In the eyes of Russian policy-makers – the demographic decline in Russia possesses an existential threat to the current world order. An increase in civil rights for sexual and gender minorities would only reinforce this demographic trend – in their views. Recently published articles established the connections between high-level Hungarian and Polish policy-makers with Russian intelligence operatives through anti-LGBTI networks. This article explains why that the Russian Federation has set up a well-thought autocratic soft power strategy regarding LGBTI-rights towards the democratic West. Via outsourcing their soft power to the already existing international anti-LGBTI movement, the Kremlin was able to create a network of (financial and ideological) support for possible cooperation between Russian and European policy-makers. This network fits within the Kremlin’s broader foreign policy of undermining Western liberal democracies.
“Hatred towards LGBTI-people is being exported from Russia to Europe.”Věra Jourová, European Commissioner (during the High-Level Conference on Advancing LGBTI Equality in the EU: From 2020 and Beyond, 23/09/2019)
The international dimensions to LGBTI-issues can posses a threat to a country’s national security. That is not only this article’s point of view but for instance, also the point of view of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States of America. In 2019 they forced the Chinese stockholders to sell their stocks back to American stockholders in gay dating app Grindr. Their reading of the deal is that it gives the Chinese too much power over critical information of Americans, and therefore, it possesses a threat towards national security.
On the other end of the spectrum, Russia also sees the Western evolvement on LGBTI-rights as a threat towards its national security. According to The Nation correspondent Sean Guillory, sexuality is seen in Russia as “a kind of new sexual sovereignty defending Orthodox Christian morality against the corrosive influence of Western decadence.” (The Nation, 2013). Indeed, on the website of the Russian News Official Agency RIA, they speak about a new iron curtain around sexual values (RIA, 2013). The Russian National Security Strategy sees the defence of traditional family values as a critical challenge for Russia’s national security.
So the question raises how this all relates to the classic ‘soft power’-theory. The coming paragraphs compare Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’-findings to more recent scholarship on populist and global right politics.
Soft Power and autocratic illiberal democracies
The existence of soft power and all related theories has been food for thought for the past three decades. While many do agree about the existence of soft power, the importance and efficiency of it is still up to debate. To understand the basic concepts of this theory, a reading of ‘Soft Power’-father Joseph Nye is necessary.
According to Nye: Soft Power is “getting others to want the outcomes that you want”. They do it by using their “attractive power”. He sees three resources for countries’ their soft power: (1) culture, (2) political values, and (3) foreign policies (Nye, 2004: 5-11).
By reading his work, it becomes clear that Nye assumes that soft power strategies better work “within liberal democracies”. Therefore, he often refers to the USA as an excellent example. “Narrow values and parochial cultures” seem to have less ‘soft power’-ability (Nye, 2004: 6, 11, 13, 17).
Nye also assumes that “no country likes to feel manipulated, even by soft power” (Nye, 2004: 25).
These assumptions may have been accurate during the (early post)-Cold War period, however in an age where populism is flourishing the words of Nye should be read with more caution.
Indeed – the link between ‘soft power’-strategies and autocratic foreign policies is not an apparent relationship. While some aspects of ‘soft power’-strategies can easily be found back in the international political contemporary reality, that does not exactly mean that these autocracies follow the ‘soft power’-paths as described by Joseph Nye.
However, with increased strength on several levels of autocratic states, one must not underestimate the ‘promotional factor’ these autocracies have.
Already in 1997, Fareed Zakaria wrote about so-called ‘illiberal democracies’. These are states that have “elections [that] are rarely as free and fair as in the West today, but they do reflect the reality of popular participation in politics and support for those elected.”. These illiberal democratic leaders often go beyond constitutional limits without a lot go scrutiny (Zakaria, 1997: 22-23). These illiberal democracies also fit in this research focus on autocracies. Zakaria also speaks about liberal(ising) autocracies (Zakaria, 1997: 26, 27, 29, 40). The terms illiberal democracy and autocracy do not entirely mean the same, but one can assume that illiberal democracies form a category within autocracies. Both terms will, therefore, be used interchangeably throughout this article.
The promotion of illiberal autocratic democracies has been food for thought over the years. As described above, the strict definition of Nye’s ‘soft power’ does not allow autocracies to be embodied in that. Christopher Walker describes it as follows: “the application of the term soft power—a benign concept generally applied to efforts made to bolster a country’s image, contribute to open debate, and win friends and allies—to the ideas-related efforts of the authoritarians is problematic. What the authoritarian regimes are practicing is instead a more malign mirror image of soft power.” (Walker, 2016: 61).
While democratic states often base their ‘soft power’-ability on a mix of international NGOs and free press, autocratic states that want to use ‘soft power’-tactics use government-led media channels and so-called GONGO’s (Government-Owned NGOs) to influence international institutions or politics outside their own countries (Walker, 2016).
In a Foreign Affairs article, Walker releases the term ‘sharp power’ for soft power being waged by autocracies (Walker, 2017). Autocracies were able to wage sharp power in countries that underwent a “democratic downturn”. He describes sharp power as “This is an approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship, or the use of manipulation to sap the integrity of independent institutions. Sharp power has the effect of limiting free expression and distorting the political environment”. The election interference of Russia in the USA in 2017 is an example of this (Walker, 2018: 10-12).
Still, ‘sharp power’ does not entirely embody autocratic soft power. The structure behind autocracies their ‘soft power’-ability is intrinsically different from the structure of liberal democracies’ their ‘soft power’-ability. While soft power in liberal democracies is often something that exists organically, autocracies need to establish a well-though ‘soft power’-strategy via (financially) supporting international media channels and GONGOs. This article adds another category to the ‘soft power’-toolbox of autocracies: supporting already existing international networks in liberal democracies that support their values. The international pro-family movement is an excellent example of this.
Therefore soft power in this research is not solely defined as a weapon of liberal democracies. It does, however, depart from the basic idea of ‘attracting the other’ – something that Nye already posed in his first works on the issue. But besides that, autocratic soft power departs from two other assumptions: a well-thought financially supported strategy (1), the channels are government-owned media, GONGOs, and already existing international organisations (2). The means exist out of state-financed propaganda via these channels and interactions between befriended ideologists, oligarchs, academics and policy-makers via for instance conferences. These strategies make a differentiation in their target groups as well: ordinary citizens (1) and political elites (2). To reach ordinary citizens, the autocratic soft power might rather focus on their media channels and GONGOs that can support befriended movements in other countries, and eventually use disinformation as a weapon. If the focus is on the political elite, preference will be given to outsourcing their soft power to already existing international organisations. Outsourcing soft power means that the autocracy jumps on an already existing international movement with both financial and ideological means, so the movement can further grow and increase its reach. The connections between Hungary and Russia are an excellent example where this theory meets reality.
While not disagreeing – this article does not follow the purely ‘sharp power’- definition as posed by Christopher Walker. The outsourcing of Russia’s soft power, in this case, does not happen as secretive as for instance, the Russian interference in the USA Presidential Elections (nevertheless the same Russian institutions are involved in this). The way Russia creates an attraction via outsourcing soft power to international movements towards its policies on sexuality can be openly (be it indirectly) found on the websites of these organisations. Therefore this article uses the term ‘autocratic soft power’ instead of ‘sharp power’. The nature of both concepts is not entirely the same.
Before digging deeper into Russia’s soft power strategy, the following paragraphs will draw a theoretical framework that explains the causes of autocracies to make a soft power strategy. This theoretical framework is based on Anthony Gidden’s ontological security theory and the scholarship that fits these ideas within international relations.
Professor Filip Ejdus defines ontological security within international relations as follows: “Ontological Security Theory (OST) which is based on a premise that actors in world politics are often ready to compromise physical security and other important material gains in order to protect their sense of continuity in the world.”(Ejdus, 2018: 883).
When certain realities let to notable changes in a country, countries can become ontologically insecure (Ejdus, 2018: 884). In the case of the Russian Federation, this could, for instance, be the fall of the Soviet Union, but also the demographic decline.
This kind of realities that lead to ontological insecurity are called critical situations. These critical situations emerge when the existence of what is taken for granted is under threat (Ejdus, 2018: 887).
According to Steele and Homolar, three features are essential if it comes to the study of ontological insecurity within populist world politics. The first one is the special relationship between routines and anxiety. Certain routines being disrupted will lead to anxiety. This anxiety leads to a change in how the world is governed. Already in 1957, Neumann linked the “perceptions of alienation” to the spectrum wherein politicians take decisions (Neumann, 1957). When anxiety grows, states do no longer depend on rational experts, but “expertise itself”. This turning back to routines opens up a window for populist politics (Steele & Homolar, 2019: 2).
The second feature is the relationship between narratives and memory. Populist politicians their narrative is often set on certain routines or realities from the past. This is not just the content and the way that they talk, but they also relate to their future policy proposals (Steele & Homolar, 2019: 3).
The last feature is the relationship between crisis and insecurity. The changes or disruptions that are related to late-modernity are often perceived as a crisis. These crises lead to an increased feeling of insecurity (Steele & Homolar, 2019: 3). Again, this paves the way for populist politicians to pave the way for propagating pre-modernity realities.
These critical situations can also lead to a collective outburst of anxiety, according to Professor Ejdus (Ejdus, 2018: 887). This fits in the idea of the international movement against LGBTI-rights. The LGBTI-movement is a very diverse movement existing out of several religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. Also, the motives are sometimes different to unite in an international movement. A good example is again the existing threat of a declining demography as posed by the ‘demographic winter theory’, a theory accusing homosexuals of the demographic decline.
Autocratic governments jumped on this international network of pro-family organisations aimed at influencing international decision-making. From the study of ontological security, one must see this as a part of the existential feature of a state. The entrance ticket to the international pro-family movement is not only for one specific religion or state. Several groups, states, and religions join the campaigns against LGBTI-rights with several interests. Russia joined and supports these networks out of a geopolitical autocratic ‘soft power’-reasons.
Russia’s Sexual Soft Power
The events that happened in 2013 and 2014 in Ukraine showed that Putin’s administration takes a serious interest in keeping or increasing Russia’s grip on its direct neighbourhood. This so-called ‘Putinism’ was developed by the Russian government as “a toolkit of political, economic, informational, and military mechanisms aimed at progressing its foreign policy interests” (Polyakova, 2015).
From a ‘soft power’-view traditional views on sexuality play a significant role in Russia’s foreign policy towards Europe. Political elites in Russia see the on-going debate on LGBTI-rights – especially in Central Eastern Europe – as one of the only debates where Russia can still be “morally superior” towards the West. Russia’s foreign policy is partly based on a linkage between its internal and external opposition.
Russia’s power consolidates on external threats
When the USSR fell, and Russia’s governmental structure was weakened on all levels, the demand to rebuild a strong nation-state was strong. This can be historically explained since there has always been a perception that a robust Russian empire led to a form of security towards its citizens. This conviction dates back to Napoleon and Mongol times. Between 1996 and 2012, opinion polls suggest that one of the primary expectations of the Russian society from their president was to “restore or maintain Russia’s superpower status” (Grigas, 2016:17).
Since Putin serves as president of the Russian Federation, the government’s (foreign) policies have been set up to restore the superpower status it once had during the USSR. Putin’s actions to restore Russia’s superpower status can be distinguished in the groups their policy strategy targets: Russian compatriots & non-Russians (Grigas, 2016: 2).
Since the wars in Ukraine and Georgia, the strategy towards Russian compatriots became quite clear. According to Agnia Grigas (2016), “Moscow has pursued an increasingly consistent seven-stage reimperialisation policy trajectory toward its compatriots”: (1) Soft power, (2) humanitarian policies, (3) compatriot policies, (4) passportisation, (5) information warfare, (6) protection and (7) informal control or formal annexation of the compatriots’ territories” (Grigas, 2016: 26).
If it comes to non-Russian actors in international politics, Russia has used its weakness and corrupt institutions to (re)gain its power. Via energy deals, they, for instance, increased the dependence on Russian natural resources considerably. This has not only happened in post-Soviet spheres, but also in European Union’ member states (Grigas, 2016: 20).
All this comes together in a government who wisely combines soft power with hard power strategies. They do not see both forms of power as something completely different but instead use soft power to increase the effectiveness of their hard power actions. Business and cultural interests are being linked to security issues (Grigas, 2016: 29).
Professor Bill Bowring theorises another reading of the increased hostility towards the West and its liberal institutions by Russia. According to him, there is a renewed urge towards more sovereignty by the Russians. By joining international institutions like the Council of Europe and the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, policy-makers often felt powerless (Bowring, 2013: 193-205).
Bowring cites the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation Valeriy Zorking (Rossiykaya Gazeta, 2010) on the power and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights: “When such a decision is taken in the interests of the protection of the rights and freedoms of the citizen and the development of our country, Russia will always precisely obey it. But when it or another decision of the Strasbourg court is doubtful from the point of view of the goal of the European Convention on Human Rights and moreover in a directions fashion concerns national sovereignty, and fundamental constitutional principles, Russia has the right to work out a defence mechanism against such a decisions. [… ] Like any other European state, Russia must fight as much for the preservation of its sovereignty, as for the careful relationship with the European Convention, and defence of its sovereignty against inadequate, doubtful decisions.” (Bowring, 2013: 194-195)
As Russia decided that it will never become a member of the EU and NATO, they also decided not to challenge the organisations anymore but undermine them (Hanley, 2017:152) from inside. They do that by, for instance, trying to ‘decouple’ Central and Eastern European countries from the EU (Federov, 2013: 320). This happens through the support of far-right parties and the establishment of a framework for policy-makers to consolidate conservative and illiberal values in the EU (Klapsis, 2015: 35-36; Hanley, 2017: 152).
Russia’s foreign policy should be theorised as an egocentric power tool for the current political elite in Russia. It departs from fundamental realist theories within international relations. It is in the own interest of the Russian state to look morally superior to the West via, for instance, taking and supporting conservative family policy measures. The foreign policy of the Russian Federation tries to serve the Kremlin’s national interest as efficient as possible by focussing both on soft power and hard power and independently from each other on Russians living abroad and non-Russians. Besides that, it shows a revival in the lost national proudness. This is being reproduced in their ‘sovereign fights’ against institutions like the NATO, the EU, and the Council of Europe.
Russia’s Soft Power
In Today’s increasingly populist world, the illiberal ideas as embodied by Putin’s administration are gaining more and more popularity (Van Herpen, 2016: 23). Viktor Orban, but also Matteo Salvini from Italy, Thierry Baudet from The Netherlands, or Nigel Farrage from the UK have referred to so-called ‘Putinism’ as a good way of governing.
Just like other autocracies, Russia’s ‘soft power’-strategy is based on selling their interpretation on current issues in international politics to an international audience. From a media perspective, Russia Today or Sputnik International is responsible for this. However, while Russia organised a crackdown on its domestic NGOs, it also set up a network of GONGOs that have to influence international decision-making (Walker, 2016).
Inside Putin’s ideological advisors, Neofascist Aleksandr Dugin is considered essential. While ‘Eurasian’ theories exist out of a wide range of autocratic, fascist, and mystic ideas, they had a not-to-be-underestimated impact on Russia’s contemporary politics (Van Herpen, 2016: 9).
The increase of conservative policies in Russia can be easily explained by the increase of power of the Russian Orthodox Church in contemporary politics. It is even part of the Kremlin’s interest to make from the Russian Orthodox Church, an international church (Van Herpen, 2016: 12).
International defender of traditional family values
One of the only times, Russia is referring in a positive way to human rights on an international level, is when it is to defend their Russians living abroad (Grigas, 2016: 34). In most other cases, it uses the several international forums to question the universality of human rights (Van Herpen, 2015: 143-144).
In 2009 Russia launched an initiative within the UN Human Rights Council for “Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values”. In the official explanations they most of the times referred to female genital mutilation, but after some time it became clear that this also included Russia’s fight against LGBTI-rights. After the acceptance of the initiative, a workshop was organised around it by the UN in 2010. Many representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church took part in the workshop (Van Herpen, 2015: 144-145).
Besides the UN and USA, also regional international organisations – like the OSCE and Council of Europe – openly criticised Russia’s ‘traditional values’-interpretation of the human rights conventions. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Russia several times for its domestic attacks on the LGBTI-community, but they seem to ignore the rulings (Van Herpen, 2015: 146-148).
As Van Herpen notes, Russia’s attempts to change the interpretation of the universality of human rights have been quite effective (Van Herpen, 2015: 146-148). While direct influence is impossible to examine, it is also impossible to ignore the negative discourse on human rights by an increasing number of government officials in the Western hemisphere in the last few years.
It is evident that the fight against the international demands of the LGBTI-movement is an integral part of Russia’s soft power strategy. It links the Russia’s domestic goals with an on-going debate in many countries around the world. They see sexuality and the on-going debate in many non-Russian speaking countries as one of the only fields where they can still show off as morally superior. Especially in countries who were formerly in the sphere of influence of the USSR, they perceive their chances to have an impact on local policies still plausible. The recently published articles give more evidence of how Russia has been setting up intelligence relations with Hungary and Poland through the international anti-LGBTI movements, like the World Congress of Families.