CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — A few days after barely escaping serious injury in a car crash, Moldovan President Igor Dodon wore a back brace to speak before a gathering of American and Russian Christian fundamentalists in Chisinau.
While Dodon enthusiastically pledged fealty to the crowd of far-right religious activists, he wasn’t able to generate as much excitement as the dancing baby that followed him onstage.
The World Congress of Families (WCF) conference represents the most prominent collaboration between sanctioned Russian officials and the U.S. Religious Right, but the gravity of the gathering was obscured by the surreal nature of its opening festivities; string orchestras playing Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas provided the soundtrack to complaints about the so-called “Deep State” preventing U.S. President Donald Trump from building better ties with Moscow.
Hosted at Chisinau’s Republican Palace, the conference brought together some 2,000 participants and speakers from numerous countries. (While the conference organizers claimed to have a global reach, the non-white participants could be counted on two hands, with the delegation from Malawi joking about their presence providing a token diversity.) The venue, to say nothing of the gilded musicians and lunch spread, was a lavish affair — little surprise, perhaps, given that sanctioned Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin is allegedly one of WCF’s primary financiers.
Opening rhetoric was peppered with allegations of the “aggressive invasion of radical liberalism” and claims that modern society is akin to “totalitarianism.”
“We defend what is concrete, what is real, what is true,” Brian Brown, president of the International Organization for the Family, said. “It’s important that we come together and learn from one another, and gain strength from one another. Show no fear — we know what we are doing is right.”
Or as one Russian representative said, “We’re not making propaganda here… but we need to share moral values, because that is what is at our core.”
Another speaker, Levan Vasadze, even called for countries to remove individual rights wholesale from national constitutions. “Someone in this room, someone on this planet, needs to invent a new constitution which has not been written on planet Earth so far,” Vasadze said. “The subject of which will not be the rights of the individual — the subject will be the rights the family.”
Dodon joined in the extremist chorus, claiming that LGBTQ rights in Moldova should be “strongly discouraged, or even outlawed.” Dodon added that Moldova needs to be protected from a rising “anti-family philosophy. I’d even call it an anti-family ideology.” (As he said in a video later in the day, “Only together in love will we be able to face all challenges.”)
Collapse into the surreal
The harsh rhetoric was only tempered by moments as ludicrous as they were entertaining. Following Dodon’s entrance — greeted by scattered applause, befitting a less-than-popular president — the opening ceremony officially kicked off, featuring a half-dozen ballet dancers twirling in front of a massive, 20-foot screen that cycled through photos of babies in different positions of repose: smiling, sleeping, kicking their feet in the air. Bells tolled in the background, while a young child belted an aria into a microphone.
A few minutes into the presentation, a young couple walked down the main aisle, hoisting a bow-topped baby above their heads. Ascending the stage, they spent nearly five minutes swaying the baby back and forth for the audience — more baby photos cycling in the background, more ballet dancers twirling alongside — to greater applause than anything Dodon received.
Following the opening presentations — which even included a speech from a pretender to the former French throne — the day broke into individual panel presentations. One speaker rambled about Nietzsche and metaphors about trees, while another pointed toward increasing family sizes as a means to decrease immigration rates in Europe. One speaker, Australian lobbyist Lyle Shelton, compared modern liberalism to Soviet-era totalitarianism, saying, “Thank God [liberals] are not shipping us off to Kazakhstan.”
One panel, entitled “New Media: Promoting Life, Marriage and Family in the Age of Hashtag Activism,” featured three different speakers, who offered advice such as “invest in design” and “be positive and promote teamwork.” One of the New Media speakers, religious publisher James Kushiner, said, “I’m not an expert in New Media.” He later added that “the family is the most powerful social media on the planet.”
A bridge to Moscow?
While WCF claimed to have representatives from dozens of countries, the predominance of conference participants appeared to be from two nations in particular: Russia and the U.S.
Given that the group began as the brainchild of Russian and American conservatives over two decades ago, their overwhelming presence shouldn’t have been surprising. Nor should it have been a surprise that Yelena Mizulina, a Russian Duma member sanctioned by the U.S., also spoke during the conference’s opening presentation, where she noted that “being anti-family is being anti-human.”
Given the ongoing sanctions regime, to say nothing of tensions surrounding everything from Ukraine to Syria, the WCF conference is one of the few venues in which Russian and American activists could come together on equal, encouraging footing. With Russian and American flags standing prominently near the conference’s entrance, the conference serves as a meeting ground — a sort of safe space, if you will — for those hoping for closer ties between Moscow and Washington.
“The World Congress of Families is the platform that definitely can help to bring [people] closer, especially conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, and overcome this madness of sanctions and demonization of Russia — which is very sad, really,” Alexey Komov, the director of sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev’s far-right St. Basil the Great Foundation, told ThinkProgress.
Komov noted that repairing the breach in ties between Moscow and Washington would only be achieved over the long term — and is a feat not even Trump could accomplish. Things have “changed for the worse” under Trump, Komov told ThinkProgress, “because of the Deep State and the U.S. establishment — not [because of] the American people… The Deep State, all the departments and bureaucrats and neocons — they put so much pressure in Trump that despite his will… he cannot change things.”
The Americans with whom ThinkProgress spoke were also on board with improving ties with Russia. “Teddy Roosevelt said to work with anyone if they’re going in the same direction,” Robert Siedlecki, a former Bush-era appointee in the Justice Department, told ThinkProgress. “And one of the things this conference shows us is that we’re not just a voice alone in the wild.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t get much mention through the day, and there was a curious lack of discussion on geopolitics. (Given that Russian forces continue to occupy a swath of eastern Moldova, perhaps this dearth of discussion should have been expected.) But when non-Russian participants brought up Putin — and even if they weren’t necessarily huge fans of his foreign policy — they still recognized his leadership was preferable to the so-called “totalitarianism” facing Western liberalism.
“Putin is an imperialist,” a Swiss WCF representative told ThinkProgress. “But what’s worse: imperialism, which will kill your body, or the gender ideologies that the EU pushes, which will kill your soul?”