-positive two years ago

"The virus hits ordinary Ukrainians now, it's not just the problem of drug-users anymore, and it's affecting everyone."

It is feared that within the next decade, one in 50 people in Ukraine could be HIV-positive.

Considering the scale of the problem, there is little funding on offer from the authorities. This year the government is reported to have allocated $20m (10m).

Most of the money to tackle the disease comes from international donors and charities.

Elton John's Aids Foundation is spending more than $5m on projects in Ukraine.

This weekend's events were organised to try to change people attitudes.

An exhibition of photographs from Elton John's collection is on display at Kiev's modern art gallery.

As the sun goes down over Kiev, the British entertainer will perform an open-air concert in the city's main square.

"The spread of HIV and Aids is a huge problem for our country but people don't seem to talk about it much," says Mr Polyantsev.

"I hope that Elton's show will help to change things."

An HIV-positive patient on Ukraine's Aids crisis

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