Estonia on Thursday became the first former Soviet nation to legalize gay partnerships, while Kyrgyzstan – another ex-Soviet republic thousands of kilometers east – considers anti-gay legislation.
The parallel moves reflect starkly divergent paths taken by the countries that once were parts of the Soviet empire.
In Estonia, lawmakers voted 40-38 vote to approve a partnership act that recognizes the civil unions of all couples regardless of gender. Twenty-three lawmakers were absent or abstained in the third and final reading of the bill.
The new law will gives those in civil unions – heterosexual or gay – almost the same rights as married couples, including financial, social and health benefits provided by the government and legal protection for children. It does not give adoption rights for couples in such unions but does allow one partner to adopt the biological child of the other.
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It comes into force in January 2016, after it has been signed by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who supported the bill.
The Estonian Human Rights Center hailed the vote as “historic,” saying it would send a strong message to neighboring Russia, which passed what it called “a draconian anti-gay law” last year.
“Estonia (has) made a leap toward a society that is freer, more equal and values human rights for all,” the group’s director, Kari Kasper, said.
The United States also welcomed the new law.
“The U.S. government supports equal treatment under the law for all groups and believes the new cohabitation bill extends important rights and protections to unmarried couples and their families,” the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn said in a statement.
In contrast with Estonia, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation about 3,500 kilometers (some 2,170 miles) east, on Thursday began considering a bill that would make gay “propaganda” punishable by a prison term of up to one year.
Kyrgyz rights activists saw the bill as a copycat version of a Russian law adopted last year that prohibits vaguely defined propaganda to minors of “non-traditional sexual relations” and has provoked international outrage.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished mostly Muslim Central Asian nation on China’s mountainous western border, has cultivated close ties with Russia and aspired to become a member of a Moscow-led economic bloc. The bill’s authors have described it as a necessary measure to support “traditional family values.”
Estonia, which like Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union for almost five decades, is considered the most Western-oriented of the former republics, with a long history of cooperation with its liberal-minded Nordic neighbors.
However, there has been little tolerance of gays in the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million, particularly among the sizeable ethnic-Russian minority and in rural areas where traditional values prevail.
The law has been under preparation for years and stirred one of the fiercest public debates since the country regained independence in 1991.
Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this report.