Why Europe’s populists and radicals admire Vladimir Putin.
If Europe’s far-right parties do as well as many expect in May’s European election, no world leader will be happier than Vladimir Putin. For a man who claims to be defending Russian-speakers in Ukraine against fascists and Nazis, the Russian president has some curious bedfellows on the fringes of European politics, ranging from the creepy uniformed followers of Jobbik in Hungary to the more scrubbed-up National Front in France.
There was a time when Russia’s friends were principally on the left. There are still some pro-Moscow communists, for instance in Greece. But these days the Kremlin’s chums are most visible on the populist right. The crisis in Ukraine has brought out their pro-Russian sympathies, most overtly when a motley group of radicals was invited to vouch for Crimea’s referendum on rejoining Russia.
The “observers” included members of the National Front, Jobbik, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Italy’s Northern League, as well as leftists from Greece and Germany and an assortment of eccentrics. They declared that the ballot, denounced by most Western governments as illegitimate, had been exemplary.
So what does Europe’s far right see in Mr Putin? As nationalists of various stripes, their sympathies might have lain with their Ukrainian fellows fighting to escape Russian influence. In fact, argues Peter Kreko of Political Capital, a Hungarian think-tank, beyond favourable treatment in Russian-sponsored media, many are attracted by Mr Putin’s muscular assertion of national interests, his emphasis on Christian tradition, his opposition to homosexuality and the way he has brought vital economic sectors under state control.
For some, pan-Slavic ideas in eastern Europe play a role. A common thread is that many on the far right share Mr Putin’s hatred for an order dominated by America and the European Union. For Mr Putin, support from the far right offers a second channel for influence in Europe.
The flirtation with Russia first became apparent in eastern Europe some years ago, despite memories of Soviet occupation. Jobbik, which took 20% of the vote in Hungary’s recent election, denounced Russian riots in Estonia after the removal of a Soviet war memorial in 2007. But a year later it backed Russia’s military intervention in Georgia. Far-right parties in Bulgaria and Slovakia also supported Russia.
Since then, Russian influence has become apparent in western Europe, too. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has been given red-carpet treatment in Moscow and even visited Crimea last year. At December’s congress of Italy’s Northern League, pro-Putin officials were applauded when they spoke of sharing “common Christian European values”. Among those attending were three nascent allies: Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ, and Ludovic de Danne, Ms Le Pen’s European adviser.
For Mr de Danne the parties share an aversion to the euro and, more widely, to the EU’s federalist dream. They oppose globalisation and favour protectionism. They seek a “Europe of homelands”, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. As for Ukraine, he calls the revolution in Kiev “illegitimate” and says the referendum in Crimea was justified by the pro-Russian sentiment of the Crimean population. By attaching themselves to the EU and America, Ukraine’s new rulers expose their country to IMF oppression and the pillage of its natural resources.
Such dalliance with Mr Putin may create trouble for Mr Wilders, who sees the EU as a monster but is a strong supporter of gay rights. According to Mr de Danne, the Eurosceptic alliance has agreed to co-ordinate only on internal EU matters, not international affairs.
A degree of admiration for Mr Putin also stretches to Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP). It sees Ms Le Pen and Mr Wilders as too tainted by racism and is parting ways with the Northern League. But UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, while insisting he dislikes Mr Putin’s methods, thinks the Russian leader has skilfully wrong-footed America and Europe.
The EU, he declared in a televised debate, “has blood on its hands” for raising Ukraine’s hopes of EU membership and provoking Mr Putin. Mr Farage’s critique is perhaps a way of attacking the EU’s enlargement policy, which is now linked by many to immigration. Yet it is also an implicit admission that the club remains attractive to those outside it.
Mr Putin is too clever to rely only on Europe’s insurgent parties, successful as some may be. So as well as cultivating anti-establishment groups, he has worked to entice national elites. While Jobbik advocates closer economic relations with the east, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is already doing it. A veteran of the struggle against communism, embodying the catchphrase “Goodbye, Comrade”, Mr Orban recently signed a deal with Russia to expand a nuclear-power plant, financed by a EUR10 billion ($14 billion) Russian loan.
He has sought to weaken European sanctions against Russia. In Italy the Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, may shout “viva the referendum in Crimea”, but Matteo Renzi, the centre-left prime minister, has also been assiduous in resisting tough sanctions.
Anti-EU parties will no doubt become stronger and noisier, but they lack the numbers and the cohesion fundamentally to change EU business in the European Parliament. Their effect will be more subtle. They may force mainstream parties in the parliament into more backroom deals, deepening the EU’s democratic deficit.
Their agitation is more likely to influence national politics and to push governments into more Eurosceptic positions. And they will provide an echo chamber for Mr Putin, making it harder still for the Europeans to come up with a firm and united response to Mr Putin’s military challenge to the post-war order in Europe. There is more at stake in May than a protest vote.
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