Ukraine Finally Passes Anti-Bias Law, a Prerequisite for Visa-Free Travel to EU

In its third attempt in a week, Ukraine’s parliament passed amendments to the Labor Code on Nov. 12 that will end lingering Soviet-era workplace discrimination over sexual orientation, political and religious beliefs. The law, which received the support of 234 lawmakers, was the most controversial bill in parliament among a package of anti-corruption and other legislation the European Union requires in its visa liberalization action plan.

The voting process has been excruciating, however, requiring six rounds of voting and frantic consultations before it finally passed. In the last unsuccessful vote, 219 lawmakers voted in favor, seven votes short of the 226 votes in the 423-seat parliament that are needed for a bill to pass. Parliament’s speaker Volodymyr Groysman then announced a 15-minute break for talks.

“Dear deputies: Seven votes stand between us and a visa-free regime,” Groysman said before calling the break. Arguing in favor of the bill, Groysman after the break said that “the individual and his rights are at the foundation of our society.” He ensured that the anti-discrimination measure had no bearing on the broader issue of gay rights. “God forbid same-sex marriages in our country,” he said.

After the break, lawmakers returned to the vote, and managed to pass the bill at the first attempt. The extra votes needed were provided by the president’s faction, 108 of whom eventually voted for the bill, compared to 99 before the break, and by the prime minister’s faction, where 65 voted in favor as opposed to 62 before the break. Parliament twice failed to pass the amendments in earlier voting: On Nov. 5 a similar measure garnered only 117 votes, while on Nov. 10 the draft bill gained 207 votes – still far short of the 226 votes that are needed for a bill to pass in the 423-seat parliament.

The EU visa liberalization action plan states that Ukraine should “amend the Labor Code to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.” Lawmakers used the opportunity to include other forms of discrimination in the bill. The bill forbade “all kind of discrimination in the workplace – direct or indirect (…) on the grounds of race, skin color, political, religious and other beliefs, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnical background” etc.

In the previous votes, lawmakers from the Samopomich faction, one of the junior parties in the governing coalition and widely believed to have a liberal orientation, voted against the bill, saying they had done so because it wasn’t presented to parliament prior to voting and there hadn’t been proper consultations with the public.

Opposing the anti-discrimination bill on Nov. 12, Oleh Berezyuk, leader of the Samopomich parliamentary faction, made it clear that his decision to resist the bill was about more than just procedure.

He said that he wanted the phrase “sexual orientation” softened to “gender and relations to gender,” citing opposition from church circles. Referring to violations of civil rights and liberties in Soviet times, Berezyuk said that the church had traditionally sided with civil society “during times of despotism” and therefore the conservative position of the church couldn’t be entirely dismissed in the current matter.

He also criticized the fact that the bill was merely an amendment to the 1971 Soviet era Labor Code. A new labor code is already under consideration in parliament. Fifteen Samopomich lawmakers eventually supported the bill, with six abstaining, including Berezyuk.

Welcoming the passing of the anti-discrimination bill, Mustafa Nayyem, a presidential camp lawmaker and former prominent journalist, wrote on Facebook that a bitter taste remained. The discussions and resistance against the law showed “that many of us still evolutionary remain stuck in the Russian world,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concept of a Russian Orthodox culture and hegemony that Ukraine has been forced to defend itself against in Russia’s war on the nation.


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