This is the fourth of a five-part series looking at the issues facing Ukraine and Moldova as they prepare to sign major agreements with the EU next month.
CHISINAU, Moldova — Josan Casian had done it plenty of times before.
The 32-year-old gay IT professional would visit a dating website, find a suitable partner and agree on a meeting spot. There he’d feel out the situation: if he felt comfortable, he would stay.
So he saw no reason to worry during a seemingly ordinary meeting in June.
“The guy asked me if I was definitely gay,” said Casian, who asked to use a pseudonym because he’s not open about his sexuality. “When I said yes, he punched me in the face.”
Casian knew immediately what had happened. “This was a guy determined to beat up a gay person,” he said.
The attack didn’t take place in Russia, where a controversial ban on gay “propaganda” has encouraged a high-profile spate of anti-gay violence, but here in Moldova — billed as a “top reformer” in the European Integration Index.
Even as the country is poised to take its biggest step toward Europe so far by signing key agreements with the EU next month, such incidents — rights activists call them gay “hunting” — are a reminder that it’s still struggling to overcome widespread discrimination against minorities.
Nevertheless, Moldova has generally outshone its post-Soviet counterparts in enacting reforms. Although corruption and political instability remain key obstacles for the country’s shaky pro-European government, it has emerged as the star pupil of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, and is set to initial association and free-trade agreements with the EU in late November.
The EU’s effort has focused on aggressive promotion of a values-based agenda that linked eventual visa-free travel for Moldovans to the successful passage last year of a law against discrimination. The Law on Ensuring Equality, which seeks to combat discrimination in public and private life, drew applause from Western officials who welcomed it as a step toward embracing European values.
But critics say that official attempts to enforce tolerance through legislation ring hollow without instituting proper education in a society heavily influenced by religion and traditional values.
“It’s clear to everyone that the government isn’t doing this because it’s the right decision, but just so that it can avoid criticism from European countries,” says Anastasia Danilova, head of GenderDoc-M, Moldova’s only gay rights group.
Before it can pry open Europe’s borders, however, the government has to demonstrate it can enforce the new legislation. That may prove difficult in a country where the Soviet-era legacy of marginalizing society’s “unwanted” remains strong.
“Moldova is a country where prejudice is at home,” says Cristina Pereteatcu, the director of the watchdog Amnesty International Moldova.
Gay people aren't the only minority group under threat. Among those who suffer most, physically and mentally disabled people often find themselves out in the cold when it comes to everything from educational opportunities to simple accessibility to buildings.
Although Moldova ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, Pereteatcu says the authorities have found themselves hard-pressed to implement its requirements in a country with virtually no infrastructure for the disabled.
“The government admitted that it was the most expensive convention Moldova has ever ratified,” she said.
However, gay rights have drawn the most attention.
That topic has become a political football in recent years, especially exploited by the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which enjoys enormous influence in society and politics. The church has used its moral authority among Moldova’s largely poor and conservative population to push an anti-gay agenda, and was instrumental in lobbying for a law enacted in July that critics say resembles Russia’s gay propaganda ban.
Together with the Communists, a powerful political opposition force, the church has galvanized supporters and demanded the government repeal the anti-discrimination law, arguing that it erodes the country’s moral fiber.
In June, the church reportedly barred government officials from receiving Holy Communion until the law was stricken from the books. It has also pushed for an all-out ban on “homosexual behavior.”
Casian, the gay attack victim, found himself at the center of the debate. Once a seminary student determined to pursue either priesthood or a career in theological study, he says he dropped his plans after realizing his homosexuality conflicted with his faith.
He says religious leaders in Moldova, from the local Baptist church as well as the Orthodox Church, are sending a dangerous message to followers with their high-profile crusade against gay rights.
“This affects ordinary people who perceive it as a call to hate,” said Casian.
Pereteatcu agrees. She says the powerful conservative propaganda campaign has muddied some Moldovans’ perception on European integration by equating “European values” with gay rights.
EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule probably reinforced that perception when he appeared at Moldova’s first legally sanctioned gay pride parade in May during a visit to Chisinau to celebrate Europe Day.
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Pereteatcu says the current government could do more to broadcast what European values are really about.
“Politicians present it as a need to have many laws in place, so that everything looks OK on paper,” she said. “But in reality things don’t really change.”
Despite the negative connotations, pro-European officials hope the anti-discrimination law will succeed. They argue that promoting tolerance as a fundamentally European value is an important part of the integration process.
“What we need to do as a government is to ensure that the rights of everyone are protected,” Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Iulian Groza said in an interview. “And at the same time, we need to ensure that people are informed about being tolerant.”
Just this month, parliament voted to annul a controversial law enacted in July that levies fines for “propagating” relations that contradict those recognized by the Family Code. Activists such as those from GenderDoc-M had slammed the law for its potential use against gays.
But as lawmakers voted, Orthodox Christian and Communist protesters barricaded the parliament building, provoking scuffles with police — a reminder that deep tensions remain.
“We won’t let anyone mock our people or our faith,” Communist leader and former President Vladimir Voronin said at the event, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
“We are all Christians here.”