Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczyński use their conservative identity and agenda over LGBTI-issues to increase their countries’ weight inside the European Union. Liberal member states should stand up against ultraconservative bringing European decision-making to paralysis.

The struggle for equality of the LGBTI-community is at the frontline of Europe’s main political dispute: the fight between liberal democracy and illiberal autocracies.

Autocratic leaders throughout Europe have made scapegoating the LGBTI-community a national priority.

Their self-proclaimed ‘culture war’ poses serious security threats for European democracy and peace.

Withdrawn promise

Mamuka Bakhtadze

One afternoon in June 2019, the organisers of Tbilisi Pride communicated about the unwillingness of the Georgian authorities to secure their next week’s Pride March.

Under the pressure of ultraconservative oligarchs linked to Russia, the government of Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze withdrew its promise to facilitate the first-ever Pride march in the Caucasus.

Freedom of assembly and anti-discrimination initiatives are an important part of the EU-Georgia Association Agenda. For these oligarchs, LGBTI-equality means a closer relationship with the EU. This is something that Russia wants to prevent at any cost.

Georgia’s closer integration into NATO and the European Union remains an important objective for the country. Because of pressure exerted by its Transatlantic partners, Georgia’s government announced they would secure the Tbilisi Pride – although this eventually failed due to huge anti-government protests.

Over the last decade, LGBTI-equality has become a benchmark of liberal democracies. Both autocracies and democracies use it to determine a country’s geopolitical orientation.

Not just post-soviet republics but also the Visegrad countries have successfully used a self-proclaimed culture war’ against the LGBTI-community to strengthen their hold over European politics.

Self-proclaimed ‘culture war’

Poland and Hungary, in cooperation with other Central and Eastern member states, have always prevented the European Union of encouraging LGBTI-inclusive policies.

Both Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczyński use their conservative identity and agenda over LGBTI-issues to increase their countries’ weight inside the European Union.

These conservative member states are not afraid to paralyse decision-making in Europe over LGBTI-topics. Poland and Hungary have often ‘issue-linked’ LGBTI-rights to other European decision-making, just as the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF).

An EU-wide anti-discrimination directive is already stuck in the European Council for over 12 years. Western and liberal member states have always given in to their demands.

Those who believe Kaczyński and Orbán attack the LGBTI-community out of religious reasons are wrong. Neither Orbán nor Kaczyński cares about sexuality or gender. They scapegoat sexual and gender minorities to legitimise their undemocratic behaviour – just as every autocrat in history has scapegoated a minority.

Portraying the LGBTI-community as the biggest threat to the country helps them to undermine democracy at home.

Early 2019, I was invited by Háttér Társaság – a local LGBTI-organisation in Hungary to give a lecture on my research and advocacy work for the LGBTI-community in Central and Eastern Europe in Bem Cinema in Budapest.

When setting up the presentation, two police officers entered the venue. They came to “check if everything was OK”. One of the LGBTI-activists indicated this happens almost every time.

“While we don’t ask for their support and we don’t even expect any problems, they just show up. It is to show that they follow us and that they know what we are doing.”

Something similar happened during the Pride Festival in the Polish city Szczecin. A man approached me, identified himself as a member of the governing Law & Justice party (PiS), and ‘kindly’ encouraged me “to respect Poland’s sovereignty”.

The months after my encounter, a third of Poland declared itself a “Zone Free of LGBTI-ideology”. These were signs that the worst still had to come for the LGBTI-community in Central and Eastern Europe.

These experiences remind us of the origins of the darkest pages of the European history of the previous century.

Moreover, the political situation for the LGBTI-community in Central and Eastern Europe took a turn for the worse since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

During his re-election campaign, Polish president Andrzej Duda called the “LGBTI-ideology more harmful than communism” and campaigned for constitutionally restricting the fundamental rights of LGBTI-citizens.

Hungary banned legal gender changes and thereby banned any legal recognition of transgender and intersex people.

Next to this, Hungary is planning to constitutionally ban adoption by same-sex couples and prevent teachers from proving pro-LGBTI education. Romania banned gender studies at its universities.

Russia’s political strategy

Although Poland has a clear anti-Russia policy, the fight against the LGBTI-community very much plays into Russia’s hands. Russia has infiltrated in European anti-LGBTI movements by means of the World Congress of Families, an ultra-conservative US-based organisation that is outspoken against LGBTI.

This is not because Russia cares about LGBTI-people in Europe. Rather, they very well understand that through undermining the rights of sexual and gender minorities, they are undermining the most visible European and liberal civil rights movement of the last two decades.

Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, such as Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev, have used these international anti-LGBTI meetings to establish contacts with Hungarian, French, Italian and Polish policymakers.

For Russia, homophobia is not just a thing of traditional family values – it is also a political strategy with geopolitical implications. In their references to “Gayropa”, Russian media and government officials link the deterioration of a strong nation-state with the changes in the definition of a traditional family in Europe.

Religion plays a vital role in Russia’s contemporary society, therefore, the Russian Orthodox Church directs the governments’ stances on LGBTI-rights. Besides that, one could state that Russia’s state homophobia is used to consolidate power by the Russian political elite.

By creating an internal enemy, Russian government officials consolidate their power. They believe that without them in power, the Russian state would get undermined by a ‘European conspiracy’.

Russia is not only using its soft power to slow down or stop the progress the LGBTI-movement made in its neighbourhood – it is also using the LGBTI-movement as a geopolitical tool to be perceived as culturally superior to The West.

Via the anti-LGBTI World Congress of Families, Russia has set up an international network to support governments and NGOs around the globe in their fight against, among other things, but most importantly, LGBTI-rights. It is part of Russia’s strategy to destabilise the European Union.

A Europe without values

Already since the 1952 European Community for Coal and Steel, Europe is a peace project of common values. An economic union does not exist if there is no common ground and agreement on how to live together and protect all citizens. Apparently those wanting to destroy the European project understand that better than those who are defending it.

The fact that liberal member states of the EU do not stand up to the ultraconservative bringing European decision-making to paralysis is a strategic mistake.

Promoting LGBTI-equality is less of a priority for liberal states, than fighting LGBTI-equality is for illiberal states. A Europe turning towards ultraconservative roots would be the end of the European project.

A Europe without values is not worthy to be called a Union.


Rémy Bonny is a political scientist and LGBTI-activist from Belgium. He is specialised in LGBTI-politics in Central and Eastern Europe and works as a consultant on LGBTI-related topics in international relations.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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