Disinformation helps weaponize homophobia in the Balkans

Skopje Pride 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Skopje Pride 2023, held on June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Populist political forces across Europe have been utilizing homophobia and the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ people as a weapon of political influence for the last two decades. Many of these campaigns have mimicked, or were even helped by, the extreme right-wing circles from the US. After 2013, Moscow emerged as a major generator of homophobic narratives that exploited existing endemic intolerance in the Balkans region.

A recent analysis entitled “Kremlin speaking: homophobia as geopolitics” by Bulgarian fact-checking platform Factcheck.bg, run by the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria (AEJ), revealed that key homophobic narratives pushed by the Kremlin propaganda are meant to undermine trust in the European Union (EU) by stoking fears among socially conservative people:

“The West imposes homosexuality and pedophilia on us”;
“Membership in the European Union (EU) means acceptance of same-sex marriage”;
“European values contradict traditional morality”.

The  author, Bulgarian editor and journalist, Vanessa Nikolova, points out that Moscow is using homophobia as a geopolitical weapon, as an extension of its state policy of protection of “traditional values.” In December 2022, the Russian Federation adopted amendments to the federal information law banning “LGBTQ+ propaganda” and blocking web resources.

Nikolova points out that today’s Russian social media users often use the expression “gay-Nazism” when discussing the political situation in Ukraine and in Western countries. She also noted the development of whole new propaganda vocabulary, fitting the definition of newspeak from George Orwell's novel “Nineteen Eighty-four.”

Words like “Gayrope,” “Eurogay”, “liberast”, “tolerast” (the last two referring to the Bulgarian word for “faggot” combined with liberal and tolerance), etc. are recognizable in the anti-democratic and anti-European rhetoric in Bulgaria. This propaganda vocabulary began to penetrate the Bulgarian media as early as 2013, but reached the peak of its popularity in 2018 in the debates on the adoption of the Istanbul Convention.

Then the word “gender” was created and imposed – a negative name for people with non-traditional sexual orientation, as well as for those who sympathize with them, and in a broader sense – for human rights defenders, civil society and supporters of liberal values in general.

Nikolova warned that the basis for these narratives is the suggestion that the EU is morally unacceptable and destroys traditional values.

By exporting “homophobic nationalism”, Russia is carrying out a much more comprehensive plan – to undermine the foundations of European liberal democracies based on the principles of respect for human rights and tolerance. Because of this, European values are presented as focused solely on the rights of sexual minorities, and the EU is accused of carrying out “gender propaganda”.

She pointed out that in the Balkans, disinformation narratives against “Gayrope,” degradation, and “Satanism,” have gained traction in socially conservative and nationalistic circles

The ripple effect of the official Russian rhetoric, that presents the war in Ukraine as an extension of this policy by other means, has an impact among Kremlin proxies in the Balkans, promoting the myths of “innocent” Russia and the “wrong” West, generating outrage based on fear and prejudice.

Banner with US and Rainbow flag at Skopje Pride 2023 reading ‘There's no pride in prejudice,’ a pun on the title of Jane Austin novel. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Articles by the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub project document that such narratives affect both communities of Slavic peoples (Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians), considered culturally linked to Russia via Orthodox Christianity, but also communities that might be historically considered adverse to Russian imperialism, such as ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania, as well as ethnic Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Spreading disinformation about LGBTQ+ people goes hand in hand with promoting criminal behavior, including online and offline violence.

When such propaganda targets socially conservative groups, like majority-Muslim communities, the primary goal is not to make them love Vladimir Putin, more or to generate open support for the Russian regime. The aim is to exploit homophobia to incite fear and outrage against the West and democracy, creating further discord and disrupting the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region.

For instance, disinformation presenting the EU as weak and disunited include lies about measures against LGBTQ+ people supposedly adopted by the Italian parliament, spread in Kosovo in March 2022 and in North Macedonia in June 2023.

During the last two years, disinformation about Pride Month activities has been plaguing the political and media sphere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including religious propaganda in Kosovo.

The 2022 Belgrade Pride march was particularly targeted, as Serbian far-right political parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church condemned the event and called for a ban via protests that included the glorification of Russian president Vladimir Putin as a model “defender of traditional values.”

Libelous claims about the use of the rainbow flag that implicate international institutions, like fake claims about the UN replacing country flags with the flag in Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro, and photo montages and AI-generated deepfakes about the Pope spread in Montenegro and North  Macedonia, cater to local nationalists.

Some local social media influencers plainly parrot Russian narratives about Nazi connections, which is historically ludicrous given that Hitler's regime attempted to exterminate gay people.

Attempts to use an LGBTQ+ connection to emasculate the armies of EU countries and allies, in contrast to supposedly stout Russian armed forces, have been noted in Albania and Montenegro.

Skopje Pride 2023 march, June 24, 2023. Photo by Global Voices, (CC-BY-3.0).

Stoking the fears of parents is another tactic that affects public opinion in the Western Balkans. In North Macedonia in March, a Coalition for Protection of Children waged a campaign spreading panic about pro-LGBTQ+ indoctrination in schools. The coalition, consisting of 31 small political parties and NGOs, is co-founded by pro-Kremlin fringe political party Rodina Makedonija, with the support of U.S. fundamentalist Christian lobbying organization Family Watch.

Defamatory assertions about local schools continue to pop up in Macedonian right-wing media, which sees transphobia as a new key area. Similar manipulations about the use of schools for the indoctrination of children are present in neighboring Albania.

Other cross-border disinformation trends include promoting stigmatization by connecting sexual orientation with infectious diseases, such as monkeypox, which was seen in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and used by tabloids and social media trolls in Montenegro, alongside the “classic” association of LGBTQ+ people with pedophilia in Bosnian and Macedonian social network spaces, including lies about the World Economic Forum and EU reactions to discrimination in Hungary. 

Pride marches and related events taking place in the Balkans during May and June 2023 have been pointing to the devastating effects of homophobia and transphobia, demanding a systemic response to issues of impunity for hate speech and hate crimes that undermine democracy and the rule of law. Such criminal behavior further erodes the fragile social cohesion of transitional societies, contributing to increasing the already present extreme polarization, as well as normalizing an atmosphere of fear, where any minorities or people with different opinions can be scapegoated.

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