The EU elections in May will see a clash between ultra-conservative and liberal ideas on what it means to be European.
The election theatre includes a Russian phantasmagoria of EU-painted devils and rapists, in a years-long propaganda campaign designed to undermine the Western bloc.
Many far-right EU voters also want a “white and straight” Europe, going hand-in-hand with Russia’s culture war.
But the EU mainstream has its own compelling stories and one set of European voters recently showed that they were not so easily fooled or scared.
Russia literally incanted its archetype of the West as a black and gay Satan on stage five years ago.
It came in a pageant by the Night Wolves, a Kremlin-sponsored biker gang, in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
In the show, Alexander Zaldostanov, the biker chief, intoned the words of Russian ultranationalist writer Alexander Prokhanov.
“The black sperm of fascism splashed upon Kiev,” he said. “In the golden apse of St Sofia [Kiev’s cathedral] … was conceived a deformed embryo with hairy face and black horns”, he added.
It was August 2014 and Russia had just annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Satan was meant to be Barack Obama, the then US president, who is black, and the West more broadly speaking.
The embryo was meant to be the pro-EU revolution in Kiev earlier that year – the Euromaidan, in which Ukrainian people stood up for Western values, such as democracy and rule of law, but which Russia blamed on foreign conspiracies.
Kremlin media broadcast the biker pageant on TV and online.
It was mainly targeted at a Russian audience, but it was part of a wider anti-Western media campaign which uses the same sexual memes.
It also showed that Ukraine was a front line between Russia and the West not just in military terms, but in terms of identity.
Recalling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine later in 2015, Zaldostanov said Russia’s actions “showed resistance to global satanism … the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk.”
“Death to faggots!” should be Russia’s anti-Western war cry, the biker boss said.
The idea of the West and its liberal values as a gay monster impregnating Russia’s virginal, orthodox body is incoherent.
A homophobic pageant by homoerotic muscle-men on motorbikes also makes no sense.
But that is how Russian ideology works, according to Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University in the US, who chronicled Russia’s anti-Western pivot in his recent book The Road to Unfreedom.
“It doesn’t have to be coherent and it never was – that’s precisely the point. Fascism isn’t supposed to be coherent,” he told EUobserver in an interview.
Russia’s irrational pageantry was meant to “associate Europe in people’s minds with their deep psychological anxieties”, such as migrants or homosexuals, against whom they “provoke disgust”, Snyder said.
Looking back, the US historian noted that there was “a moment in Russian politics in 2010 or 2011 when Russia gave up on becoming a European-type rule-of-law state”.
“It moved instead into what [Russian president] Vladimir Putin called ‘Eurasia’, where the issue is not what we can do, but who we are, and who we are is supposedly white and straight,” Snyder said.
“In terms of Europe, it came in 2013, when France legalised same-sex partnerships, and French far-right politicians, such as Marine Le Pen, started coming to Russia, giving speeches on how wonderful Russian orthodox civilisation was,” Snyder added.
“It’s at that moment that this Russian idea – that we’re going to protect Europe from itself, that we’re going to protect heterosexuality from homosexuality – starts to become [Russian] foreign policy,” he said.
Trolling the EU
Five years later, and the European Parliament (EP) vote in May will be of special interest to Russia, as far-right and pro-Russian EU parties, which espouse Eurasian-like values, prepare to gain more power than ever in the EU institutions.
“The EU elections in May are of crucial importance … for the future of Russia-EU relations,” the Russian embassy told EUobserver in a recent statement.
“All key Russian media … will continue to cover political processes in the EU in the broadest possible range,” it said.
It denied that Russian media targeted minorities, such as migrants or LGBTI people.
“While covering such sensitive themes, they [Russian media] have to comply with the provisions of the constitution of the Russian Federation, which states that no one may be insulted or discriminated either by country of origin or by sexual orientation,” the Russian embassy said.
But the Crimea pageant for one, there is an embarrassment of evidence to the contrary.
Russian state media, which, according to the Russian embassy, get over €980m of funding a year, have been promoting racist, homophobic, and anti-EU content on millions of Russian and European TVs, computers, and smartphones in multiple native languages for years.
The EU foreign service in Brussels regularly documents Russian scare stories on anti-migrant and LGBTI themes.
“Equating European values and LGBTI rights with paedophilia and incest is a common pro-Kremlin narrative”, which said the EU “damaged traditional cultures,” an EU official told EUobserver, echoing Snyder.
“There is a strongly-rooted Russian propaganda slogan to call Europe ‘Gay-Europa’,” a senior EU diplomat added.
“It helps to recruit people who oppose liberal European values,” he said.
At the top level, Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have personally endorsed Eurasian evangelists, such as Prokhanov and others.
They have also repeated Crimea pageant-type memes about EU-linked Muslim migrants raping virginal boys and girls in Austria and Germany.
Vladislav Surkov, a senior aide to Putin, has even trolled the EU by admitting that Russia played “mind games”.
“Foreign politicians say that Russia interference in their elections … in fact, it’s even more serious – Russia is playing with Western minds and they don’t know what to do with their own altered consciousness,” he said in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily, in February.
“They [EU leaders] are surprised and enraged by the paranormal preferences of the electorate. Confused, they announce the invasion of populism [in Europe],” Surkov said.
Russia’s “paranormal” ideas on racial and sexual identity go hand-in-hand with those espoused by far-right EU voters in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and further afield.
Anti-migrant and, to a lesser extent, anti-LGBTI populist parties are polling to make historic gains in the EP elections in what amounts to a second, intestinal EU culture war.
The EU far-right focused more on race and less on sex than Russia did, Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on far-right politics at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a think tank in Kiev, told EUobserver.
Its intellectual mentors, such as French writer Alain de Benoist, were more interested in white supremacy and less in sexuality than Russia’s Eurasian prophets, Shekhovtsov said.
Bashing “refugees, migrants, and Islam rather than gay people” was also a bigger vote winner, especially in more pro-LGBTI EU societies in western Europe, he added.
Some far-right leaders, such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders, advocated gay rights for tactical reasons, Shekhovtsov noted.
Wilders was trying to win votes by “defending liberal values, such as tolerance toward LGBTI people, against ‘illiberal’ Islam”, Shekhovtsov said.
“Quite a large proportion of Wilders’ electorate are white, homosexual men, so he can’t afford to alienate them,” Shekhovtsov added.
France’s far-right has followed suit.
Marine Le Pen’s father and political party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is a self-avowed homophobe, but she has pledged to protect LGBTI people from Muslims and cast gay men in senior roles.
Frank Creyelman, an MP from the far-right and pro-Russia Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, also sang from the same hymn sheet.
“I don’t care what people do between the sheets,” he told EUobserver in an interview in January.
Homosexuality was a kind of “illness”, Creyelman said.
But his main worry was that “we [Europe] have been fighting Islam since the year 756 … and now we’re just letting them [Muslims] in,” he added, referring to an Arab conquest in medieval Spain and to EU asylum policy.
Despite the focus on race, the EP vote still comes amid a spike in anti-LGBTI hate speech worldwide, according to Katrin Hugendubel, the advocacy director of Ilga-Europe, a human rights NGO in Brussels.
And the far-right rhetoric “is translating into very real hate on the ground,” she told this website.
Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini, like his self-avowed idol Putin, has also portrayed himself as a defender of white and straight Europeans against Muslims and EU liberals.
Salvini’s main target have been migrants, but he invited the World Congress of Families, a US-based homophobic pressure group, to a congress in Italy in March ahead of the EP vote.
“Europe must return to its identity, to its Judeo-Christian roots – which is being rejected in Brussels in a crazy way, where family values are rejected,” he said in Warsaw in January.
French president Emmanuel Macron, the ‘angel’ of the centrist EU establishment, has called himself Salvini’s “main opponent” in the EP race.
He already faced a homophobic slur in his 2017 presidential election, when Nicolas Dhuicq, a pro-Russian politician from a far-right French party called Republic Arise, spread rumours that Macron had had a gay affair.
And Dhuicq is repeating the same stories ahead of the EP vote.
Macron was bisexual, had had a gay affair, and was backed by a gay cabal who wanted him to change the law so that they could buy babies, Dhuicq told EUobserver in January.
“I think he [Macron] loves both sexes,” Dhuicq claimed.
“I would prefer to have someone … elected president who would be gay and say: ‘I’m gay, so what?’, and French people are very tolerant and would agree with it,” he said.
“I also know from people I can’t name, in the [French intelligence] services … that there was a very rich gay lobby behind him [Macron],” Dhuicq added.
“Human beings need to have stories, need to have mythology,” Dhuicq, who is a practicing psychiatrist as well as a politician, told this website.
People need stories
It remains to be seen to what extent Russian and far-right stories win hearts in May’s EP vote.
It was “impossible to measure the exact impact” of Russian mind games on voters in Europe, Ben Nimmo, an expert on Russian propaganda at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington, noted.
“Even polling would probably not lead to exact figures. It’s hard to answer the question: ‘Did you change your vote because of Russian info ops?’,” he said.
His study of Russian meddling in the US election in 2016 indicated that it made a “marginal” difference.
It is even harder to measure the Kremlin’s “alteration” of Europe’s broader “consciousness”, but anecdotal evidence shows that hate speech can have a profound effect on individuals.
False Russian stories included one from 2014 that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a boy on the front line.
The fiction was later debunked, but it was still cited by Russian volunteers as a motive for going to fight.
“When you go murdering people quoting disinformation messages as your motivation, it’s pretty hard to deny that propaganda has an impact,” the Atlantic Council’s Jakub Kalensky, another propaganda expert, said.
In deeper terms, far-right mythologies appealed to “fragile masculinity” – to men who felt impotent in Putin’s oligarchy, or in Europe’s economic order, where they feared losing their jobs to foreigners, robots, or women, Snyder, the US historian, told this website.
“If changes in the economy are not addressed in a way that makes sense to people, then you’ll get the conjurers, the Putins and others, who are able to explain that something else, somebody else is the source of their problems,” Snyder said.
Thin blue line
For their part, EU states and institutions have stepped up intervention on media abuse in the culture clash.
Member states have developed a “rapid alert system” in the EU Council in Brussels to “track and respond” to Russian information attacks, an EU official said.
The EU foreign service is also staffing up East Stratcom, its counter-propaganda office, from 14 to 18 people and boosting its budget from €1.1m last year to €3m this year “specifically to address Russian disinformation”, the EU official added.
The European Commission is pushing US social media firms such as Facebook and Twitter to abide by a “code of conduct” on hate speech.
France and Germany are also putting pressure on social media firms to take down offensive content, while NGOs, such as Ilga-Europe, have launched debunking and hate-monitoring projects.
The EU ought to do more to protect its mental hygiene in the long term, Snyder noted.
“If I was the EU, I would double down on supporting local news and regional news and subsidising newspapers and investigative reporting,” he said.
“I would also be messing around with internet regulation, to keep that [real news] front and centre, to give people the freedom to use the internet in such a way that they’re actually getting news, not stuff meant to make them anxious or afraid,” he went on.
“You’re on the offensive not so much with your own propaganda, but by supporting real media,” Snyder said.
It is too late to put in place deeper economic or media reforms ahead of the EP vote in May, but in the meantime pro-EU forces still had a compelling story to tell, if they could tell it right, the US academic added.
“The current European story is: ‘We stopped bad things from happening 70 years ago’, and Europe needs another story besides that,” he said, referring to the EU’s post-WW2 origins.
“The way the EU wins is by saying our protection of human rights, including gay rights, is part of a larger style of life which people find enviable,” he added.
“Things young people care about – like labour mobility, digital privacy, global warming – these are things the European Union is doing the best job in the world of dealing with,” Snyder said.
Refusing the bait
Storytelling aside, naked facts also have their own force.
Reality matters in Ukraine, where most people on the front line do not believe Russia’s fictions because they see with their own eyes what happens there.
It matters in Russia, where the Kremlin has a near monopoly on media, but where economic problems have hurt Putin’s popularity despite his propaganda circus.
It also matters in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea coast, where people know that Putin’s “Russian world” is not so different from EU society as the Crimea-type pageantry says.
The mayor of Sochi claimed in 2014 that there were no homosexuals there, but data on Sochi-origin searches for gay pornography on US website Pornhub showed “unambiguously that there are as many gays in Sochi, or as many people interested in homosexual sex, as there are anywhere else”, Snyder, the US historian, noted.
When Romania, last October, held a referendum on banning same-sex marriage, Romanian people also faced an information nightmare.
Romania’s right-wing government, its oligarch friends, far-right parties, the Romanian church, and shady NGOs, such as the Coalition for the Family, ganged up in an anti-LGBTI league.
Oligarch-owned TV stations, such as Antena 3 and Romania TV, tried to “brainwash the elderly on conservative values”, according to Teodora Ion-Rotaru from Accept, a pro-LGBTI group in Bucharest.
The Romania Libera newspaper, for instance, ran stories about a “new gay world order taking over Romania”, she said.
Billboards also sprang up calling for the defence of Romanian children from gay men, while Romanian-language Russian media, such as Sputnik, and Russian trolls and bots amplified the content.
But despite it all, Romanian people “did not take the bait” and the referendum failed, Ion-Rotaru told EUobserver.
Romanians rebelled against “intrigues organised from above”, she said.
Russian bots and trolls “irritated people” in a former Iron Curtain society that was, for historical reasons, “wary of Russia’s agenda”, she added.
The example of Adrian Coman, a Romanian national who won the right to have his Belgian marriage to another man recognised in Romania in an EU court ruling in June last year, also helped, Ion-Rotaru noted.
It did so not because conservative Romanians suddenly converted to liberal values, but because Romanians, like Coman, knew what the EU gave them in a practical sense, she said.
“Coman was just another Romanian trying to make a better life for himself abroad, in a way that everybody could relate to,” Ion-Rotaru said.
“Romanians use the EU almost more than any other people in terms of freedom of movement, jobs, and sending money back home,” she added.
“The EU is essential for us to exist,” she said.
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