CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — In a region defined by its relations with Russia, Moldova doesn’t garner the international headlines other former Soviet republics, like Ukraine and Georgia, can command.
But this week, eyes are on Moldova as its capital city hosts a conference gathering some of the foremost Russian and American Christian fundamentalists, all of whom look to the Kremlin as their lodestar.
The conference is organized by the World Congress of Families (WCF), the most prominent Russian-American Religious Right group extant, and widely considered one of the foremost anti-LGBTQ organizations in the world. Among those slated to speak in Chisinau are the Vatican secretary of state, the deputy chair of the Russian Duma, and the wife of a prominent, and sanctioned, Russian oligarch — as well as Moldovan President Igor Dodon himself.
“Being the leader of the country, in which for many centuries Christianity played a key part, I tend to support all initiatives related to the the unification of society and its return to true values, written in the Bible,” Dodon, who did not respond to ThinkProgress’ interview requests, said in a statement.
The origin of WCF dates back to 1995, when an American named Allan Carlson flew to Moscow, meeting a handful of Russian sociologists and, as Mother Jones described, an “Orthodox mystic.” As Carlson told ThinkProgress earlier this year, he never expected anyone in Russia to reach out to him, or to discuss his research on the so-called “natural family.” But the trip planted the seed for the creation of WCF and, in the two decades since, it has become the primary unifying force between anti-LGBTQ advocates and proponents for rolling back abortion rights worldwide.
It has also evolved into the primary bridge between members of the American Religious Right and higher-ups in Russia — including those close to Kremlin leadership — seeking to unwind social progress in the U.S. and across the world.
Indeed, WCF has grown so prominent that it’s attracted Russian oligarchs who have played key roles in Russia’s neo-imperial, anti-democratic aims. Vladimir Yakunin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oldest confidants, is currently sanctioned by the U.S. — but that hasn’t stopped him from allegedly becoming one of WCF’s primary sponsors. Another sanctioned Russian oligarch allegedly sponsoring WCF activities is Konstantin Malofeev, a man dubbed “God’s oligarch” and with conspicuous links to Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. For good measure, WCF’s official Russian representative, Alexey Komov, happens to work as the director of Malofeev’s far-right St. Basil the Great Foundation.
For years, WCF has looked to Putin’s leadership as a model to bear in the U.S. — especially as it pertains to advancing socially conservative pieces of legislation across the country. As WCF’s Larry Jacobs once said, “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.” Jacobs later added that he “think[s] Russia is the hope for the world right now.”
While WCF’s 2014 plans to host its annual conference in Moscow fell through — thanks, namely, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the group has continued its international expansion, and continued hosting large-scale gatherings of Christian fundamentalists at conferences in Georgia and Hungary.
This year, WCF opted to host its annual conference in Moldova, a country, like Georgia and Ukraine before it, whose NATO- and European Union-leaning aspirations have been stymied thus far largely due to Russian military and economic pressure. (Moldova’s breakaway province of Transdnistria has been propped by Russian armed forces, and Russian financing, since the early 1990s.) In the interim, Moldova has become a key hub in post-Soviet money-laundering operations, swiping billions from the country along the way.
Dodon has also made a recently play to get in the good graces of Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and Russia both — even going so far as to pose late last year with Russian neo-fascist Alexander Dugin, a favorite of American white supremacists.
Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin is on the move again, meeting with Moldovan Putin's tool Igor Dodon, the convicted anti-Semite Kémi Séba, and some Iranian Islamists. pic.twitter.com/iERwMiikzb
— Anton Shekhovtsov (@A_SHEKH0VTS0V) December 15, 2017
Dodon appears to have taken a keen interest in this year’s conference, with official invitations specifically noting the involvement of he and his wife, Galina. Dodon also appeared at WCF’s 2016 conference in Tbilisi, Georgia.
I’m going to Moldova. Anyone want to come? pic.twitter.com/ERDX6fibl5
— Lyle Shelton (@LyleShelton) June 13, 2018
With Moldovan President Igor Dodon at Panteleimon Monastery, Mount Athos. President Dodon has long been a friend of the family and the World Congress of Families. So looking forward to WCF in Moldova, September 13-16, 2018 with @dodon_igor pic.twitter.com/SOdRRBXaih
— Brian S. Brown (@briansbrown) April 9, 2018
As it is, the conference comes at something of a precarious time in Moldovan politics. Late last month, Moldovan riot police drove off a series of peaceful anti-corruption protesters from downtown Chisinau. (One protester with whom ThinkProgress spoke described police bashing his back with a baton while forcibly removing him.)
Dodon, widely seen as a pro-Russian leader, has likewise increasingly lurched toward anti-democratic policies, and a Moldovan court recently determined that the Chisinau mayoral elections — which a pro-European Union candidate won — was invalid on account of the winning candidate streaming a Facebook Live broadcast on election day. All of this comes on the back of Moldovan lawmakers postponing parliamentary elections until 2019 — and a car crash involving Dodon over the weekend, which will likely fire conspiracy theories targeting the opposition that much further.
“We’re a half-meter from violence [in Moldova],” Vadim Pistrinciuc, a member of the Moldovan parliament, told ThinkProgress. “It’s like we’re on a train, heading straight for a mountain… I don’t know how all of this is going to end.”
This is the atmosphere in which WCF has decided to host its latest conference: bringing some of the world’s foremost anti-LGBTQ advocates together, in a country that appears to be increasingly following the social conservative headwinds in the region. The World Congress of Families may have been founded over two decades ago, but with Putin and Trump in office, there’s every chance the Russian-American Christian fundamentalist networks — finding fertile ground this week in Moldova — are only getting started.