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May 26, 2016

Sharing Worst Practice: New Publication on Russia’s Traditional Values Foreign Policy

On May 15-19, attendees at a conference in Tbilisi, Georgia railed against threats they described as “homofascism,” “rainbow radicalism,” “demographic winter,” and “cultural Marxism.” These conference-goers included American members of the religious right organization the World Congress of Families, their counterparts from the Russian Orthodox Church, and other far-right religious and political activists from all over Europe and Africa.

They came together to develop priorities for the next year and to discuss strategies to combat these evils, including advocacy at the United Nations to advance more resolutions in support of the “traditional family,” promoting national legislation to prevent the expansion of LGBT rights and prioritize the rights of parents over children, and combatting national policies that promote gender equality. “Why fight for more rights for women?” said one participant at the conference, head of the Latin American Alliance for the Family.

This kind of international collaboration to support anti-human rights policies is just one form of sharing “worst practices” that has resulted in the spread of corrosive legislation eliminating rights for LGBT people, restricting free speech and free media, and attacking the work of NGOs—from Europe to Eurasia and around the world. The Foreign Policy Centre published a series of articles, including one by Human Rights First, detailing the ways in which authoritarian regimes work to share worst practices. The series, called “Sharing Worst Practice: How countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression,” examines the role of regional structures and bilateral influence, particularly from Russia, in creating harmful copycat legislation.

In Human Rights First’s article, we highlight the ways Russia uses its foreign policy and soft power to push a “traditional values” agenda in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan in order to gain allies and influence in its competition with the West. To do this Russia uses two important tools: Russian-language media, over which Russia has a near-monopoly, containing politically-slanted messaging against the values of equality and free expression; and international religious organizations such as the World Congress of Families which provide financial and organizing support for Russia’s anti-human rights messages. Even American members of the World Congress of Families support Russia’s leadership, with American leader Larry Jacobs declaring in 2013 that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.”

Georgia has aspired to join the European Union and NATO and to adopt legislation, such as anti-discrimination protections, that would open the door to these partnerships. But local politics in Tbilisi—similar to other countries caught in this struggle for influence such as Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine—vacillate between pro-E.U. factions that seek to protect rights and expand democratic principles to gain access to E.U. partnerships, and pro-Russia factions that label western-style freedoms a threat to their way of life.

Russia has used the threat of “gayropa” in Russian-language media to undermine public support for liberalization and closer ties with the European Union along the E.U.’s eastern border.  Russia’s warning to Georgia in 2014 that signing an Association Agreement with the European Union meant that gay rights were to follow was taken so seriously that Brussels had to provide public assurances that the agreement contained no fine print regarding adoption of gay marriage.

To combat Russia’s soft power and global religious organizing strategies, the United States and European Union need to double down on their own commitments to human rights principles to demonstrate their importance to the states they hope to attract as partners. At the same time, the U.S. and E.U. need to combat xenophobic messaging by highlighting the threat that xenophobia poses to state security and stability. Finally, the United States and European Union should continue to take on the fight against “traditional values” resolutions at the United Nations and national legislation, because LGBT communities, women, and children need strong advocacy and support from a principled perspective.