The Istanbul Convention has angered conservatives in numerous Central and East European countries, whose antipathy to “gender ideology” has led to high-level political battles as governments that have signed up to the convention attempt to ratify it.
At face value it’s a treaty aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. But the question of ratifying the Istanbul Convention has become yet another battlefield between Europe’s liberal and “illiberal” democrats, where the latter are seeking to roll back external influence, in particular from Brussels, to recover what they see as lost sovereignty. The disputes over the Istanbul Convention — which threatened to destabilise the ruling coalitions in both Bulgaria and Croatia — are just one of the ugly fights that have tarnished the reputations of CEE governments within Europe.
The overall aim of the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention since it was adopted by the CoE’s committee of ministers in the Turkish city in 2011, is to protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence. States that ratify it are obliged to address violence against women “in all its forms.”
The treaty becomes controversial because of stipulation that violence against women is “a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women”. This contrasts with the way domestic violence is generally treated in the region. “Despite always being driven by women’s groups, policies that emerged tend to disregard its link to gender equality and talk about it as it would be a more general human rights issue, a child protection or a family protection issue, or for example in Bulgaria a social policy issue,” write Conny Roggeband and Andrea Krizsán, the authors of “The Gender Politics of Domestic Violence: Feminists Engaging the State in Central and Eastern Europe”, in comments emailed to bne IntelliNews. “The explicit language used by the [Istanbul Convention] challenges this gender neutral path of policy development.”
Moreover, there has been strong opposition in a number of states that signed up to the treaty to its definition of “gender”; it’s the first international treat to define gender as “social roles behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men”.
This type of definition is anathema to the conservative and religious right that is gaining ground in numerous CEE countries, and is a fierce opponent of what it terms “gender theory” or “gender ideology”. In several states this is seen as opening the door for gay marriage — a bit of a leap since gay marriage isn’t mentioned in the treaty — while in Bulgaria opponents claim it indicates the recognition of a “third sex”.
“The Istanbul Convention is gendered and is also individual centred. Opponents have challenged the individual basis and the gender basis. This is part of the questioning of the whole liberal framework in the EU and the strengthening of national security,” says Katalin Fabian, professor in the Department of Government and Law at Lafayette College.
“The counter-arguments to the Istanbul Convention are coming from profoundly anti-gender interpretations that at least some scholars trace back to the Vatican, but also to quite a few Russian politicians, oligarchs and the Orthodox church,” she adds.
“The IC [Istanbul Convention] clearly links VAW [violence against women] to gender equality and the need for gender equal transformation of societies. It claims that VAW is a form of discrimination against women … therefore in order to deal with VAW one had to address gender stereotypes, norms and social structures. This exceptionally explicit link between VAW and gender equality make the IC so politicised,” say Roggeband and Krizsán. “The issue has also been picked up by the Vatican and also the Orthodox Church and is spreading transnationally through various religious groups.”
Yet another issue, as pointed out by Fabian, is that once states ratify the treaty they are subject to monitoring by Grevio, the CoE's group of experts on action against violence against women and domestic violence.
“In many countries pushback came because the Istanbul Convention is legally binding. The minute it is ratified, it becomes an instrument where not only services are required, but there is also monitoring,” she says. “This is seen as abrogating some of the sovereignty that so many of the countries that have taken conservative turns are reclaiming. It’s a dramatic turn from the liberal consensus in the first 20 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
A newly politicised issue
Opposition has been gathering pace recently. The adoption of the treaty back in 2011 was followed by a steady stream of ratifications by CoE member states, with 30 states having ratified it as of May 2018; there are 45 country signatories plus the European Union. Russia and Azerbaijan have not signed the treaty despite being CoE members. Ratification is typically followed by legislative action as signatories bring their laws into line with the convention. The first few months of this year, however, saw numerous battles between politicians in Central and Southeast European states as discussions of the treaty became increasingly politicised.
Of these states, Croatia was the only one to go ahead and ratify the treaty, with the parliament passing it by a substantial majority of 110 votes in favour to just 30 against in April. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic of the ruling rightwing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) defied mass protests, fierce opposition from many HDZ members and a threat from the small Croatian Growth (Hrast) party to quit the ruling coalition should the treaty be ratified.
In addition to the gender issue, stressed at a mass rally attended by thousands of Croatians on March 24, Plenkovic also had to allay fears about the amount the treaty would cost to implement and the scrutiny from dedicated monitoring body Grevio. This wasn’t a topic that only concerned the political elite; a poll by Promocija Plus showed the HDZ’s support fell to its lowest level since the last general election in April, in part because of the party’s stance on the Istanbul Convention.
Opposition to the convention comes amid a resurgence of extremely conservative groups and the far right in Croatia; the anti-abortion lobby has been out in force following a 2017 constitutional court ruling that a law allowing women to have abortions up the 10th week of pregnancy was constitutional, hate speech is increasing, and the neo-Nazi Autochtonous Croatian Party of Rights has held several marches at which members pledge their allegiance to US President Donald Trump.
Croatia was the exception in the region this year as in all the other countries where ratification of the convention was up for debate among politicians it was put on one side, as it becomes increasingly toxic politically.
“Gender” becomes a playground insult
Bulgaria’s government tabled ratification of the convention to parliament at the beginning of year, but withdrew it in February to preserve the stability of the ruling coalition. The junior partner of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb), the far right United Patriots, were opposed to the convention’s ratification, and going ahead with this could have broken the already highly unstable coalition. The United Patriots weren’t the only ones opposed: all political parties in the parliament, as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox church and nationalist organisations strongly opposed ratification.
Debates on the convention have escalated into mass denial as politicians saw the use of the word “gender” in the context of “social roles, behaviours, activities and characteristics that a particular society considers appropriate for women and men” as indicating the recognition of a "third sex".
In Bulgarian, the word “gender” was translated using the word for “sex”, the biological difference between a man and a woman, which has raised worries among more conservative people, fuelled by nationalist statements about a "European plot" aimed at destroying traditional values.
Although the ratification of the convention was cancelled, the word “gender” entered the everyday language within weeks and many people started using it as offensive word, often in homophobic hate speech.
“My eight-year old son came home from school and told me that older boys called him ‘a gender’ after a fight,” says Maria, a 36-year-old mother of three. Many of her friends also have complained that their children have been called ‘genders’ at school or in the playground.
At the same time, people fearing that the adoption of the Istanbul Convention could lead to recognition of a “third sex” post examples of transgender male students in the US who want to use girls’ changing rooms on social media. Typically, such posts come with warnings that the same thing will happen in Bulgaria if that the parliament one day adopts the convention.
This has lead to a campaign by NGOs aiming at focusing people’s attention on domestic violence and the number of cases where women are brutally murdered by their husbands, fathers or other male relatives. In some cases, neighbours have heard the screams of victims but not called the police. The most violent of these cases in the past year was the murder of a young woman, Viola Nikolova, by her boyfriend. He has brutally beaten her for 50 minutes, but neighbours did not call the police, as there had been numerous arguments between the couple.
Despite the campaign, Bulgarian legislation does not protect victims of domestic violence adequately, and many people in the country still believe that women are property of their fathers or husbands and have no right to complain.
Slovakia's government bows to pressure
A few days after the convention was withdrawn from the Bulgarian parliament, Slovakia then Prime Minister Robert Fico — considered the most liberal and pro-EU among the Visegrad 4 premiers — said his country would also not ratify the convention.
Fico didn’t appear to object to the overall goal of the treaty, talking of its “fine aim” of eliminating violence against women and saying Slovakia would take all the measures set out in the treaty. Instead, his objections concerned the fear it would “lead to the introduction of same-sex marriage,” reported Reuters. He also claimed it “needlessly questions natural differences between men and women”. Fico’s decision is understood to have followed heavy pressure from his ruling Smer-SD's junior coalition partner the Slovak National Party and religious groups, in particular the Catholic church.
In an interview with bne IntelliNews, Miroslava Bobáková, executive director of the Slovak-Czech Women's Fund, talked of how the convention had become a “huge political issue” in Slovakia. “One of the interpretations is that Slovak society is still very conservative and the majority of the population holds traditional views towards women … It seems to us that conservative groups are very strong, with powerful public visibility, perfectly organised. They have got the media on their side and there is almost no public discussion.”
She adds that the failure to ratify the Istanbul convention “might be seen as part of a more complex situation, it’s part of the backlash women’s rights organisations and movements have faced for the last few years.”
Shortly after announcing that plans to ratify the Istanbul Convention would be dropped, Fico was swept from office after mass protests that erupted after the murders of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova. However, the new government under Fico’s former deputy Peter Pellegrini has shown no signs of changing its stance on the convention.
Aside from Bulgaria and Slovakia, plans to ratify the convention also fell through in Latvia as only one of the parties in the ruling coalition, Unity, came out in favour. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis’ take on the matter was that there were “still many questions left unanswered” concerning the convention, BNN reported.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Lithuania, the social security and labour ministry proposed postponing ratification until a compromise is reached on the concept of gender. This sparked a rift within the government, angering Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius who signed the treaty back in 2011 and deplored the “five years of wrangling” over the terms used in it. Linkevicius also told the BNS news service that he hadn't expected such controversy over the concept of gender when he signed the treaty, indicating the way opposition to the treaty has mobilised in recent years.
Backtracking in Poland
This isn’t only in countries that still have to ratify the treaty. Poland ratified it back in 2015. The following year the justice ministry under the new government led by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) initiated draft legislation calling for Poland’s withdrawal from the convention, and while this was later dropped there are still periodic calls for Poland to dump the treaty, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Moreover, the rights watchdog lists other actions counter to the treaty by the authorities such as withdrawing financing from women’s rights NGOs.
In Romania ratification of the treaty (in 2016) wasn’t initially followed by much action. This changed in early 2018 when the murders of two Romanian women by their former partners within days of each other shocked the nation and galvanised women’s groups to lobby the government to adopt new legislation.
At present, for example, Romania lacks an on-the-spot protection order; the new legislation envisages an order based on the one used in the US that can be issued by a police officer then approved or rejected by a judge within 24 hours. “The general idea is to protect victims from the rage of the aggressor after the police leave the house, because that generates a lot of severe violence and femicides,” explains Mihaela Sasarman president of the Transcena Association, a member of the Network for Prevention and Combating Violence against Women. The other importance change concerns financing for shelters and other support for victims of violence, which are complicated by Romanian budget legislation.
But while ratification of the convention went smoothly, now the draft legislation is with the parliament, opposition is mounting, in particular from religious groups, says Sasarman. This comes at a time when there is a growing emphasis on traditional values from the ruling Social Democratic Party which is mulling a change to the constitution that would prevent gay marriage being legalised, and recently announced plans for a mass rally in support of the traditional family (which so far hasn’t happened).
A widening chasm
There are no legal consequences for states who have signed the convention but fail to ratify it. The highly politicised discussions in several eastern EU member states do, however, once again highlight the growing rift between the so-called illiberal democrats of the Visegrad 4 countries and the values held in EU institutions and most western members. In the debate over the Istanbul convention it goes beyond the Visegrad 4, with countries from the Baltic states to Bulgaria declining to ratify.
While some west European states including the UK have not yet ratified the treaty, the intensely political debate is limited to the new EU member states in the east. Meanwhile, several of the aspiring EU members from the Western Balkans — Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia — were among the first 10 states to ratify the treaty, helping push it past the minimum requirement of eight for it to enter force. Arguably, this is because they are trying hard to prove their liberal credentials as they pursue membership of the bloc — a process seen in their northern neighbours in the 1990s and early 2000s but no longer.
“We are part of the EU but the trends in this part of Europe are very different,” says Bobáková. “It’s part of a more complex mosaic. It doesn’t matter if we talk about the Istanbul convention, LBGT rights … what we see is a generally shrinking space of civil society and a backlash against feminism and the women’s rights movement.”
The rift between the two EUs are already becoming clear. Brussels launched its Article 7 procedure — the so-called “nuclear option” against Poland in December over Warsaw’s controversial judicial reforms. A European parliament committee has also threatened Hungary with Article 7, which could lead to a country being stripped of their voting rights within the EU, over the state of the rule of law in the country.
And there are also economic consequences. The proposed new EU budget, outlined by the European Commission on May 29, includes massive cuts in cohesion funding for Poland and other CEE member states. Poland alone will lose €19.5bn in 2021-2027 if the budget is adopted in this form.
The reasons given for the cuts are a shift in priorities from funding poorer member states to focussing on youth unemployment, climate, education and the reception and integration of migrants. While the changes weren't linked by EC officials to the clashes between Poland and Hungary on the one hand and Brussels on the other, Polish opposition politicians were quick to draw that conclusion. “We have long warned that the policy of the PiS government will elicit a reaction [from the EU],” said Grzegorz Schetyna, chairman of the biggest opposition party Civic Platform.
Ahead of the proposals, Richard Grieveson of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) warned in a recent comment published by bne IntelliNews that, “the issue of conditionality of future transfers from Brussels looms large”. “Even though this will be difficult to force through, many Western European member states hope to achieve it, motivated by the refusal by some in CEE to participate in refugee reallocation schemes, threats to the rule of law, and allegations of corruption in the use of EU funds,” he forecasts.
Amid the ongoing economic boom in CEE, it doesn't appear the growing political chasm has done much damage to economies in the region, but in a recent webinar Grieveson also warned that the souring of relations with Brussels could be storing up problems for the future. While the region has seen a rebound in investment recently, Grieveson noted that “anecdotally, on the private side we are seeing a lot of caution related especially to challenges to the rule of law” in Poland … this may not be affecting FDI now but probably will become increasingly more the case over time.”
The fight over the Istanbul Convention in some of the Eastern member states is just part of the puzzle; taken alongside the other ongoing disputes it undermines the international standing of countries from the region.