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June 01, 2016

Russia's "Traditional Values" Leadership

This article was first published in The Foreign Policy Centre's publication "Sharing Worst Practice: How countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression."  To read other articles, please visit The Foreign Policy Centre online. 

Russia's "Traditional Values" Leadership

By Melissa Hooper

The trend: State enforcement of traditional values

Over the last ten years, the countries of the former Soviet Union have seen a growing trend of legislation aimed at protecting the sensibilities of religious believers in Christian and Orthodox countries from information they deem ‘blasphemous’ or harmful, and institutionalising the promotion of religious values. Examples range from Georgian legislation that allows ‘believers’ to engage in private discrimination against LGBT persons in accordance with their religion, to Russian legislation that punishes offence to the sensibilities of Orthodox believers.

The steady development of conservative values-based legislation has been followed in the last five years by growing rhetoric at a grander level that has placed these legislative initiatives within a new context. This new context, described by Vladimir Putin as he prepared to begin his third term as president, is a growing cultural dichotomy – sometimes now called a culture war – between states such as the United States that espouse ‘liberal values’ and the ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ values associated with Russia. Within this framework Russians refer to Europe as Gayropa to emphasise its acceptance of altered gender roles and LGBT relationships that Russians deem ‘deviant’; a framing that has perhaps been more about solidifying a Russian identity than about describing a culture. And it has contributed greatly to a new Russian identity – that of the global saviour of humanity from the degeneracy of the West.

Indeed, recently Russia has not only espoused internally the values associated with a ‘traditional’ or religious right agenda under Putin’s guidance, but has taken on a leadership role to promote them internationally. This leadership has at least two components, one being leadership by example: the political leadership in Russia works with the Orthodox Church to prepare and pass legislation and to direct public opinion about human rights activists, NGOs, artists and current events. The effectiveness of this campaign – which treats the church as a political force – has been admired and its strategies adopted by conservatives in other places such as Georgia, Latvia and now even Poland. The other component of Russia’s leadership in this sphere has been direct pressure on other countries to adopt similar values and legislation that supports them. These countries include Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan that draw much of their media from Russian language sources originating in Russia, as well as fellow Eurasian Economic Union participants Armenia and Belarus that receive large amounts of funding from Russia.

How has Russia stepped into this role of the global defender of traditional values? What strategies has it used? I argue below that it is not only Russia’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church that has given it this power, but also its relationship with multinational religious right organisations. I also note that Russia’s monopoly on Russian language media, and its recent forays into influencing non-Russian language media, especially in Europe, have not only increased acceptance of the culture war theory globally, but also have helped propel Putin and Russia to a perceived leadership role within this context.