Page last updated at 13:32 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 14:32 UK

Violence feared over Moscow gay march

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Gay rights activists have warned there could be violence on the streets of the Russian capital Moscow on Saturday as the city stages the Eurovision Song Contest final.

Irina Shipitko and Irina Fedotova
Irina Shipitko (l) and Irina Fedotova's marriage attempt was rejected

The competition traditionally has a large gay following and Russian activists are trying to hold the country's first ever gay pride march while thousands of Eurovision fans are in Moscow.

But the city council has refused to give official permission for the march, while allowing hardcore nationalists and religious groups to stage a counter-demonstration on the same day.

Gay activists have come under attack from such groups in the past.

"We will still go ahead", says Nikolai Alekseev, leader of Russia's gay rights movement.

"There will be outrage around the world… if on the 16 May people are being arrested and beaten on the streets of Moscow hours before the Eurovision Song Contest final.

"It will be a disgrace for Russia."

Gay rights campaigners from the US and Europe are expected to take part in the march, including British activist Peter Tatchell who was badly beaten up in Moscow two years ago.

Entrenched homophobia

He says he is very nervous about what may happen on Saturday.

"There are many threats already from the Moscow police that they will get tough with any protest.

"There are also threats from neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and Christian fundamentalists that they will beat us if we appear on the streets."

Gay activists hope to garner high-profile support for the parade from the Eurovision contestants themselves.

United Orthodox Youth leader Mikhail Nalimov
The aim of the gay movement is to destabilise the country and society and we will not let this happen
Mikhail Nalimov, United Orthodox Youth

Dutch group De Toppers has gone public with a warning that it will withdraw from the contest if there is a violent crackdown on Saturday.

It says it has the backing of the Dutch government to do this.

Gay rights in Russia was bound to become a hot issue during the week of the Eurovision Song Contest, which attracts both the world's media and thousands of gay fans.

"This is very important for our struggle," says Nikolai Alekseev.

"There will be no better opportunity to raise this issue at a very high state level and internationally."

Homophobia is deeply entrenched in Russian society. Homosexuality was only legalised in 1993 after gay men and women had suffered decades of repression under the communists, in particular under the brutal leadership of Joseph Stalin.

While it is no longer a crime to be gay in Russia, the community now faces another formidable foe - the Orthodox Church.

'Very difficult'

The church has undergone a remarkable revival since the 1990s, and is now a powerful conservative institution.

It has condemned homosexuality as "a sinful injury to human nature" which requires "treatment" including prayer, fasting and repentance.

These views are reflected in the policies of Moscow's long-standing mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has described gay pride parades as "satanic" and has turned down every application since the first was submitted in 2006.

Being openly gay in Moscow and across Russia remains very dangerous.

Earlier this week I met Irina Fedotova at one of the capital's underground gay nightclubs.

It is one of very few places in the country where gay men and women can be openly intimate.

Irina, a 30-year-old public relations consultant, has been beaten up twice by extremists.

"It's very difficult to be openly gay in Moscow," she says.

"It causes problems with your family, at work, and in the community. You can be beaten up on the street, on public transport or when you leave a nightclub."

Dutch Eurovision group De Toppers
Dutch Eurovision group De Toppers have threatened to withdraw

Despite the constant threats, Irina and her partner made history this week by becoming the first women to try to register a same-sex marriage.

The rapid, inevitable rejection of their application at a Moscow registry office was witnessed by the world's media gathered here for Eurovision.

The focus of attention has now switched to Saturday's planned demonstrations, and anti-gay groups are uncompromising.

"I think there'll be a very tough reaction from a lot of our activists, and clashes are possible," says Mikhail Nalimov, leader of United Orthodox Youth, which plans to bring 1,000 members of their organisation onto the streets.

"The aim of the gay movement is to destabilise the country and society and we will not let this happen."

For Mr Nalimov, the fight against gay rights is a holy war for the soul of Russia, which will help determine the true identity of the country which emerged from communism almost 20 years ago.

He describes gay activists as "spiritual terrorists" and wants to criminalise the promotion of homosexuality.

The pressure is now on the authorities to ensure that Eurovision 2009 is remembered as merely a musical battle.

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