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Introduction: The Rise of Illiberal Civil Society?

Article by Adam Hug

July 18, 2018

Introduction: The Rise of Illiberal Civil Society?

From Trump to Duterte, from Orbán to Erdogan, from Putin to PiS, socially conservative, nationalist and populist political forces are on the rise across the globe. The claim that we are living through a crisis for liberal democracy seems less hyperbolic by the day. After almost two decades which saw the advance of liberal democracy in the wake of the cold war, the period since the 2008 financial crisis undermined faith in and the perceived inevitability of the ‘Western model’, just as Russia (actively) and China (somewhat more passively) are displaying alternative economic and political models. It is a time of uncertainty fuelled not only by political instability but increasing concerns over rapid economic, technological and social change. It is this latter dimension – the pace of social change and reactions to it – that are at the heart of this publication which examines the extent of the counter-reaction.

This publication assesses the growing influence of illiberal, anti-Western and socially conservative civil society groups, popular movements and political forces in five post-Soviet states – Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova – looking at who they are and what they are seeking to achieve and trying to understand why. These countries have been selected as they remain the five freest societies in the region that are not already part of the European Union (the Baltic States), and they are the sites of geopolitical competition for influence between the ‘West’ (predominantly the EU but also the historically the US) and Russia. As societies at the more open end of the regional spectrum, they all have the ability for groups of citizens to come together to advocate for political change in relative freedom. These countries also have well established ‘liberal’ non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that often receive funding from international donors including western nations and institutions, as well as private philanthropy such as the Open Society Foundations, the supporters of this publication.

This research is primarily focused on the activity of four, often overlapping, types of group:

  • NGOs, think tanks and other research institutes that promote socially conservative values, both in relation to domestic policy and as a reason for closer ties with Russia, but whose form and function ostensibly mirrors that of liberal civil society
  • Socially conservative pressure or campaigning groups
  • Far-right or radical nationalist groups
  • Groups linked to religious institutions (which may well include a number of the above)

Social attitudes: the power of religion and tradition

All of the five societies under examination in this publication can be defined as broadly retaining socially conservative social values and traditions, despite their varying degrees of openness to engagement with the West. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries have been developing – both rediscovering and creating – their national identity. In the context of emerging national identity and the desire for stability in the wake of the political and economic upheavals of the early 90s, it can become easy for individual rights to be seen as a threat to social cohesion (as well as entrenched power structures), something that is particularly pointed in the context of four of these five countries having either an active or unresolved territorial conflict.

Furthermore since the collapse of Soviet atheism religious identification and observance has boomed, with faith returning to the public square in a significant way. The identity of the dominant faith group has been used as a tool to define national identity across the region, either formally with special provisions in constitutions such as in Georgia and Armenia for the dominant church, or informally with politicians using religion as a way to define the identity of the nation, notably in Kyrgyzstan and Moldova.

The dominant religious organisations are the most trusted institutions in the five countries examined, with trust levels far exceeding those of civil society and secular politicians. For example, 70% of Georgians rather or fully trust their religious institution;[1] despite having one of the most established and active NGO sectors in the region, the comparable figure for NGOs is only 23%.[2]

In Georgia and Armenia, the churches are independent institutions. While the Georgian Church leadership is more pro-Russian than the country as a whole, has good relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and shares a distaste for Western social liberalism, it operates on its own terms and has become an extremely powerful force for social mobilisation and political influence. While the Armenian Church has traditionally been a less proactive and more passive part of the previously ruling elite, it stakes a claim to be the keeper of Armenian identity, a role it played for centuries after the destruction of the Armenian state of antiquity. Neither church has a dependent relationship with its Russian counterpart: the Georgian Church is autocephalous (self-governing) within Eastern Orthodoxy, and Armenia’s Apostolic Church is part of the separate Oriental Orthodox church family. This is unlike the situation in Moldova and Ukraine where the largest branches of the Orthodox Church are branches of the Russian Orthodox Church, though in Ukraine its dominance is being challenged by the rival Kiev Patriarchate. In Kyrgyzstan, Islam remains dominated by the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, a centralised Muftiate with close relations to the state.

As this publication makes clear, these religious institutions are the most-powerful non-governmental actors[3]in their societies and there are clear links with pressure groups on conservative social issues. While overall levels of religious identification and practice have risen, this rise in religious sentiment dovetails with longer-standing cultural attitudes prevalent in these societies, helping to provide a firm foundation for a cultural backlash against liberalising legislation often encouraged by ‘outside powers’, such as the EU through its Eastern Partnership processes.

Persistent hostility to LGBTI rights has been a common feature across the region. In Moldova, 87% of people in 2016 saw homosexuality as not being justified, up from 85% in 2008.[4] Similarly, the 2014 World Values survey showed that 86% of Georgians, 95% of Armenians and 68.5% of Kyrgyzstanis believed homosexuality was never justifiable.[5] There is also data in a number of countries suggesting that there are not the dramatic variations in views by age seen in Western societies (where young people are dramatically more liberal), with Eric McGlinchey’s essay highlighting that levels of homophobia in Kyrgyzstan are broadly static across the age spectrum and data suggesting that examples of extreme homophobia may be higher amongst young Georgians than the older generations.[6] Both Georgia and Kyrgyzstan[7] have taken steps explicitly to outlaw gay marriage in their constitutions.

 The one bright spot in the data has been the significant improvement in Ukrainian attitudes on LGBTI rights in the wake of pro-European reorientation brought about by the Maidan protests and the Revolution of Dignity, despite the clear rise in far-right pressure discussed in this publication. Research by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) shows that in 2017 56% of Ukrainians supported equal rights protections for LGBTI people while only 21% were opposed, with 59% supporting workplace discrimination laws to protect them.[8] Ten years earlier only 34% of Ukrainians were willing to support equal rights protections for LGBTI people.[9]

Despite its legality during most of the Soviet-era, there are signs that cultural acceptance of abortion remains far from certain. 67% of Georgians believed that ‘an abortion can never be justified’[10] while in Moldova the similar figure was 53%.[11]The essay contributions in this collection show how women’s health issues, issues around sex education, domestic violence, and in the case of Kyrgyzstan bride kidnapping and polygamy, are being used as wedge issues by conservative and religious groups. The term ‘gender’ has been adapted by illiberal actors as a shorthand conflate a range of liberalising measures from attempts to promote gender equality to LGBTI rights as something to resist.[12]

Local politics and external actors

The ‘traditional values’ debate is one rooted in power and influence. Given that illiberal social attitudes towards LGBTI rights, immigration and women’s role in society have significant domestic support, it is far from unusual that political figures would seek to harness such forces, in some cases out of genuine support and often for more cynical motives to provide a compelling narrative to distract from state capture and corruption. A number of our authors highlight how leading figures of notionally pro-European governments have been seen to utilise illiberal forces to achieve their political ends, including the close relationship between Georgian Dream and the Georgian Church, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s relationships with far-right militias, and the murky relationship in Moldova between pro-European government power broker and oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and the socially conservative, pro-Russian President Igor Dodon.

The nature of and tools for Russian influence in promoting illiberal values in the post-Soviet Space have been addressed in detail in the previous Foreign Policy Centre publications Sharing Worst Practice and The Information Battle.[13] These publications show how Russia has tried to promote a ‘traditional values’ agenda that places the Russian political model as a guide for emulation by those in the region wary about the pace of social change, supportive of the Orthodox Church, opposed to LGTBI rights and sympathetic to a vision of a male-headed nuclear family. It disseminates these messages through its media, both domestic television rebroadcast across the region and targeted tools such as the Sputnik News Agency, whose messages are then adapted and repeated by local channels and websites. Media penetration is buttressed by the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and a series of soft-power foundations and organisations that promote Russian values abroad, such as the state-backed Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation and the private initiatives of oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

 When starting this project one of its goals was to seek to analyse the extent of Russian involvement in orchestrating local activities by traditionalist groups. Given the opaque nature of the funding structures of many of the groups analysed,[14] it has been difficult to definitively map direct Russian involvement; however the essay contributions identify a number of groups which are seen to have close ties (in some cases a direct financial relationship) with the Russian government and Russian institutions. For the most part, however, the approach by local groups is emulation or imitation rather than direct control, with a few examples of movements as ‘franchises’, such as the operationally separate but closely related ‘Occupy Paedophilia’ organisations.

As Kristina Stoeckl shows in her essay about the World Congress of Families, Russian influence is increasingly dovetailing with the efforts of a number of radical US evangelical groups that are seeking to form a common front against the spread of liberal values, particularly on LGBTI rights and abortion. [15] Work by Melissa Hooper in previous FPC publications[16] and others such as Chris Stroop[17] and Casey Michel[18], highlight this evolving collaboration to promote illiberalism in the post-Soviet space and across Europe, trends that predate but are magnified by the impact of the Trump presidency on the relationship between the US right and Russia.

The Five Countries: Georgia

In this collection, our three Georgian authors clearly set out the web of interlocking personalities and organisations that have developed a series of illiberal NGOs and institutes. This is the clearest example of mimicking the form of liberal civil society from all five case studies, perhaps unsurprising given Georgia’s comparatively well-established and active NGO sector providing a model for emulation.

 The authors confirm the analysis clearly expressed in past Foreign Policy Centre publications that the Georgian Orthodox Church is the most powerful illiberal force within Georgian society.[19] It is clearly the most proactively influential of the religious institutions within the five countries assessed in this publication, and it is probably fair to see it as being the most influential non-state[20] actor within an individual society from across the five countries assessed.

As in Ukraine, the issue of direct Russian involvement in Georgian society is particularly fraught, with the wounds of the 2008 conflict still raw. However, there has been a limited thawing in relations, in part led by contact between the Georgian Church and its Russian counterparts, despite Georgia’s continued steps towards the European Union. Research in 2015 by Nata Dzvelishvili, [21] which is expanded upon in her contribution to this collection, by the Media Development Initiative in 2017[22] and Transparency International Georgia in 2018[23] have helped map some of the potential links between an intertwined set of Georgian organisations and donors and partners in Russia. Some Georgian groups do directly advocate improving ties with Russia; however, it is clear that analysts believe there remain links between Russia and organisations that promote opposition to liberal values who frame such activity as ‘pro-Georgian’ rather than ‘pro-Russian’. This is seen as an attempt in the short term to undermine Western influence, an approach that has a greater potential audience than explicitly pro-Russian activity.

Of particular concern is that the three Georgian authors clearly identify a growing presence on the street of burgeoning nationalist, far-right movements that pose a major challenge to the promotion of liberal values in Georgia. These groups are building on the momentum of past protests by the Church and its allies against the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT)[24] but they have been broadening out their attacks to a wider selection of liberal targets from nightclubs to vegan restaurants. [25] There seems some evidence of links between members of the emerging nationalist protest groups and Russian groups, just at a time when Russia has cracked down on its domestic far-right movements.[26]


The debate over the extent of the involvement of the Ukrainian far-right in the Maidan movement, the Revolution of Dignity and its aftermath can be a painful one. This is in part because of the narrative, projected to the (physical) exclusion of all others to the citizens of Crimea and Donbass, by the Russian government, intelligence service and media outlets, was the ludicrous and slanderous narrative that ‘the fascists have taken Kiev’. It is also due to the deep emotional investment in the Maidan Movement from across large sections of Ukrainian society, particularly amongst liberal civil society. In this context, the analysis provided by Volodymyr Ishchenko here and elsewhere[27], which argues that the far-right had a greater involvement than some observers are willing to recognise, can be challenging for those who see the Maidan as a decisive national moment for liberal social change.

While the extent of its involvement is clearly a matter of heated debate, Ukrainian far-right groups were clearly disproportionately involved in the physical confrontation elements of the protest movement, notably at the denouement when Yanukovych’s security forces ended up shooting protestors – the act that led to his ouster. Furthermore, from the example of protest movements elsewhere in the world, it can be argued that organised groups with clear agendas, structures and experienced members tend to have an outsized role in the coordination of protest action, irrespective of their size relative to the overall number of people ultimately participating in the protest or movement. [28] As a result they may come into contact with new recruits and more broadly their influence may, as a result of their attachment to a popular cause particularly over time, shape the mainstream debate in their direction. This ability to influence the wider political environment is particularly relevant in a society where political parties are primarily personality-led rather than built on firm ideology and organisational structures. Such analysis should be tempered by the recognition that the coalition of forces that came together to support the Maidan was extremely broad, from LGBTI Rights activists to Catholic and Kiev Patriarchate Orthodox priests, while many of the public faces of the movement tended to be a mix of mainstream pro-European politicians and more liberal activists.

What is undoubtedly true is that, while the power and presence of the far-right were strengthened by involvement in the revolution, the outbreak of conflict and the far right’s direct participation in leading pro-government militias, both inside and outside official Ukrainian government structures, has dramatically enhanced their position. Volodymyr Ishchenko’s essay analyses in detail the rise of the three largest organisations:

  • the Azov Battalion and its affiliated organisations (including the National Corps political party and a vigilante group)[29] which are seen as having ties to the current Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov
  • the Right Sector far-right coalition (including its Tryzub –Trident- militia, whose members see themselves as heirs of World War II guerrilla movement the Ukrainian Insurgent Army)[30]
  • the Svoboda (Freedom) party a far-right populist, socially conservative party and organisation, whose influence has somewhat waned with the rise of Azov.[31]

Not only are such groups and their affiliates active on the battlefield in Donbass, but they are seeking to play a role domestically too. For example, despite the Azov-affiliated vigilante group National Druzhyna being involved in intimidation and violence against civil society groups and minorities as noted below, it is seeking under provisions of the law ‘On the participation of citizens in protection of public order and the state border’ to involve 600 of its activists in a legally sanctioned ‘civic formation’ that would seek to shadow the police and notionally assist them in tackling anti-social behaviour and public order issues.[32]

There is also c14, a group often accused of being neo-Nazis, whose structures mirror Azov and which recruits actively amongst football club ‘ultras’, formerly had been affiliated with Svoboda. Its primary focus has been on targeting Russians and institutions seen as pro-Russian, since its time leading street battles against pro-Yanukovych gangs at the time of Maidan.[33] It has been listed by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium as a domestic terrorist group,[34] been involved in attacks on Roma camps across Ukraine[35] and yet it has also been the recipient of government funding from the Youth and Sports Ministry for ‘national-patriotic’ education projects.[36]

As with other countries in the region, there are a number of Ukrainian organisations that seek to copy the model of the Russian Occupy Paedophilia movement such as the White Lions, Heritage and perhaps the most notable group Fashion Verdict.[37]These groups deal in entrapment, public humiliation and violence against LGBTI individuals and groups. [38]

Efforts to promote the rehabilitation and promotion of nationalist groups from Ukraine’s past, such as the World War II nationalist movement the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought against both the Soviets and the Nazis, has been supported by more mainstream organisations such as the government-funded ‘Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’.[39]

Despite the substantive improvement in public attitudes towards LGBTI rights and some legislative progress in the post-Maidan period, these anti-LGBTI groups and the larger far-right groups are becoming increasingly brazen in their attacks on LGBTI people and on organisations working with them. Incidents have included an attack on the international human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in a Kiev incident in May 2018[40] and the disruption in April of a Freedom House event in Poltava by the National Corps.[41] As Vyacheslav Likhachev puts it, while these groups are unlikely to achieve direct political power for themselves, they are, however, aggressively trying to impose their agenda on Ukrainian society, including by using force against those with opposite political and cultural views. They are a real physical threat to left-wing, feminist, liberal, and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.’[42]

In addition to these violent extremists, a number of non-violent anti-LGBTI groups and movements such as the All Together-for a family! The movement led by evangelical activist Ruslan Kukharchuk are emerging.[43]The All Together for a Family 2017 two-day festival claimed an attendance of 30,000,[44] with musicians, clowns and other family-friendly entertainment to complement the religious preaching and anti-LGBTI activism. There is also the Orthodox conservative group Katehon, relatively small but heavily engaged in homophobic protests in Ukraine and with alleged ties to the much larger conservative group in Russia with the same name. There is also the Orthodox conservative group Katehon, relatively small but heavily engaged in homophobic protests in Ukraine and with alleged ties to the much larger conservative group in Russia with the same name.

The mainstream religious institutions in Ukraine have been somewhat more muted in their attacks on LGBTI rights than their counterparts elsewhere. However, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO), the umbrella body comprising most of the church groups in the country, does actively promote an annual All-Ukrainian March for the protection of the rights of children and families.[46] Of the major institutions however, it is only really the Moscow Patriarchate which has institutionally spoken out actively against the Equality March and taken a more proactive position.[47]

Given the understandable sensitivities around anything to do with Russia, despite emulating some of the rhetoric and behaviours of the Russian-inspired ‘traditional values agenda’, Ukrainian conservative and religious groups are often looking towards a concept of ‘traditional European values’ that they seek to return to as the country reorients westwards, as opposed to the liberalising tendencies of the EU as in institution. It is worth noting of course that tensions over language rights and historic territorial sensitivities may be limiting the potential for collaboration with the emerging European illiberal forces in Hungary and Poland, a position that may evolve in a more collaborative direction over time.

As Andrew Wilson of ECFR has pointed out, at time of writing in summer 2018, the post-Maidan political environment looks pretty bleak.[48] Continuing political dominance by oligarchs and their supporters has provided fertile ground for anti-elite populists who may seek to fuse their anti-corruption messages to other less savoury populist causes. Such a febrile political environment can only encourage the radical groups identified here to further expand their memberships and influence.


Of the five countries under analysis Moldova is the country where the tensions between Russian and Western influence, liberal and illiberal social and political forces are most delicately balanced. What at first glance may seem like a standoff between a pro-Russian President and a pro-European Government with their respective outriders in civil society, is, in fact, a good deal murkier.

The geopolitical fault lines are real and significant, although they are sometimes exaggerated and often used cynically by the ruling elites of both factions to preserve a political system that concentrates their hold on power and access to resources and in ‘rents’. The ingrained anger against corruption in the ruling government, including forces close to it such as former PM Vlad Filat being involved in a $1 billion bank fraud, has helped to undermine the credibility of pro-European forces in Moldova.

At time of writing the EU has frozen a €100m euro aid package as a result of the Moldovan Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the election of a pro-European Mayor of Chisinau who narrowly beat the candidate of President Dodon’s pro-Russian socialist party. The court decision is seen to have been influenced by forces close to billionaire power broker Vladimir Plahotniuc[49] , of whom would be Mayor-elect Andrei Nastase is a longstanding critic. While the power behind Prime Minister Pavel Filip’s Democrat Party and the Deputy President of the Socialist International, many Moldovan observers argue that Plahotniuc has close ties with President Dodon, a ‘binomial’: Plahotniuc-Dodon has become a short hand for the oligarchic nature of the ruling elites.[50]

The EU’s decision is part of a somewhat belated shift in taking concerns about malpractice by its notional allies in the ‘pro-European’ Moldovan government increasingly seriously, given that claims of corruption against the government have been used successfully to undermine support for Europeanisation by both pro-Russian political forces and illiberal civil society actors alike. However it is worth noting that the largest EU political grouping, the centre-right European People’s Party (not always on the side of the angels when it comes to democratic values in the region), has taken as new observer members the two main pro-European but ‘anti-system’ opposition parties, 2016 Presidential Candidate Maia Sandu’s Action and Solidarity Platform and Nastase’s Dignity and Truth platform. Subsequently, EPP President Joseph Daul has been vocal in criticism of the government and in particular the decision to overturn Nastase’s Mayoral win. [51]

EU-required legislation and reforms have provided some of the main cultural flashpoints for the mobilisation of illiberal civil society, most notably the 2014 Anti-Discrimination Law. In their essays both Mihaela Ajder and Dumitru Sliusarenco look at the ways in which illiberal political organisations, civil society groups and the Moldovan Orthodox Church have actively challenged efforts to bring in equalities legislation and pushed back against groups pushing for LGBTI and women’s rights.


While, as set out above, Armenian social attitudes remain deeply conservative, the debates on LGBTI issues or women’s rights have been somewhat more muted than in some of their neighbouring countries, lacking the passionate intensity of the debate in Georgia or the sharp geopolitical divides of Moldova. The Armenian Apostolic church, traditionally close to past Armenian governments and its oligarchic elite, has so far not shown concerted efforts to dominate debates over social policy, pursuing a more ‘quietist’ approach, in part with one eye on how its actions be would be seen by US- and French-based diaspora donors.

There is a reasonably small sector of research institutes whose work is often focused directly at internally to government or to an international audience (notably the diaspora) with limited levels of public engagement in their own country.[52] Armenia has also an array of more nationalist organisations either focused on Nagorno-Karabakh and others, such as Aragats Akhoyan’s Return Foundation looking west to Turkey, operating with support both from the state and the diaspora.

It is clear that until now the state has been the dominant institution in promoting nationalist and sometimes socially conservative positions. Anna Pambukhchyan’s essay shows how the state sought to directly engineer popular mobilisation behind its ‘nation army’ concept, bringing together government institutions and agencies with the backing of the church to push a controversial values agenda. Perhaps the longstanding co-option of nationalist positions and rhetoric by the state has somewhat closed the political space for the emergence of street-based far-right organisations along the lines seen in Ukraine and Georgia.

Like elsewhere in the region there have been cases where internationally supported equalities legislation received a backlash from illiberal campaign groups. In autumn 2017 conservative groups targeted the Armenian government’s attempt to pass legislation against domestic violence. Perhaps unsurprisingly the legislation was attached to the conditions for the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed on 24th November 2017. These protests [53] were led by the For the Sake of Sovereignty Restoration organisation headed Hayk Nahapetyan and the Pan Armenian Parental Committee headed by Arman Boshyan[54], a group that was active the 2013 ‘Anti Gender Protests’[55] and has a Facebook following of over 18,000 likes. Boshyan is also President of the pro-Russian Yerevan Geopolitical Club.[56]Arman Gukasyan, leader of a small NGO called International Humanitarian Development, also used the protests against the law as a way of getting public attention, having previously gained notoriety in 2015 claiming that Western-funded NGOs were fomenting a ‘colour’ revolution[57] and became the editor of the ‘Stop-G7’ website dedicated to attacking LGBTI rights and their supporters including the EU and Western donors. [58]

In the wake of the 2018 Velvet Revolution that brought liberal opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan from the streets to the office of Prime Minister, it is clear that Russia will be reconsidering the extent of its soft-power engagement in Armenia. Given Armenia’s security dependency on Russia, Russian control of leading companies and, until recently, a broadly Russia-sympathetic political elite whose governance style followed a similar model, Moscow has not engaged particularly intensively or effectively in promoting its values agenda in the country. Leading Armenian policy analyst Richard Giragosian has described Russia’s soft power in Armenia as ‘neither soft nor powerful’ and that Moscow was taking its dominant position in Armenia for granted[59], particular given the 2015 public protests against the Russian owned  energy monopoly (the Electric Yerevan Movement) and over the killing of an Armenian Family by a Russian solider.

However, the sudden collapse of Serzh Sargsyan’s government, in a botched attempt to replicate Putin’s 2008 switch from President to the role of Prime Minister, and his government’s replacement by a reformist group with cautiously pro-Western inclinations has shifted the terms of the debate.

The change in Armenia has not gone unnoticed in Azerbaijan, which has been strengthening its relationship with Moscow in recent years as its engagement with the West suffered setbacks over human rights, with some Russian politicians arguing that Azerbaijan should supplant Armenia as Russia’s primary partner in the South Caucasus.[60] While new Prime Minister Nikol Pashayan shows no sign of wanting to radically shift Armenia’s geostrategic position, going out of his way to reassure Russia about the strength of their partnership and his narrow focus on domestic reform, Yerevan-based analysts are confident that Russian interests may start to play a more active role in Armenian civil society to hedge against future overtures to the West. Particularly given that the anti-corruption crackdown on the business elite close to the formerly ruling Republican Party is likely to lead to resentment against the new government from the groups being targeted it is an open question as to how such forces might choose to retaliate by challenging the popularity of Pashayan’s administration. There are already signs that nationalist activists such as Arthur Danielyan, Narek Malyan, Narek Samsonyan who were involved in the ‘Army Propaganda Team’ to support the nation army concept and with connections to ex-defence minister Vigen Sargsyan are now mobilising to attack the new government as being too liberal (and LGBTI friendly) and not patriotic enough through a new online channel called Adekvad (Relevant).[61] Any snap parliamentary elections may provide an opportunity to assess how both Russia and the old elite are responding to the new political environment.


The one Central Asian state under examination in this collection displays a number of shared characteristics. As set out in the essay contributions by Rsykeldi Satke and Eric McGlinchey, new nationalist movements have emerged in the last decade, most notably Kalys (Justice), Erkin El and Kyrk-Choro (Forty Knights). Kalys, led by Jenishbek Moldokmatov, staged protests in favour of an anti-gay propaganda law, publically challenged Western funded NGOs and burning a photo of a Ukrainian blogger who they claimed was an LGBTI activist. Erkin El, led by Mavlyan Askarbekov, protested against sex education leaflets, claiming they were ‘destructive brochures that ruin the minds of youth.[62] Kyrk-Choro, the most eye catching (in their traditional felt kalpak hats and often riding on horses echoing the forty knights of the Epic of Manas – the mythological tale after which they are named), has been active in attacking ethnic minority groups, such as ethnic Uzbeks, Uyghurs and Chinese migrant workers[63], as well as those seen as promoting LGBTI or women’s rights. ‘Patriot’ groups linked to Kyrk-Choro have been involved in attacking Kyrgyz women perceived to be dating foreigners – particularly when they are working in Russia as migrant workers. They also claim inspiration in their recent actions from the Ukrainian Right Sector.[64]

These overt nationalist groups are seen as a ‘lunatic fringe’[65]; while we live in times when groups and personalities can move swiftly from the fringe to mainstream, at present these are not the primary non-governmental actors in reinforcing conservative attitudes. As elsewhere in the region it is religious institutions (including their popular social support networks) and clerics, particularly in South Kyrgyzstan, that are the driving force for such change. Both the Grand Mufti Maksat Hajji Toktomushev and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan have issued Fatwas against same-sex relations, with the Mufti challenging Human Rights Watch and other NGOs by calling on the authorities “to pay special attention to the activities of some public organizations that disseminate social discord while using humanistic ideas.” [66]

With some similarities to Georgia, there is some evidence to suggest that levels of religiosity and conservative social attitudes are higher among young people than older generations who lived through Communist-era official atheism. A 2015 USAID study argued that ‘older people tend to view religion, particularly Islam, with suspicion, and are concerned about the spread of more austere forms of Islam into the Kyrgyz Republic. Younger people, on the other hand, seem to be identifying more with religion. In UNDP’s analysis of young people, 68% of respondents identified themselves first as Muslims and second as citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic’.[67]

As part of the drawdown from Afghanistan the US closed Manas air force base in 2014 under pressure from both former President Atambayev and the Russians. Since that period Western influence has been seen to decline in comparison to Russian and Chinese economic and political influence. There are limited political tools to change this situation, particularly as the country falls outside the range of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.

What our authors say:

Nata Dzvelishvili discusses how a pro-Russian narrative has been renamed as ‘pro-Georgian’, yet its objective still implies a discrediting of the West and stimulating euroscepticism. Some pro-Russian NGOs have stopped functioning, though the number of media organizations remains unchanged. However, there is an apparent increase in the number of Facebook pages that promote anti-Western sentiments, focusing on the cultivation of nationalist ideas and using the fear of losing national values and traditions to distribute anti-Western information, which is mostly homophobic, xenophobic or misinformation. The growth of nationalist aspirations has affected public attitudes and driven legislative changes. The State Security Service has recognized the peril of Russian propaganda, but hasn’t specified the exact responsibly for the distribution of anti-Western or nihilistic sentiments in the country which has dramatically increased.

Eka Chitanava and Katie Sartania examine the rise of socially conservative, illiberal groups in Georgia, who have recently become increasingly active in public spaces, media and social networks. These groups try to shape the modern concept of Georgian nationalism. Chitanava and Sartania attempt to start mapping urban and digital frontiers of social hostilities and put the events in social and political contexts. Their essay briefly provides general profiles of those involved, their demands and targets of their physical and verbal violence. Extremism against liberal groups is not a new phenomenon in Georgia and there are some ideological and institutional affiliations with the Georgian Orthodox Church. The frontline of the conflict between social groups is a public space which embodies political power and cultural hegemony. The article employs the concept of a ‘revanchist city’, where who wins the public space, has his or her national identity reaffirmed.

Mariam Ubari argues that Georgia has witnessed a significant rise in violence and aggression towards liberal groups since 2017. The rise of Neo-Nazi groups has been consolidated as a protest in response to the government’s migration policies or as need to protect national identify from the emerging threats in Georgia. Some ultra-right groups have Russian backing, whilst within others with an openly fascist ideology- no direct Russian links can be established. The Georgian Orthodox Church officially supports the Euro- Atlantic aspiration of the Georgian state, but the behaviour of its clergy and Church policies sometimes suggest otherwise.

Volodymyr Ishchenko’s essay looks at the Ukrainian far right, meaning a range of Ukrainian ultranationalists including parties, organizations and informal groups committed to the ideology of radical Ukrainian nationalism, who see the nation as of absolute value and the nation-state as a tool to realize the nation’s will. Contrary to the position of moderate Ukrainian national-democrats, the radical nationalists see liberal-democratic values as a danger to Ukraine rather than embracing them. Pro-Russian ultranationalists did exist in Ukraine, however, they used to be by far weaker even before Maidan uprising and has become completely irrelevant after the start of the war in Donbass in 2014, with exception of in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Instead, Ishchenko argues that the strength and political impact of Ukrainian radical nationalists has been systematically underestimated, even as they are significantly contributing to the fragility of the post-Maidan political settlement and have become a real threat to political freedoms and human rights in Ukraine.

Mihaela Ajder‘s contribution catalogues and analyses the range of different groups that seek to challenge liberalism in Moldova. These include far-right organisations and conservative pressure groups that have been building a following in Moldova, often through attacks on and pressure against LGBTI groups and other minorities. However, the most powerful group active on conservative issues remains the very influential Moldovan Orthodox Church. Ajder places these players in the context of a Moldovan political environment lacking in trust due to years of corruption and mismanagement that breeds the societal resentment in which reactionary groups can thrive.

Dumitru Sliusarenco and Ion Foltea write that the Republic of Moldova is a former Soviet Union country facing many difficulties in its transition to democracy. One of the important causes of these is the growing influence of illiberal and conservative groups, which promote an anti-Western values agenda. They are linked in particular with the two largest socially conservative forces in Moldovan society: the Socialist Party and the Moldovan Orthodox Church. The values pursued by these organisations and ‘illiberal civil society groups’ with ties to them can be seen as endangering human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Anna Pambukhchyan’s essay provides a short introduction to the ‘nation-army’ concept, a nationalist education and social mobilisation project that was introduced to the Armenian public in October 2016. The concept which despite being the core of the Armenian defence agenda for one and a half years was never down written on paper. This led to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the concept. This paper analyses the essence of the concept and argues that rather than being natural ideology it was an artificially created top-to-bottom propaganda tool that was spread through society to deflect criticism over the former Governments’ failure to tackle corruption in the military.

Dr Eric McGlinchey writes that Kyrgyzstan, the only democratic-leaning post-Soviet Central Asian state, has seen periodic upticks in uncivil society. Extreme ethno-nationalism, anti-LGBT rhetoric, and militant Islam have all found a voice among elements of the Kyrgyz polity. One shared driver is behind each of these forms of illiberalism: competitive politics. Illiberalism sells in Kyrgyzstan, just as illiberalism is now popular in Europe and the United States. Kyrgyzstan, along with its European and North American counterparts, demonstrates that democracy is no sure guarantee against illiberalism. Only through sustained and local advocacy for human rights and civil liberties can competitive polities offer enduring safeguards for civil society.

Ryskeldi Satke argues that in these challenging times of transition in a politically unstable region, the rights of women in Central Asia can no longer be ignored as the women’s rights movement picks up speed elsewhere around the globe. He suggests that the international community and donor states that are providing crucial aid and political support to Kyrgyzstan must address the blatant disregard of the rights of women. It is important for policymakers in the West and international development organizations to implement proactive policies on gender equality and women’s rights in Kyrgyz Republic and the wider region.

Kristina Stoekl examines the development of the World Congress of Families looking at the way radical US evangelicals are developing partnerships with conservatives from Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space to promote illiberal values and push back against LGBTI rights and other liberalising social measures. She charts the development of the organisation and looks at the preparations for the meeting in September 2018 in Chisinau.

[1]Caucasus Research Resource Centre, Trust-Religious Institutions respondent belongs to, Caucasus Barometer 2017,

[2]Caucasus Research Resource Centre, Trust-NGOs, Caucasus Barometer 2017, The same number 23% distrust NGOs, with the majority (39%) unsure either way.

[3] Though in some cases the divide between ‘church’ and state has become blurred.

[4] Ovidiu Voicu, Jennifer Cash and Victoria Cojocariu, Church and State in the Republic of Moldova, The Center for Public Innovation and Soros Foundation Moldova, 2017,

[5]Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: Round Six – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: The figure in Kyrgyzstan was notably lower because respondents gave less intense negative answers rather than a significant positive score, with only 4.9% of Kyrgyz respondents saying homosexuality could be to some extent justifiable.

[6] CRRC, Five data points about homophobia in Georgia five years after a homophobic riot, OC Media, May 2018,

[7] Bruce Pannier, What’s In Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum?, December 2016,

[8]ILGA-RIWI Global Attitudes Survey, October 2017,

[9]Nash Mir Centre, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Situation of LGBT in Ukraine in 2010-2011, 2011,

[10]Caucasus Research Resource Centre, JUSABOR- justified/never justified: having an abortion, Caucasus Barometer 2017,

[11]Ovidiu Voicu, Jennifer Cash and Victoria Cojocariu, Church and State in the Republic of Moldova, The Center for Public Innovation and Soros Foundation Moldova, 2017,

[12] Samson Martirosyan, The ‘Gender Equality Law’ Hysteria in Armenia, The Armenian Weekly, September 2013,

[13] Adam Hug (ed.), Sharing worst practice: How countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression, Foreign Policy Centre, May 2016, and Adam Hug (ed.), The information battle: How governments in the former Soviet Union promote their agendas & attack their opponents abroad, Foreign Policy Centre, March 2017,

[14] While NGO donor transparency is desirable care needs to be taken to avoid encouraging requirements that would echo Russian ‘Foreign Agents’ laws.

[15] Southern Poverty Law Centre, How the World Congress of Families serves Russian Orthodox political interests, May 2018,

[16]Adam Hug (ed.) ibid

[17] Christopher Stroop, Between Trump and Putin: The right-wing international, A crisis of democracy and the Future of the European Union, May 2017,

[18] Casey Michel, The Rise of the ‘Traditionalist International’: How the American Right Learned to Love Moscow in the Era of Trump, March 2017, ‘Traditionalist International’ had been a working title for this research before the FPC became aware of its use by Michel and that our research findings more clearly emphasised the local dimensions of illiberal mobilisation.

[19] Adam Hug (Ed.)Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova, Foreign Policy Centre, October 2015,

[20] While there is much debate about the closeness of church and state in Georgia, the perception is not that the state controls the church but there are concerns around the extent of the Church’s influence over the state.

[21] Nata Dzvelishvili and Tazo Kupreishvili. Russian influence on Georgian NGOs, May 2015

[22] Media Development Fund,  Kremlin Influence Index 2017,

[23] Transparency International. ‘Anatomy of Georgian Neo-Nazism’’, May 2018,

[24]JAM News, Georgian ultra-rightists promise to prevent Tbilisi from celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, May 2018,

[25] Matthew Collin, Georgian techno fans and extremists clash in Tbilisi in fight for club culture, Guardian, May 2018, and Georgian vegan cafe attacked by ‘sausage-wielding nationalists’, Guardian, May 2016,

[26] Mariya Petkova, The death of the Russian far right, Al Jazeera, November 2017,

[27] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Denial of the Obvious: Far Right in Maidan Protests and Their Danger Today, Vox Ukraine, April 2018,

[28]For example in a UK context you could note the disproportionate influence of small far and radical left groups in organised protests in the UK. The Socialist Workers Party for example is a tiny organisation, yet their placards are a major feature of all most any left-leaning public demonstration because they are well organised and turn up to each protest with huge numbers of posters and placards with their name and slogans on that are handed to any rally attendee who will take them. Similarly such small groups can play dominant roles in the coordination or executive bodies of ‘popular front’ organisations with a notionally much broader reach and remit.

[29] Open Democracy, The rise of Azov, Denys Gorbach and Oles Petik, February 2016

[30] Information about Tryzub is available on this website

[31] The Svoboda Party website is here: Their facebook page has 57k likes.

[32] Hromadske international, What’s Behind Ukraine’s Shocking “National Druzhyna” Militia?, February 2018,

[33] Hromadske International A Fine Line: Defining Nationalism and Neo-Nazism in Ukraine, May 2018,

[34] Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, C14 aka Sich – Ukraine,

[35] Halya Coynash, Ukrainian neo-Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their camp, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, April 2018,

[36] Christopher Miller, Ukrainian Militia Behind Brutal Romany Attacks Getting State Funds, June 2014,

[37] Hromadske International, Russian Anti-Gay Vigilantes Find New Home in Ukraine, May 2017,

[38] Stephanie Marie Anderson, 6 things ‘Gaycation’ taught us about Ukrainian LGBT+ culture, SBS,

[39]Mariya Shchur, Are scholars from the Institute of National Memory “whitewashing” the history of Ukraine? Volodymyr Vyatrovych responds to Josh Cohen’s article in Foreign Policy, RFE/RL via Euromaidan Press, May 2018,

[40] RFE/RL, Amnesty Says Attack On Gay Event In Kyiv Shows Police Inaction, May 2018,

[41] Via the twitter feed of Bellingcat’s Aric Toler,

[42]Vyacheslav Likhachev, Far-right Extremism as a Threat to Ukrainian Democracy, Freedom House, May 2018,

[43]LGBT Human Rights Nash Mir Center, On the Rise: LGBT situation in Ukraine in 2017, 2018, The organisation’s website is and Ruslan’s personal site is available in English,

[44]Ruslan Kukharchuk, United Together – For the Family! A national movement in Ukraine, July 2018,

[46] Religious Information Service of Ukraine, Ukrainian Churches call to join on June 2nd the All-Ukrainian March for the Protection of the Rights of Children and Families, May 2018,

[47] LGBT Human Rights Nash Mir Center, On the Rise: LGBT situation in Ukraine in 2017, 2018,

[48] Andrew Wilson, Ukrainian elections: Poroshenko and proliferating populists, ECFR, May 2018,

[49]Eugen Tomiuc, Moldova’s Andrei Nastase: The Man Who Would Be Mayor — Or More, RFE/RL, July 2018,

[50] Kamil Całus, Moldova’s odd couple: Plahotniuc and Dodon, New Eastern Europe, June 2017,

[51]EPP, Plahotniuc-Dodon cartel have robbed Moldovan citizens of their last democratic right, June 2018,

[52] Yevgenya Jenny Paturyan, Think Tanks in Armenia: Who Needs their Thinking?, On Think Tanks, October 2015,

[53] Joshua Kucera, Armenia: EU Officials Making Tactical Retreat in Values War, Eurasianet, October 2017,

[54] Pan Armenian Parental Committee website (in Armenian)

[55] Anna Nikoghosyan, In Armenia, gender is geopolitical, Open Democracy: Russia, April 2016

[56] Anna Nikoghosyan, The paradox of Armenia’s domestic violence law, Open Democracy: Russia, November 2017,

[57] Arman Ghukasyan, Sakunts has confirmed the findings of our survey, July 2015,

[58]Arthur Minasyan and Olya Azatyan, The battle against the Kremlin’s online homophobic propaganda, Global Information Society Watch,

[59]Richard Giragosian, Soft power in Armenia: Neither soft, nor powerful, ECFR, August 2015, and Malgosia Krakowska, Giragosian: Russia is taking Armenia for granted, Georgia Today, November 2017

[60] Joshua Kucera, Following Armenian uprising, Azerbaijan’s sabre rattling grows louder, July 2018,

[61] Their Facebook page is at and their Youtube at

[62] Eurasianet, Kyrgyzstan: Conservatives Cite ‘Family Values’ to Fight Sex Ed, November 2013,

[63] Based on concerns about increasing Chinese economic influence.

[64] Gulzhigit Ermatov, Understanding Illiberal Sentiments of Kyrgyz Youth in Marlena Laruelle (ed.), Kyrgyzstan: Political Pluralism and Economic Challenges, The George Washington University Central Asia Program, 2017,

[65] In the blunt assessment of a head of a leading Western organisation based in the country.

[66] RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Toktomushev, Known For Antigay Fatwa, Elected Kyrgyz Grand Mufti, March 2014,

[67] USAID, Youth of the Kyrgyz Republic: Values, Social Mood and Conflict Behaviour, 2014

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