Did Russia play a role in Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation?

President Museveni meets Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister. Source- https-::twitter.com:KagutaMuseveni:status:1551978677507850243:photo:1
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In the build-up to the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, there were persistent claims about the involvement of Russia in the efforts to push through the law. These allegations became particularly strong around the March 2022 Entebbe conference – described in the previous post. Throughout the conference’s planning and preparation, Russia was frequently mentioned by those in the know: Uganda’s political class, the diplomatic community, as well as the NGO world rife with chatter of varying degrees of credibility about Russia and its influence on both the anti-gay legislation and the conference.

Russia, which has a recent history of using anti-LGBTQ policies as a geopolitical instrument, was being pointed at as an important influence in the conference, particularly its financing, by those critiquing the bill.  

In this post, I intend to unpack these rumors: what evidence can be found, and to what extent can they be true?

Given the sensitive nature of the discussions, I have anonymized all interviewees. The piece is based on around 40 interviews with a wide range of actors over the last year: activists, Ugandan state officials, donor officials, diplomats, analysts, and so on.

Before I give an answer to the key-question, it is important to mention how  there is legitimate criticism of the ideologically-distorted lenses employed by non-Russian media when covering Russian interests, which frequently lead to the overstating of Russia’s influence in Africa and its imagined power over what are ultimately largely domestically-driven processes. At the same time it is important not to ignore its influence and traces, as well as what they might possibly mean.   

Correctly or not, Russia’s name has been associated with the Entebbe conference since its inception. Long before a draft program circulated, rumors of such a conference began to circulate among the international and Ugandan policy community, with the proposed event being described as a Russian initiative to “create a pan-African position” on certain social issues, in opposition to the West.

The geopolitical logic behind this was explained as fitting into Russia’s desire to foment further division between the West and Africa. But the rumors quietened and the conference dropped out of the news for a while, before abruptly re-emerging a few weeks later in the form of an initiative co-organized by Family Watch International (FWI). But, also here, claims were made about the co-financing of the conference by Russia: given the size of the conference[1], and the state of the Ugandan budget, many questions were raised about its financing.  

A second wave of rumors about supposed Russian financing of the conference soon followed, relayed by a variety of sources including local activists, politicians and diplomats, as well as by officials from donor organizations. The rumors varied in content somewhat, but each mentioned substantial amounts of money being given to politicians in return for their support of the anti-gay bill and/or their help organizing the conference.

One source described it as: “I had an encounter with a very big person in government – it was Y. Y said, ‘I just received one million dollars from the Russians” (Ys name is omitted for confidentiality reasons).

But despite a relatively consistent narrative emerging through statements and rumors, nothing tangible was seen. An activist states; “There could have been anything from the Russian government. That’s the problem of transactions below the radar: you can’t conclude decisively it really happened. But it would also be foolhardy to think they’re not”.

And indeed, a number of other actors – government officials, analysts or others-  denied the link. Some considered it pure bluff by those advocating for the bill, a strategy to intimidate others by showing off their access to finance and influence. Others had not heard of it, and considered the rumour therefore unfounded.

This however could be explained by the way in which this influence peddling allegedly functioned: sources consistently argued how this influence – primarily money – was targeted towards specific Uganda political actors, rather than towards the government or parliament as a whole. This might help to reveal why, as interviews showed, certain governmental actors – even high-placed ones – were not aware of this Russian influence, and also outrightly dismissed it.

Various sources also pointed to recent efforts by Russia to step up its campaign against the LGBTQ+ community, linking the Ukraine war to the fight against Western ‘decadence’. In September 2022, President Putin denounced the Western society as “outright satanism”, with the promotion of gay and transgender rights in Europe as an example. In October 2022 a new law was proposed in the Russian parliament, threatening foreign nationals with deportation for publishing “LGBTQ+ propaganda”.

In December 2022, President Putin signed into law a bill on ‘LGBTQ-propaganda’, which makes it illegal to ‘praise’ or promote LGBTQ-relationships. In November 2023, Russia’s supreme court outlawed the what it called ‘the international LGBT public movement’, and brand it as ‘extremist’ – de facto criminalizing the LGBTQ community in the country.  

It’s impossible to determine the truth behind claims of Russian support to Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ bill, but two aspects bear examination. First, the links between Russia and the American Religious Right. And second, the ways in which Russia has historically exploited anti-LGBTQ sentiment and legislation in pursuit of its geopolitical interests.

WCF and Russia

In understanding the overlapping interests between Russia and the American religious right, the World Congress of Families (WCF), with whom Family Watch International (FWI) collaborates closely, is particularly central. There is evidence of WCF involvement in the process which led to Russia’s 2013 anti-LGBTQ propaganda law. Particularly interesting was a conference planned for 2014, apparently with funding from Vladimir Putin himself, which was scheduled to take place in the Kremlin and at a joint session of the Russian Parliament.

This became more controversial after Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and while WCF initially stated that it “takes no position on foreign affairs”, it later announced that it had cancelled the congress, citing “possible liability” arising from American and European sanctions against Russia and several targeted leaders, some of whom had financed and organized the congress.

However, it soon emerged that the congress was not cancelled, but had merely changed its name. It eventually took place in the same venues and on the same dates, and still under the auspices of oligarchs from Putin’s inner circle. While some anti-gay activists did pull out, including the Concerned Women for America (who were quoted as saying they didn’t want to be seen as ‘giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin’), most of the lineup remained unchanged. An interesting guest at the conference was Sharon Slater of Family Watch International – which was described in detail in my previous blog post. She seemed unperturbed by the Russian invasion, appearing at the congress to speak on the topic of “protection of children and families in the United Nations”. The conference ended with a resolution calling for other countries to institute anti-gay laws, to prevent the destruction of the natural family.

It soon became clear that Russia’s collaboration with certain American pro-family organizations including the WCF had relevance beyond Russia. This collaboration gave Russia “apparent access to the powerful American Christian evangelical political machine”; and the WCF network was “appropriated to serve as a soft power platform for the strategic interests of a small group of Russian Orthodox oligarchs”. WCF still serves as a crucial platform in influencing Eastern European countries to pull away from the EU, and the promotion of anti-LGBTQ policies has been a major component in this.

Anti-LGBTQ policies as a geopolitical instrument against the West

Ukraine is a case in point here. In 2013 Russia and the EU were vying for influence in Kyiv. The EU wanted to sign an association agreement with the Ukrainian state, whereas Moscow wanted the country to join a Moscow-led customs union. Opposition to gay rights became a central element in Russia’s campaign to oppose the EU. Ukrainian LGBTQ activists described Ukraine as the ‘field of battle’, between East and West on LGBTQ rights. The EU was portrayed as ‘homosexualizing’ Ukraine. And WCF played a role, lobbying Kiev for its anti-gay agenda in October 2013 and helping to back anti-gay legislation in the country.

Anna Kirey of Human Rights Watch describes how in contexts like these, LGBTQ rights become a form of geopolitical ‘currency’ in creating opposition to the West. This strategy wasn’t just limited to Ukraine, but was also used in neighboring countries including Armenia and Kyrgistan, as well as in Europe. Leaked emails show how closely WCF’s Russian arm, and in particular its chair, Alexey Komov, is associated with far right political actors in Europe such as Italy’s Lega Nord.

Similar tactics seem to be on display in a number of places across Africa, tapping into preexisting (often religiously-rooted) anti-LGBTQ feelings to sow hostility towards the West. Explicit Russian involvement can occasionally be seen on some levels and in some places. Over the last years Russia has increasingly presented itself as the protector of ‘traditional values’ in Africa; and has spoken actively on the topic in a number of places. In one discussion in Kenya, the Russian embassy warned that Western nations were pushing the “gay agenda”, and urged leaders to “take responsibility for protecting the country’s traditional values or risk losing humanity.” The embassy also tweeted fragments from Putin’s State of the Nation address, presenting a clear picture of his thoughts on the issue: “The West is perverting the family, the national identity. They are making pedophilia the norm in their lives, and priests encourage same-sex marriage. Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.”

The Russian embassy in Uganda hasn’t released such statements, but the Ugandan government has been forging closer ties with Russia. Recent reports for example show how soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine – in February 2022 – the Museveni government allegedly traded Russian military and propaganda aid for Russian ideological influence. Part of this deal was the promise by Russia to “speed up deliveries of attack helicopters if Uganda began to run Russian government-funded news on Ugandan state television, according to the officials”. And indeed, since March 2022, Uganda’s public national TV broadcaster UBC daily broadcasts 4 hours of Russia Today.

In June 2022, the NRM party signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian ruling party; and in July 2022 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s visited Kampala. Throughout this period, First Son Muhoozi also launched a series of explicit pro-Russia tweets – one (on 28 February 2022) in which he stated how “The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine. Putin is absolutely right!”, or another one which stated how “An attack on Russia is an attack on Africa!”.  

Overall, the Museveni government has been becoming increasingly hostile to the West; and President Museveni was one of a  handful African leaders attending the July Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, during which he had a bilateral meeting with Putin (in which he praised the Soviet Union for being the “first who stood with us when we were fighting against colonialism”).  

Central to Russia’s foreign policy is the importance of ‘traditional values’, in opposition to the liberal and perverted West. This also was the case at the summit: for example, Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox church – a close Kremlin ally –  emphasized in his speech (which directly followed Putin’s) Russia’s stance against the Wests’ promotion of ‘anti-values’ such as gay rights, which ‘most African countries categorically reject’.

It’s no surprise, then, that presenters on a Russian TV channel (owned by the oligarch who sponsored the WCF Moscow conference) praised the recent Ugandan law for being ‘progressive’, for standing against Western values and their ‘sodomy’. Similarly, Martin Ssempa – the vocal Ugandan-American pastor, which played an important role in the 2014 AHA law – has over the last year become a speaker on Russia Today on the LGBT issue, for example in the defense of American Senator Tim Walburg, who had visited Uganda for the national prayer breakfast in October.

No matter the extent of Russia’s direct involvement, laws such as AHA do play into their geopolitical interests, continuing a long historical pattern in which anti-LGBTQ policies are instigated and instrumentalized by Russia in concert with sympathetic organizations in America’s religious right. One Russian editorial summarized the Ugandan bill as “a geopolitical victory [for Russia], which they see as the direct result of years of their hard, methodical work [on a] global anti-LGBTQ hate campaign”.

And indeed, the law does clearly drive up tension between Uganda and Western actors – something I will document in the next post; and brings the country closer to non-Western actors. For example, in July last year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Uganda, during which he argued how “The West today is trying to promote the idea of homosexuality and by promoting homosexuality they are trying to end the generation of human beings,” He also argued how Uganda and Iran can cooperate in fighting this.

What can we conclude?

Is it possible that the ‘Russia rumour’ is the result of  a Russia-focused lens to read into the political struggles around the AHA, and that this started to live a life on its own? This remains a possibility. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, much geopolitical dynamics indeed have been read along what could be considered a ‘Cold War 2.0’ lens. At the same time, the instrumentalization of anti-LGBT policies by Russia should also not be ignored:  Russia itself has clearly used the promotion of traditional values as a foreign policy instrument.

Anti-LGBT stances are a central part of this, both to closely collaborate with African governments, and foment opposition towards the West.  Also in other parts of the world, Russia has been consciously trying to foment political divisions, on a range of issues, and through a range of methods. In France , for example, Le Monde showed how a graffiti operation – drawing Jewish David Stars in Paris – was linked to a  Russian propaganda network known as Doppelgänger.

There also is the timing of the Russian engagement: Most of this engagement – such as the visit of Lavrov, the cooperation agreement signed by the NRM, or meetings between key-players of the law and the Russian embassy – all happened in mid-2022 to early 2023, at the same time when the buildup to the Anti-Homosexuality Act happened.  And indeed, one of the puzzling aspects of the AHA is how quick it all went: after being largely absent from the public debate, this re-emerged during this period. Concretely, on 3 August 2022, the NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) – the most prominent LGBTQ rights group in the country – was closed down by the country’s NGO bureau.

After this, things went surprisingly fast – with the issue being raised at international meetings, the Ugandan parliament, and with a frenzy on social media. Many analysts suggest some external force(s) and finances were implied in this, to further ‘motivate’ the various actors.  At the same time, all of this this is at best correlation, and not causation; and therefore not sufficient as an explanation. Some analysts for example described the various meetings of Russian officials with Ugandan high-level actors as ‘photo ops, but without any substance’. 

In any case, the Russia-issue continues being a vivid presence in Uganda’s corridors of power, with key players boasting about Russian influence. For one analyst, the external influence and its harmful effects is clear – with both the American religious right and Russia playing a role here: “It’s safe to say that there are multiple sponsors of this hate campaign. They could be working independently. It’s a very hostile environment; they managed to whip up homophobia to levels that I have never seen.”

Yet, politicians seem less concerned about some types of foreign meddling than others, however. After the last vote in Parliament, the Speaker explicitly spoke out against foreign influence: “We have a culture to protect. The western world will not come and rule Uganda”.

Kristof Titeca is Professor of Development Studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His latest book is ‘Nasser Road. Political Posters from Uganda’. Follow him on X at @KristofTiteca

[1] The guest list – excluding the speakers – shows 65 guests (delegations from 12 African countries, an ‘African youth delegation’, and a Spanish Member of the European Parliament); with the speakers list adding another 30 participants from over the world (the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and so on). The conference itself took place in a lush Entebbe hotel.

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