Foreign interference and growing anti-LGBTQ+ movements are threatening the European Union membership prospects of Western Balkan countries.
A growing network of foreign organisations are pouring hundreds of millions of euros into "culture war" groups campaigning to roll back LGBTQ+ rights across Europe, European lawmakers have warned.
In a resolution published earlier this month, the European Parliament raised the alarm about foreign interference in all democratic processes in Europe, pointing out that most of the foreign funding originates from Russia and the US.
This foreign interference, coupled with disinformation and numerous attacks perpetrated by malicious foreign actors, is predicted to increase in the lead-up to the European Parliament elections in 2024, becoming more sophisticated in nature.
MEPs flagged that at least 50 organisations now fund anti-gender activities — opposing what they call gender ideology.
“Europe is seeing a growing number of anti-gender movements, specifically targeting sexual and reproductive health, women’s rights and LGBTIQ+ people,” the EU parliamentary report read.
“Such movements proliferate disinformation in order to reverse progress in women’s rights and gender equality. These movements have been reported to receive millions of euros in foreign funding, either public or private, including from Russia and the US.”
Funding and modus operandi
The strategies employed by these foreign actors have evolved over time, due to increasing funding and intensifying disinformation campaigns, human rights observers have warned.
Members of the US far-right and the Russian Orthodox Church, two major players of the anti-gender movement, have joined forces to ramp up funding to Europe-based ultra-traditionalist actors with a specific focus on targeting LGBTQ+ rights, according to sources who agreed to speak to Euronews on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Over the past decade, key Christian right organisations, usually funded by private individuals linked to far-right and libertarian causes in the US, and Russian oligarchs have established a network of agencies set up in human rights institutions across Europe to carry out anti-gender diplomacy and infiltrate positions of power in member states.
Other tactics include abusive lawsuits intended to suppress, intimidate and silence critics (SLAPPS), money and reputational laundering, physical harassment, sending paid fight squads to LGBTQ+ marches or drag stores, hacking journalists’ devices with the Pegasus software and using troll farms spreading disinformation against LGBTQ+ activists.
And the movement is gaining momentum with more organisations 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 polarisation to radicalise the political debate and fuel violence, sources said.
Undermining the case for EU membership
Georgia’s gay pride festival on 8 July is the latest LGBTQ+ event to have fallen victim to foreign interference.
A mob of up to 2,000 anti-LGBTQ+ protesters from the Russian-affiliated group Alt Info, stormed Tbilisi’s festival in an attack described by Pride’s director Mariam Kvaratskhelia as “pre-planned”.
"I definitely think this [disruption] was a pre-planned, coordinated action between the government and the radical groups ... We think this operation was planned in order to sabotage the EU candidacy of Georgia," she told Reuters.
Members of Alt-Info, an ultra-conservative TV broadcaster with close ties to the Georgian Orthodox Church, had already disrupted Tbilisi Pride in 2021. Since its foundation as a conservative media platform in 2019, the group has tried to expand its political influence by creating an alternative party to both the governing Georgian Dream and opposition United National Movement. Among its stated goals is pursuing closer relations with Russia.
Alt-Info’s attack comes as Georgia has struggled with its EU membership application in recent years, despite overwhelming public and political support for EU integration.
The former Soviet republic’s path to EU candidacy has been slowed by deeply polarised politics and the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political and public life, alongside its territorial dispute with Russia in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.
And the cancellation of its Pride festival could deal yet another blow to its EU aspiration.
Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, condemned the “violent disruptions”, saying “anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric, disinformation and violence have no place in these debates”. The counter-protests represented a violation to the EU’s freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly, the EU Ambassador for Gender & Diversity tweeted.
Divide and conquer
The same tension has broken out across Western Balkan countries where leaders have struggled to walk a fine identity and political line between anti-LGBTQ+ religious nationalist movements and pro-LGBTQ+ Europeanising public opinion.
While these countries generally have high levels of political and public support for joining the EU, their progress towards membership has stagnated over the past decade.
Religious nationalism has posed a significant challenge, as leaders from the Serbian Orthodox church, the Catholic church, and Islamic authorities have rallied behind their targeting of LGBTQ+ rights and formed coalitions with conservative political parties.
In recent years, anti-LGBTQ+ actions have turned more violent, with physical assaults by ultranationalist protesters on attendees of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Pride in March of this year, the Belgrade Pride in 2022 and the Zagreb Pride in 2021.
The controversy surrounding a veto that would have recognised 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 Western Balkan countries.
In 2021, the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) unearthed more than $707.2 million (€600 million) worth of 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 examined 117 anti-gender funding actors active in Europe, insisted the findings were only the “tip of the iceberg” as half of them — 63 — had no existing financial data.
“Of course there are enormous data gaps that cannot be filled at the moment, so $700 million is really the tip of the iceberg of how big this anti-gender movement is,” said EPF’s secretary Neil Datta.
According to Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, the anti-gender movement’s efforts to further polarise public discourse is dragging pro-democracy governments into fuelling prejudice and hatred towards LGBTQ+ people.
“The practice of scapegoating LGBTQ+ people is starting to be instrumentalised by both the pro-democracy and the anti-democracy sides. If you make it a marker of how good you are, then you’re creating this divide,” she told Euronews.
“This [growing polarisation] is not helping what should be a healthier, calmer conversation. What’s happening at the moment is the complete opposite.”
Instead, Paradis said pro-democracy governments need to move forward with their progressive agenda and steer clear of the perverse effects of foreign-funded polarisation.
“We’re all in reaction mode and it’s very hard to resist and be in a pro-active mode. Governments need to pass through the anti-gender movement’s negative agenda and keep on pushing our positive agenda. That’s where the strategy of the opposition is working - it’s really pushing everybody in the reactive mode.”