Faith and Politics: Impact on Europe’s LGBTQ+ Agenda

Foreign interference and growing anti-LGBTQ+ movements are threatening the European Union membership prospects of Western Balkan countries.

A growing network of foreign organizations are pouring hundreds of millions into ‘culture war’ groups campaigning to roll back LGBTQ+ rights across Europe, EU lawmakers have warned.

In a resolution published earlier this month, the European Parliament sounded the alarm over foreign interference in all democratic processes in Europe, stressing that most foreign funding came from Russia and the United States.

This foreign interference, coupled with disinformation and numerous attacks by foreign malicious actors, is expected to increase in the run-up to the 2024 European Parliament elections, becoming increasingly sophisticated.

MEPs have reported that at least 50 organizations are now funding anti-gender activities, opposing what they call gender ideology.

“Europe is experiencing a growing number of anti-gender movements, specifically targeting sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights and LGBTIQ+ people,” reads the EU parliamentary report.

“These movements proliferate disinformation in order to reverse progress on women’s rights and gender equality. These movements would have received millions of euros in foreign funding, public or private, including from Russia and the United States.

Funding and modus operandi

The strategies employed by these foreign actors have evolved over time, due to increased funding and heightened disinformation campaigns, human rights observers have warned.

Members of the American far-right and the Russian Orthodox Church, two major players in the anti-gender movement, have joined forces to increase funding for Europe-based ultra-traditionalist actors with a particular focus on targeting LGBTQ+ rights, according to sources who agreed to speak to L’Observatoire de l’Europe on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Over the past decade, key Christian right organizations, usually funded by individuals linked to far-right and libertarian causes in the United States, and Russian oligarchs have established a network of agencies set up in human rights institutions across Europe to conduct anti-gender diplomacy and infiltrate positions of power in member states.

Other tactics include abusive lawsuits to suppress, intimidate, and silence critics (SLAPPS), money and reputation laundering, physical harassment, sending paid fight squads to LGBTQ+ marches or drag shops, hacking journalists’ devices with Pegasus software, and using troll farms spreading disinformation against LGBTQ+ activists.

And the movement is gaining momentum with more and more organizations from other countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Vatican City, closing ranks in their anti-LGBTQ+ lobbying and funding.

Their usual targets include minorities in unstable countries where they can exploit polarization to radicalize political debate and fuel violence, sources said.

Undermining the case for EU membership
The Georgia Gay Pride Festival on July 8 is the latest LGBTQ+ event to experience foreign interference.

A crowd of up to 2,000 anti-LGBTQ+ protesters from Russia-affiliated group Alt Info, stormed the Tbilisi festival in an attack described by Pride director Mariam Kvaratskhelia as “pre-planned”.

“I really believe this (disruption) was a pre-planned and coordinated action between the government and radical groups… We believe this operation was planned with the aim of sabotaging Georgia’s EU bid,” she told Reuters.

Members of Alt-Info, an ultra-conservative television broadcaster with close ties to the Georgian Orthodox Church, previously disrupted Tbilisi Pride in 2021. Since its founding as a conservative media platform in 2019, the group has attempted to expand its political influence by creating an alternative party to both the ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition United National Movement. Among its stated goals is the pursuit of closer relations with Russia.

Alt-Info’s attack comes as Georgia has struggled with its application for EU membership in recent years, despite overwhelming public and political support for EU integration.

The path of the former Soviet republic to the candidacy for the EU has been slowed by deeply polarized politics and the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political and public life, alongside its territorial dispute with Russia in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

And the cancellation of his Pride festival could deal another blow to his EU aspiration.

Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, condemned the “violent disruption”, saying that “anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric, misinformation and violence have no place in these debates”. The counter-protests represented a violation of the EU’s freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly, the EU gender and diversity ambassador tweeted.

divide and conquer

The same tension has erupted in Western Balkan countries where leaders have struggled to toe a fine identity and political line between anti-LGBTQ+ religious nationalist movements and pro-LGBTQ+ Europeanizing public opinion.

While these countries generally enjoy a high level of political and public support for EU membership, their progress towards membership has stagnated over the past decade.

Religious nationalism posed a significant challenge, as leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and Islamic authorities rallied around their targeting of LGBTQ+ rights and formed coalitions with conservative political parties.

In recent years, anti-LGBTQ+ actions have become more violent, with physical attacks by ultra-nationalist protesters against participants in Bosnia and Herzegovina Pride in March this year, Belgrade Pride in 2022 and Zagreb Pride in 2021.

The controversy surrounding a veto that would have recognized same-sex unions in Serbia in 2021 is just another example of the growing conservative backlash against LGBTQ+ rights taking hold in Western Balkan countries.

‘The tip of the iceberg’

Yet this trend is not unique to the Western Balkan countries.

In 2021, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) unearthed over $707.2 million (€600 million) in anti-gender funding from the United States, the Russian Federation and Europe, specifically targeting LGBTQ+ rights across Europe between 2009 and 2018.

The wide-ranging report, which looked at 117 anti-gender finance actors active in Europe, insisted the findings were only the “tip of the iceberg” as half of them – 63 – had no existing finance data.

“Of course, there are huge data gaps that cannot be filled at this time, so $700 million is really just the tip of the iceberg of the scale of this anti-gender movement,” said EPF Secretary Neil Datta.

According to Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of ILGA-Europe, the efforts of the anti-gender movement to further polarize public discourse lead pro-democracy governments to fuel prejudice and hatred towards LGBTQ+ people.

“The practice of scapegoating LGBTQ+ people is beginning to be instrumentalized by both pro-democracy and anti-democracy. If you make it a marker of your quality, then you create this gap,” she told L’Observatoire de l’Europe.

“This (growing polarization) is not helping what should be a healthier, calmer conversation. What is happening now is quite the opposite. »

Instead, Paradis said pro-democracy governments must press ahead with their progressive agenda and avoid the perverse effects of foreign-funded polarization.

“We are all in reaction mode and it is very difficult to resist and be in proactive mode. Governments must override the negative agenda of the anti-gender movement and continue to advance our positive agenda. This is where the opposition strategy works – it really pushes everyone into reactive mode.

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