“Almost in every country of the world there are infightings on the role of women, battles that, on the one hand, engage individuals who are making claims about the universality of the human rights of women, and on the other hand, the cultural relativists who argue for maintaining the traditional gender roles. In a way, women’s rights is the most visible sign of modernity and for this reason they become the prime target of fundamentalist movements “(Michelle Goldberg).
The illiberal civil society and its paradoxes.
… The World Congress of Families (WCF) which got together in September in Chisinau, is, as it has been pointed out in the previous chapter, a network of international and interdenominational organizations and conservative religious movements promoting homophobia, sexism and anti-abortion under the umbrella of the “family natural” discourse.
Researchers think this type of networks and movements belong to the so-called illiberal civil society that has recently developed into the so-called illiberal democracies in the Central and Eastern Europe, and certain features of theirs– decreasing the citizens’ participation in the decision-making, increasing the importance of unelected institutions – can be encountered even in the developed democracies like in the USA or Western European countries. This illiberal civil society would allegedly derail from the standard model of a civil society, inspired by the Tocqueville ideal of voluntary associations working for the advancement of the society, respect for equality and protection from the arbitrary nature of the state power, being oriented rather towards conservatism, towards limiting and not widening certain rights, towards strengthening certain intolerant ideas, towards limiting the political pluralism etc.
This taxonomy is not necessarily the most successful one, even though it has certain merits. As an obvious advantage, it captures very well a recent “revelation” of the researchers who have almost entirely ignored the emergence, development and strengthening of some movements and non-governmental organizations, both national and international, whose actions and ideas are far away from the liberal democracy model promoted, for example, in post-socialist countries. Thus, the movements that promoted the restriction of abortions, opposed the introduction of sex education in schools, have attempted to censor the cultural area, were ignored as part of the civil society because they did not fit into its benevolent definition (to provide a local example, the Civil Association of Orthodox Christians of Moldova “Mother Matrona” pleaded very actively against broadcasting the ”Da Vinci Code” movie, against the ”Vagina Monologues” play, however too few observers have analyzed it from the perspective of a civil society organization).
By including the conservative organizations and movements in the civil society taxonomy, even if with the “illiberal” specification assigned, somehow fixes this methodological unfairness. In such a way, the “civil society” term comes to include both the progressive civil organizations area and the conservative organizations and movements, both the democrats (pleading for expanding democracy) and the anti-democrats (pleading against it).
On the other hand, this taxonomy does not really take into account the ambiguous role of the conservative religious civil organizations, which even though often have formally the same status as other civil organizations, additionally enjoy the prestige and benefits of some religious organizations. Meaning that a religious NGO can be positioned both as a civil society organization and as a religious cult (with all the political, cultural and financial advantages under this status). The best known example of this kind is Vatican (the Catholic Church), which enjoys the status of a permanent observer at the UN (since1964). Its status is rather ambiguous: on the one hand, Vatican does not have the same rights as any other member state, but, on the other hand this status provides more rights to Vatican than to a common NGO (for example it grants access to all the UN meetings, documents and commissions, including those on topics that are sensitive for Vatican and the religious movements in general, as: reproductive health, population, social rights etc.
As we will see the conservative religious right organizations are making full use of this ambiguity and the possibility of double political action (as a religious cult and as a civil society organization).
The analysis of the emergence and development of the global civil society share largely the same methodological errors with the analysis of the domestic civil societies.
Many researchers, enthusiasts of the global civil society (Ulrich Beck being probably the best known example) described it as a monochromatic reality and relatively peaceful, composed exclusively of NGOs and actors that advance the progressive causes and which, through their moral force, can balance the abuse of the states, multinational corporations and international institutions such as IMF or the World Bank.
On the contrary, just as the domestic civil societies, the global civil society is a battlefield where, concurrently with the fronts opened by the progressives there are parallel fronts opened by conservative religionists of all denominations who strive to undermine the progressive agenda and to replace it by their conservative, sexist and homophobic agenda (the Baptist-burqa network).
Even if they write thousands and thousands of pages or complain on all the media channels about the international network of organizations cooperating on issues such as combating exclusion, social justice, strengthening the rights and empowerment of marginal groups, and which would, in their opinion, be liberal (or Marxist or progressivists’) “conspiracy” “plots” and “lobbies”, the conservative religious NGOs are doing exactly the same thing, copying and imitating the actions of the feminist, ecological movements or those fighting for LGBT rights.
Meaning that the conservative religious NGOs make alliances, organize lobbying and pressure at the national and international institutions (UN and EU), build coalitions, court governments and politicians, collect resources (including from the state) and mobilize citizens to support their causes.
The major paradox of the global conservative religious movements, like WCF, is that, on one hand, they are mobilizing (and re-politicizing) against certain phenomena that such movements deem harmful (advancing gender equality, strengthening the mechanisms to combat discrimination, liberalizing the morals) and that these movements perceive as threats generated by modernity and globalization.
At the same time, through their transnational activism, by the cooperation that they establish with other religious movements in different countries, through technological innovations that they use or create (online and offline tools, translations between different languages, inter-denominational social events and conferences) by their intense lobbying and campaigning activities under the global organizations such as the UN and regional organizations as the European Union, these movements become global, globalizing and modern in themselves, intensifying the globalization and modernization processes…
The structure of the World Congress of Families (WCF).
WCF operates largely as a relatively decentralized and relatively horizontal international network (in the sense of the absence of formal hierarchical structures that control and manage the activity vertically) of conservative religious organizations. It has no central office, no headquarter but it functions as a platform for interaction between various organizations of different denominations which are located on different continents.
Within this network, we can still distinguish at least several power centers that congeal around them a number of smaller players: the North American organizations (the C-Fam, the International Organization for Family, the Howard Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family First Foundation, the Family Watch International, the National Organization for Marriage, the Real Women of Canada), the Russian organizations (the “Sanctity of Motherhood” federal program, the “Center for Family Policies”, the Family Committee, the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood of the Russian Patriarchate, the St. Basil the Great Foundation) as well as a number of smaller organizations in other countries (France, Venezuela, Serbia, Great Britain, Italy etc.).
WCF has very good connections with European far-right parties, including with European MPs from these parties (for example Aymeric Chauprade, Member of the European Parliament representing the National Front of France, is a frequent speaker at the WCF events). Also, state leaders such as Victor Orban (Hungary) provided full support, including by being present in person at the events organized by WCF. Through institutions such as the Family Committee of the Russian Patriarchate, WCF has indirect access to the Russian authorities.
We have found on none of the sites managed by WCF, any financial or expense reports for its annual congresses. The funding of WCF remains, therefore, a matter of speculation. Most sites of the Russian and American organizations have a module for donations (which do not however provide information about the collected funds).
Among the American organizations, the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) seems to have the largest budget – 40 million dollars a year. ADF includes over 40 lawyers who involve in cases related to “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and family”  The group has been included by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the list of groups that practice hate speech towards the LGBT community.
The organization of the current WCF chairman, Brian Brown, the National Organization for Marriage, depends on small donations from its members and is very opaque. It was only in 2013 that he published the list of donors for the first time. The donations total 5 million dollars.
The Russian organizations are even less transparent, including because of suspicions about the direct link of the WCF funding to the Russian public money (Vladimir Iacunin, one of the largest funders of Russian conservative organizations used to be the president of the Russian Railways until 2015).
According to some sources the WCF in Chisinau was financed by Constantine Malofeev. In 2017, Igor Dodon allegedly met with him on Athos Mount (Greece) and asked him to fund the event.
On the official website of WCF Chisinau (www.worldcongress.md) under Donors, there are no references made to any of Malofeev’s organizations. The only ones mentioned are the World Congress of Families, the International Organization for the Family, the CitizenGO (an online platform registered in Spain) and Galina Dodon’s “Din Suflet” Foundation.
The charitable Foundation of the first lady was created in 2017 and in no time managed to implement a number of social projects. The origin of the Foundation’s funds is unclear, no report on its activity is uploaded on the website of the Ministry of Justice, though the Moldovan media has previously revealed the Russian connections of the Moldovan president through the off-shore areas …
WCF between religion and NGO.
Within WCF, there are several very exposed individuals – Brian Brown, James Dobson, Austin Ruse, Don Feder, Alexei Komovi, Natalia Iacunina, Maxim Obukhov and others – who coordinate the WCF activity between congresses and regional conferences and who also represent somehow the face of WCF.
The American conservative missionaries wander around the world to impose an anti-LGBT agenda. Thus, Paul Cameron visited Moldova. Scott Lively organized homophobic events in Russia (Moscow, Novosimbirsk), Uganda. Don Schmierer, a frequent speaker at previous WCF, held events in South Korea, Uganda and Ukraine.
These professional activists in “defense of the natural family” pay regular visits to many parts of the world, write books, speeches, appear in the media, participate in conferences and congresses etc. The professionalization of the pro-natural family activists has all the features of other types of professionalization: acquisition of expertise, mastering the speech, focus on PR technology and campaigns, use of media (newspapers, blogs, campaign and petition websites, online television and YouTube channels) campaign and community organization technology.
An important thing to note is that among them only Maxim Obukhov has a religious position of an archpriest, and the others are chairmen of civil associations, coalitions and organizations. So to say, professional NGO-ists. And secular.
It is happening what some researchers call the NGO-isation of the conservative religious movements. As a result of the NGO-ization of the religious movements, the NGOs and the civic leaders of these organizations are acquiring a growing role (to the detriment of the religious leaders and personalities).
Also, the NGOs are more flexible in terms of the discourses used.
The WCF discourse is not always aggressive, intolerant, deviant or hostile. In fact, due to the increasing professionalization of the WCF staff and due to the fact that the network is operating and working in a multicultural and multi-denominational context, the WCF discourse is flexible and tailored to the audience.
To address the conservative audiences, WCF is using scary stories and discourses that combine both conspiracies, fear speeches and apocalyptic topics (gay invasion, demographic winter, global gay conspiracy, Marxist-feminist plot, gender ideology etc.).
To address moderate or undecided audiences or in countries where hate speech is persecuted, WCF pronounces the same things just disguised as neutral speeches about “caring for the family”, “human dignity”, “best interests of the child” etc.
Another result of the NGO-ization of the religion issue is a kind of secularization of the discourses and of the actions of the conservative religious right’s actors: a phenomenon called strategic secularism. It relates to the fact that the movements and the conservative religious rights’ activists tend to resort more and more frequently to scientific data, empirical evidence and policy expertise (selecting obviously data convenient to them) to the detriment of the Bible percepts (or Koranic, or Talmudic). Thus, the natural family, as we have seen in the first article of this series, is not defended only on the religious field (which, as we have seen, doesn’t have much room), but especially on the realm of cultural and anthropological “obviousness”.
The history and geography of WCF member organizations.
Some of the American WCF member organizations – the Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council, the Institute on Religion and Democracy – were created during the Reagan administration in the context of the Cold War and had originally explicit anti-communist agendas.
It is a somewhat paradoxical historical background: during the Cold War, for example, there was a broad consensus on abortion and reproductive health in the American society and politics: both Democrats and Republicans included the abortion in their strategy to fight against the socialist system. As in many countries, in the socialist system the abortion was generally prohibited (the extreme case being that of Romania), successive US administrations promoted it as part of the agenda of exporting democracy and individual rights. To this, the belief was added that the population planning policies, including by encouraging the use of various contraception methods could weaken the Soviet influence in the poor countries in Southeast Asia and Africa (by decreasing the number of poor adults who under an economy with bleak prospects would be attracted by the “Soviet propaganda”). The future Republican president of the United States, G.H. Bush was writing in 1973: “The success in the field of population control, under the United Nations, could have significant consequences in solving other major problems humanity is facing related to peace, welfare and promotion of human rights”.
Even more ironic than this: in 1969 the USA gave rise to the establishment of UN Population Fund in 1969, the institution which the American conservatives are now seeking to undermine.
The US plays in general an ambiguous role: when the Democrats are in power, they promote safe abortion worldwide. When the Republicans come to power they promote the opposite, i.e. abortion ban, with the same zeal.
WCF has a global distribution (it includes members and organizations from all the continents), but it would be wrong to draw the conclusion from this that the network has a uniform global coverage.
Many of the most active organizations of the conservative right that oppose abortion, granting rights to the LGBT community, divorce and family planning are ‘local’ organizations that were created at a given time by international conservative organizations. In other words, they were “planted” or are subsidiaries, branches, daughter-companies of certain Western organizations.
Let’s take as a case study some very vocal conservative organizations in Latin America. One of the best known of them, Centro de Promoción Familiar y Reconocimiento Natural de la Fertilidad (CEPROFARENA) of Peru was created in 1981 by Human Life International (HLI), an international organization created by Paul Marx, a known US anti-abortion activist. CEPROFARENA generated, inter alia, a Minister of Health of Peru (Fernando Carbone, former director of the organization), known for several controversial initiatives: that of granting legal protection for fertilized ova, or of extending the “conscientious objection” on Catholics doctors on such issues as abortion and contraception.
Another organization, the Population Research Institute, also founded by Paul Marx, has offices in over 30 countries and the headquarters for the activities in Latin America is in Peru. PRI carries out lobbying with the authorities of appropriate governments, “denounces” the researches which do not confirm its visions etc.
In the Muslim world, in Qatar, the Mormon activist Richard Wilkins, alongside with local Muslim conservatives and the royal family, helped to create a structure – Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development.
In other words, very often conservative religious organizations from the West create satellites in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe which are then included as global partners in its activities and actions.
The local context is clearly not a simple passive recipient of these agendas and organizations, though.
On the contrary, the global conservative agendas fold most often on certain local contexts, on complex realities and are adapted to them.
For example, in Malaysia, Focus on the Family, one of the founding organizations of WCF, enjoys special relations with the conservative government of this Muslim country. On the one hand, former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad was one of the main speakers at the International Conference for the Family held in Doha in 2004. The Malaysian authorities see the rhetoric about the natural family used by the American conservatives as a good instrument in their Islamization policies.
On the other hand, the 90-second video sermons of James Dobson, the president of the Focus on the Family organization was distributed daily in those over 200 KFC restaurants in Malaysia. The most important English language Malaysian newspaper, The Star, also regularly publishes articles written by Dobson.
The last example shows that, far from being passive, the local actors have their own interests in cooperating with conservative religious organizations.
Politicians as different as those of Malaysia (interested in using rhetoric and the influence of the American religious organizations to strengthen external relations with the USA and to advance the policies of Islamization of the Malaysian society internally), Igor Dodon (concerned about increasing his electorate at the parliamentary elections of February 2019), Vladimir Putin (engaged in both rehabilitating his image after the annexation of Crimea and the process of building Russia as a moral and political alternative to a decadent West) connect their local agendas to the global agendas (sometimes millenarian and eschatological) of the conservative religious right.
The paradox is that, the WCF organizations do not necessarily need a democratic context to carry out their activities. In other words, the “natural family” does not necessarily need a democratic context to flourish.
On the contrary, the WCF organizations were the best in exporting the “natural family” (and the consequences attached to it: primarily homophobia) to authoritarian countries such as Uganda and Kenya.
In Africa, the idea of the “natural family” is exported especially as homophobia: the US religious conservatives preach the idea that through counseling actions or other “treatment”, homosexuals can be brought on the “path to normality”.
The anti-LGBT theme, disguised as one of the many facets of the discourse on care for the family, is one of the most prominent cultural export efforts of the American religious conservatives. Individuals like Scott Lively (a Holocaust denier – in a book that has nothing to do with history, Lively writes that the German Nazi Party had always been run by gay men – an attempt to link homosexuality to the Nazism) organize symposiums in Uganda on the topic “Unveiling homosexual agenda.”
Obviously this homophobic activism is impossible without local political support. In Kenya, for example, WCF benefits from the support of the president of the country, Uhuru Kenyatta, known both for his homophobic attitudes and also for having been investigated by the International Criminal Court for involvement in the violence that followed the Kenyan political crisis in 2007-2008 (the estimates of the number of those victims of violence varies between 800 and 1500 dead). According to some sources, Kenyatta was to attend the WCF in Chisinau but never did.
Global perspective: export of conservative agenda.
Although criticizing UN and other NGOs (especially the left ones) for allegedly exporting “progressive” agendas to different parts of the world and thus settling the ideological family (the phrase appears in the Cape Town Declaration), the conservative right does at least those things it has imputed to “progressives”, through involvement in different internal polemics in various parts of the world (the involvement of conservative missionaries and activists are documented in Uganda, Kenya, Barbados).
The best illustration of the global fights conducted in local contexts relates to the case of WCF and its organizations’ involvement in Barbados, even though the actions aimed at the government of this country, the fight was being conducted … against another American organizations, the Human Rights Watch, accused of being elitist and of “promoting the indoctrination and brainwash” (they referred to the initiative to introduce sex education in schools).
The actions of the conservative right in different regions betrays, however, the same cultural expansionism which they have imputed to the progressives.
The export of cultural wars to different parts of the world, performed by the American conservatives has a dual purpose: on the one hand to help them to tip the balance in internal polemics, where, very often, the conservatives represent the minority. The external support of the African or Eastern European brothers is defined as further evidence that, in fact, conservatives are right. On the other hand, the export of cultural wars is seen as a tool dynamiting (or at least hindering) the advancement of progressive agendas.
The export of cultural wars is not a contradiction-free activity. On the contrary, as shown by numerous on-site testimonies, to get involved in a local context, the Western religious conservatives (especially the US ones) distort their message and take positions that are contradictory to those they have at home.
For example, while in the USA the radical conservative trends oppose the social protection system (which they see as an attempt to establish socialism, Gulag camps and general laziness), in Africa, through the schools they open, the scholarships and funds they grant, the health services and support they provide, these organizations have opposite approaches.
The conservative religious right does not only export cultural wars (i.e. confrontations on moral issues), but also the associated ideologies which are then recycled, reused and co-opted in local political battles.
One of the major “enemies” of the conservative religious right and its latest cultural export is the so-called “gender theory/ideology” (a necessary retraction: the “gender theory” does not refer to gender studies nor to the solid research body carried out in this field, but it is a term coined by the Catholic Church to oppose movements that advocate women’s rights and LGBT’s rights).
The “gender ideology” term has come into focus in early 2010, initially in France, in connection with the introduction of changes in the school curriculum, and then in other Catholic countries (Poland, Spain, Argentina, Croatia etc.), from where it subsequently spread to other regional and religious contexts.
The roots of the term (and of the ideas contained therein), are, however, older and come partly from the work of John Paul II. A deep conservative, a well-known opponent of women’s emancipation (which he perceived as part of the Soviet political agenda), John Paul II is the author of the “culture of death” concept that allegedly motivates actions such as abortion, contraception and euthanasia which a “culture of life” promoted by the Catholic Church is opposed to.
Also, John Paul II was an active promoter of the gender complementarity concept (and of the irreducibility of the differences between them), the woman, in this view, has the role of a mother and caretaker of the household (especially in documents such as Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and Evangelium Vitae (1995).
The followers of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis helped strengthen the gender anti-ideology movements within the Catholic Church and its globalization.
Francis, among others, despite the media image he creates as a liberal pope, somewhat open for an inter-denominational dialogue and the sensitive topics of the Catholic faith, denounced a number of times the gender ideology, which he suspects is capable of producing an anthropological revolution as it denies the sexual differences and could eliminate the anthropological foundation of the family. Moreover, for Francis the gender ideology act as a Western cultural colonization project, a project that the West imposes on other regions decadent and secular values through international institutions they control.
According to the religious conservatives this gender ideology would motivate various movements such as those for women’s emancipation, the liberalization of contraception, the liberalization of euthanasia, granting rights to LGBT. In their view, this ideology threatens the humanity with destruction (for some of them, this ideology is either directly derived from Marxism or pose an even greater threat than this one).
“The gender ideology is destructive, obscurantist, anti-social, anti-popular and anti-natural” a booklet writes that was distributed by La Manif pour tous French platform which mobilized several hundreds of thousands of people against same-sex marriages and who popularized the term in Europe (according to the French media, Brian Brown and other American religious activists participated actively in protest organization activities).
A corollary of gender ideology is that it is allegedly widespread, even in fashion, within international organizations – the UN, the EU and others – which are implementing it worldwide.
The gender ideology is also, as perceived by the religious conservatives, an insidious political strategy through which various groups of people struggle to conquer power and then to impose minority and “deviant” values on the society. One of the most active voices of this perception is the German activist and researcher, Gabriele Kuby, who believes that the gender ideology is, neither more nor less, a new ” totalitarian political project disguised in the cloak of freedom, social justice, diversity and non-discrimination through which the political elites want to alter the sexuality of men and women and thus to radically transform society.”
Over the recent years, the fight against the “gender ideology” has gained more and more influence in the conservative religious circles (in the meantime, it went beyond its Catholic borders, especially in Latin America, where it was adopted by the Protestant movements, and in the Eastern Europe, where it was co-opted by the conservative religious intellectuals such as Alexei Komovi in their local struggles).
Also, it is not just a rhetorical fiction of the Catholic conservative right: it is a cause that mobilizes tens of millions of people across worldwide. Many observers suspect that the failure of the peace agreement referendum between the Colombian government and FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia is largely due to the mobilization of the conservative groups against gender equality clauses the agreement included.
Since 2013, the fight against the gender ideology has become one of the main activities of the Polish Catholic Church. One of the Polish bishops, Tadeusz Pieronek stated that “the gender ideology poses a greater danger than the Nazism and the Communism together”. Subsequently, the Polish parliament created a parliamentary group with the mission to stop the gender ideology (composed of 15 men and one woman). Another consequence of the fight against the “gender ideology” is the recent initiatives to ban the abortions …
The conservative religious organizations are not always on the “defensive” against the assault of the progressives, as they claim. Very often they are on the offensive seeking to impose new legislation either to make the liberalization of the regulations on marriage difficult or to cover the “gaps” and “shortcomings” that could allow easing the regulations on marriage or would grant more rights to LGBT.
The case on amending Article 48 of the Constitution is exemplary in this respect (and it comes after several other similar attempts were made in Slovakia and Croatia).
In the current wording, paragraph 1 of that Article has the following form: “The family is founded on the freely consented marriage of the spouses, their full equality and the right and duty of the parents to ensure the upbringing, education and instruction of their children.”
Several conservative religious organizations of different denominations, gathered together under the umbrella of the Coalition for Family, considered the wording of the Constitution to be ambiguous and that it could, in certain circumstances, be interpreted as allowing the legalization of same-sex marriages (even though the Civil Code defined expressly the marriage as a “freely consented union between a man and a woman” (art. 259, paragraph 1).
The Coalition for Family (CfF) is an interdenominational network of initiatives and organizations with the mission “to protect and support the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman” and “to enhance the status of the marriage by non-recognizing alternative forms of cohabitation, as living together in a relationship”. It is composed of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox organizations, and a number of secular organizations. The most active organization of CfF is the “Alliance of Romania’s Families” Association (headed by Petre/Peter Costea, a Romanian citizen who emigrated to the USA and who returned to Romania in the 90s, having connections in the Republican Party and in the US conservative Protestant circles).
CfF considered the formulations of art. 48 to be too vague and open to interpretation and therefore started an initiative for amending the Constitution to reformulate art. 48, paragraph 1 of the Romanian Constitution as follows: “The family is founded on the freely consented marriage between a man and a woman, on their equality and the right and duty of parents to ensure the upbringing, education and instruction of their children.”
The CfF initiative was enthusiastically supported by the World Congress of Families. In April 2016, over 100 leaders of the WCF organizations and initiatives expressed their support for the CfF and the process initiated by it. Among the signatories we encounter important names from WCF: Christine Vollmer (Latin American Alliance for the Family), Allan C. Carlson, Larry Jacobs, Don Feder, Austin Ruse (C-Fam), Farooq Hassan (Pakistan Family Forum), Sharon Slater (Family Watch International), Don Schmierer, Maxim Obukhov, Scott Lively and others.
In October 2015, CfF started collecting signatures in support of the initiative. Until April 2016, over 2 million 700 thousand signatures were collected, and on May 23, the legislative proposal to revise the Constitution was submitted to the Senate. Before the parliamentary elections of December 2016, CfF signed a memorandum with several political parties – PSD, ALDE, PNL – containing provisions that these parties will support the referendum desired by CfF, if they come to power. The date agreed upon was the spring of 2017.
On July 20, 2016, the Romanian Constitutional Court examined the request submitted by CfF and gave a positive opinion, in the sense that it respects the limits of the review, whereas the judges refused to provide an opinion on the essence of the problem. In such a way, the initiative reached the Parliament plenary where it had to obtain the votes of a qualified majority to be passed. On March 27, 2017, the project got also the positive opinion of the MP Chamber. Meanwhile, the Law on Referendum itself was challenged in the Constitutional Court and the MPs failed to hold the referendum as they had promised to CfF.
At the end of July, the leader of PSD, Liviu Dragnea, announced that the referendum would allegedly take place on 6 – 7 October 2018.
The CfF initiative was not, at any time, a purely Romanian matter (as mentioned above, it occurs in the context of some precedents: similar referenda were held in Croatia and Slovakia).
From the progressive side, many international organizations – Amnesty International, ECSOL, the International Commission of Jurists asked the Constitutional Court to reject the CfF’s request. Furthermore, they have provided support and legal assistance to Romanian organizations that opposed the CfF’s initiative.
On the other hand, the international conservative also provided support and resources to back the Coalition for Family and its allies. In the first line is ADF International, an organization of religious lawyers that assist similar cases worldwide and that support CfF’s efforts since the mid-2000s. Not only did ADF legally assisted its Romanian clients but also sent to the Romanian Constitutional Court an amicus curiae (a legal opinion / legal memorandum) to back the cause supported by CfF. Legal memoranda were also submitted by other international conservative religious organizations – the Liberty Counsel (USA), the European Center for Law and Justice (France), Ordo Iuris (Poland).
Ultimately, despite the conservatives’ efforts, the referendum did not pass because of the low voter turnout.
Local Perspective: the Russian wing of WCF.
Obviously, the religious conservatism in the Eastern Europe is not an exclusively imported phenomenon: the region has a rich history of reactionary movements, many of them with religious roots. In one of our further materials we shall elaborate on the topic related to the conservative agenda of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and its main actors. Now though, we will just provide a brief description of its actors, organizations and trends.
Any discussion about the Russian religious conservative movements should take into account a paradoxical situation: in the Russian Federation the conservative religious platform (faith, heterosexual family, strong state) is currently shared by almost everyone: the state (that started a number of patriotic initiatives: from rewriting the history to punishing those who violate the religious feelings of believers – both the Pussy Riot girls as well as the Internet user who’s looking for Pokemons in a church), the Moscow Patriarchy (the Russian Orthodox Church), and a large part of the society. Furthermore, the LGBT communities are constantly demonized and persecuted. It would seem that there is no reason that would explain the ROC’s zeal to promote the “traditional family”, homophobia and other ideological concepts recycled from Catholic or Protestant colleagues.
The explanation is a political one: the Russian conservative religious activists are not fighting against a part of the internal society (as their Catholic and Protestant colleagues from the USA and Europe do), but they are building a new fight, of civilizations, a fight in which Russia, as a protector of traditional values, is opposing the decadent West.
The observers call this phenomenon “Occidentalism”. It is a technique of fancy and political discourse by which the Russian authorities (politicians, intellectuals, media personalities, clerics etc.) are inventing a kind of West (on which they further on project their negative fantasies), then, in a dialectical process, invent a “moral” Russia which strongly opposes this invented negative West.
The key actors of the ROC’s conservative religious agenda are: the religious structures, a number of politicians-oligarchs, academics, activists of the pro-Kremlin movements.
Patriarchal Commission on Family Matters, and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood (Russian. Патриаршая комиссия по вопросам семьи, защиты материнства и детства) was created in 2011 in order to help develop and implement measures to “overcome the crisis of the family values in the society”.
The commission is chaired by the Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, a regular participant in the World Congress of Families (his participation in WCF Warsaw and WCF Budapest have been documented).
Other Commission members are Constantin Malofeev (see below), the Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, the chair of the Educational Center “Life” (a participant in WCF Salt Lake City and WCF Warsaw), Natalia Iacunina (the wife of Vladimir Iacunin, former head of Russian Railways), the Chair of the Supervisory Board of “The Holiness of Motherhood” federal program etc. This Patriarchal Commission is the official channel through which ROC communicates with other denominations and organizations (including WCF) on issues related to gender and family.
The Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, a member of this commission, attended the meeting with President Igor Dodon in Greece in March 2018, to create the “Friends of Orthodoxy” organization (and to prepare the WCF Chisinau).
Dmitry Smirnov, the chairman of the Commission, is one of the most influential persons in the Russian Orthodox Church and one of the most vocal exponents of radical conservative wing of ROC. Over time, Smirnov has made many statements that shocked the Russian society (and sketched the profile of the Russian religious conservatives): he stated that school is harmful to children and that they should not attend it (children should study at home in family where the father shall make a career and earn money while the mother shall stay at home to raise the children), he called any contraception a homicide crime, stating that the purpose of sex is just procreation and if a couple does not want to procreate, then they must refrain from sex and any erotic act (including kissing), as regards the Pussy Riot members, he said that he would banish them from Russia (he would take the Russian passports away from them and would declare them persona non-grata), he suggested that any woman that aborts be put to jail for 8 years and voiced the idea regarding the need for a blacklist of Orthodox enemies, he also mentioned that the individuals by the age of 21 should have no right to access the Internet network or any other similar networks.
The Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, another member of the Patriarchal Commission, is also an interesting person. Obukhov is one of the oldest Russian pro-family activists (his educational center “Life” was created back in 1993). Obukhov believes that the falling birth rate in the Russian Federation has occurred because of the foreign grants and funds that impose abortion and the sex education in schools, he pleads for the human embryos to enjoy certain rights, just like the people who were born, he considers that the abortion is the “right of women to kill their own child” that has to be canceled, and urges doctors to ignore the Hippocratic oath, which is obsolete, and to listen to their religious conscience etc. instead.
On the other hand, the Russian media wrote about a scandal involving Obukhov, where he tried to obtain fraudulently, an apartment from one of the former wives of the poet Sergei Mikhalkov, and author of the USSR anthem.
In its efforts to promote conservative values, ROC is supported by a range of pro-Orthodox oligarchs, some of them having important ties to the Russian state.
Vladimir Iacunin and his wife, Natalia, are among the best known ones. In 2005-2015, Vladimir Iacunin used to be the president of the Russian Railways. In 2002, together with the American magnate of Greek origin, Nicholas Papanicolaou, and the Indian entrepreneur Jagdish Chandra Kapur, he establishes the “Dialogue of Civilizations” Public Forum Association.
The best known initiative of the association is the so-called Rhodes Forum, which has been held since 2003. The Forum brings together many religious leaders, politicians, experts, entrepreneurs and researchers from various countries who discuss current international issues from the perspective of a multipolar world.
The Forum is known as a generally pro-Russian platform. Activists and leaders of WCF organizations participate on a regular basis in the work of the Rhodes Forum: over the years, Larry Jacobs, Christine Vollmer, Brian Brown, Allan C. Carlson and others took part in the event. In 2017, WCF co-sponsored the event.
Natalia Iacunina, Vladimir Iacunin’s wife is the chair of the Supervisory Board of “The Holiness of Maternity” federal program, an initiative of the Foundation of “St. Andrew the First-Called” and the “Center of National Glory” both created and run by her husband.
As well, Natalia Yakunin used to be a member of the board of directors of the “Millennium” bank, affiliated to the Russian Railways (headed then by her husband). The bank subsequently failed.
Iacunin family is related to a number of corruption and influence peddling scandals (in 2014 Vladimir Iacunin was included in the list of Russian officials sanctioned by the Obama administration for engaging in hostilities in the Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea). Alexei Navalnîi a well-known Russian journalist and the author of some corruption investigations wrote in 2013 about the luxurious villa of the Iacunin couple in Domodedovo, a Moscow suburb. Although Iacunin is a proclaimed patriot, the author a book on “the struggle of the West against Russia”, his entire family – his two sons and their families are living in the West, the eldest one in London and the youngest one in Switzerland. Also, Iacunin has been involved in another scandal related to the disappearance of over 100 million rubles (EUR 1.5 mln) from a fund which was supposed to refurbish the Russian monasteries on the Mount Athos (Greece).
Less visible than Vladimir Iacunin is Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch, close to Putin, an ultra-Orthodox, the chairman of the “St. Basil the Great” Fund, one of the most famous Orthodox activists in Russia as well as the one who funds a number of conservative initiatives.
Malofeev (born in 1974) is the chairman of the Marshall Capital Partners investment fund. His name comes up in the Offshore Leaks.
The French journalists from Mediapart and Canal + have documented Malofeev’s role in establishing connections between the Russian government and the far-right parties from Europe, including the funding of the National Front Party of Marine Le Pen.
Over time, Malofeev created and supported a number of Orthodox and monarchist initiatives. Thus, in 2011, it created the “Safe Internet League” (Russian. Лига безопасного интернета), an association whose purpose is to censor Internet by removing the content that could harm the children and their psyche.
Also Malofeev is the one who created and launched, in 2014, the online TV station “Царьград ТВ” an Orthodox and monarchist channel. The station was created in analogy and according to the Fox News model (when asked about the purpose of this new media network, Malofeev stated: “we want to build a media network on orthodox principles, the way the Fox News station was created. We want to show the reality as the Orthodox believers see it”).
Malofeev is, though, much known outside the Russian Federation for his participation in the Eastern Ukraine conflict. Two former employees of his, Igor Strelkov (Ghirkin) and Alexander Borodai became important people in the breakaway Ukrainian republics: Borodai became the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and Strelkov (Ghirkin) – the Minister of Defense of the same breakaway state. Malofeev was also suspected of financially supporting the breakaway republics for which reason Ukraine declared him internationally wanted.
The contemporary Russian orthodox conservatism, however, is not based only on the Church and oligarchs. It is also present in the academic and cultural environment (for example, the film director, Nikita Mikhalkov’s conservative keenness is well-known).
We shall mention only the persons that intersect in one way or another, with WCF or with its agenda.
Alexei Komov is the WCF’s Ambassador to Russia and CIS countries, a pro-life activist, the WCF’s Ambassador to the UN, the head of the external projects division within the Patriarchal Commission on Family Matters, and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, the coordinator of the conservative mobilization platform CitizenGO for Russia. According to his biography published on the Family Policy website, which has run since 2009, Komov, steered by the archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, establishes connections with the anti-abortion movements worldwide. In 2011, he was responsible for the Family Discussion section within the Rhodes Forum.
Komov is close to the oligarch Constantin Malofeev, his respectable representative. Komov is the envoy and the liaison person between Malofeev and the far-right leaders from Europe. In 2014, Komov attended the Northern League Congress (Italy), an event attended by a number of far-right politicians from Europe, including the current Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini (not accidentally, probably the next WCF will take place in Verona in 2019).
Alexei Komov visited Moldova in 2014, at the invitation of Iurie Rosca, to attend a lecture at the People’s University headed by Rosca on “” Who and how is attacking the traditional values on a global scale ? ” where he told local audience about “anti-family lobbying at the UN, the essence of this ideological movement, the role of homosexuality and occultism within this movement.” Subsequently, Komov participated in a TV-show hosted by Iurie Rosca at the NTV television station.
Unlike the Western world where the universities are bastions of radical contesting thinking, most faculties of humanities from the Russian Federation share socially conservative ideologies.
The Faculty of Sociology at the “M. Lomonosov ” State University is perhaps the most fertile breeding ground for leaders of the conservative movement.
The two co-founders of WCF, Anatol Medkov and Victor Antonov, are professors at this faculty. Alexandr Dugin, another Russian promoter of the Russian conservative right taught at this university until 2014. Alexei Komov is currently studying here for his PhD.
Over time, the Faculty of Sociology at the “M. Lomonosov ” University has been a visible platform in the conservative movement. Thus, in 2008, it hosted a conference on the “Social norms and prospects of society development” (in Russian. Социальные нормы и перспективы развития общества) which was attended, as a guest of honor, by the homophobic activist Paul Cameron, chairman of the Family Research Institute, claimed psychologist, excluded from the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association.
This chapter has sought to render four stories.
The first story dwells upon the emergence and development of a global illiberal civil society, organized in transnational networks, composed of NGOs, intellectuals, clergy and media personalities. WCF is a typical example in this respect. This illiberal civil society is trying to propose its own project of globalization, which is a reactionary and conservative one, including with nativist, racist, anti-Muslim, sexist and homophobic emphasis. The illiberal civil society networks and organizations have already successfully blocked certain emancipatory projects, convene referendums on “moral” topics, and translate economic and social issues and problems into cultural and moral debates.
The second story relates to some discourses, rhetoric, approaches and resources that circulate globally and that feed the illiberal civil society networks. Despite their anti-globalizing discourse, the religious conservative right movements worldwide are active participants, through their actions, in the globalization processes.
The third story is about the export of some cultural wars from hegemonic countries (the West, Russia) to the peripheral countries (the rest of the world). Concepts, theories and various ideological discourses such as “natural family”, “demographic winter”, “gender ideology”, developed in the West, within the infighting there, are subsequently exported to other regions where they become political warfare. Also, in the conservative ideological production field, the rest of the world is a net importer of discourses, ideologies and theories from the West.
However, and here comes the fourth story, the local context is not just a simple receiver: the local actors connect to the global struggles and movements depending on their own interests. Thus, far from being a model Christian, Putin still needs orthodoxy both in order to ensure a social cohesion internally and to solve the image and political relations problems externally. Same with other local political and civic leaders who participate in WCF or other conservative networks, they have their own calculations … Same is true about Igor Dodon – his Orthodoxy is questionable (let alone the off-shore scandals), but his primary interest in the organization and support for and from the WCF, relates to strengthening his agenda for the 2019 parliamentary elections. And for the 2020 presidential elections.