Over the past few years a sinister story has been doing the rounds throughout the world’s press — that Russia has been infiltrating Europe through deepening ties with far-right parties.
It’s a great headline that vividly recalls the Cold War days of Soviet moles in prominent positions across Europe and the puppet masters in the Kremlin pulling the strings.
It’s also (mostly) nonsense.
The first thing to point out is that the story is not new. It’s been written about repeatedly since at least 2009 (and very likely before that as well). But with the Ukraine crisis raising people’s concerns over the possible threat posed by Russia the subject has suddenly leapt in importance.
Last year, Mitchell Orensteinhe from the august title Foreign Affairs told us that “[Putin’s] regime is growing closer by the month to extreme right-wing parties across Europe”, while Time magazine claimed the Kremlin was “embracing the European right”. And in Europe itself German newspaper Spiegel Online warned that “cooperation between the European far right and Russia has been developing for some time” while the Guardian accused the Kremlin of having “actively cultivated links with the far right in eastern Europe”.
Those are just a tiny sample of the wealth of coverage that this story has generated over the past 12 months. Mostly they repeat the same claims — that pro-Russian statements by these parties are proof of Russia’s involvement in a plot to undermine Europe’s political establishment that has been weakened by years of economic crisis and social unrest.
None of these articles offer much evidence beyond a few choice quotes from Russian politicians and public relations officers expressing their broad support for nationalist movements attached to a few anecdotes.
So what are the facts behind these claims?
This is what we know: In 2014, French far-right party National Front party was granted approval for a €9.2 million loan from First Czech Russian Bank, based in Moscow. The funds arrived following a period of intense lobbying by leaders of the party in Russia as it sought to build up a war chest. The FCR Bank may be based in Moscow, but it’s not a specifically Moscow-controlled bank.
A visit by Gábor Vona, leader of Hungary’s radical nationalist Jobbik party, to Moscow at the invitation of Moscow State University and members of Russia’s parliament has been interpreted as Kremlin efforts to secure its support. The party has indeed spoken out against European sanctions against Russia and called the independence referendum in Crimea, following its annexation by Russia, “exemplary”.
There are also unsubstantiated rumours that Russia has also funded Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and right-wing Italian party Northern League, while Bulgaria’s far-right Ataka party was alleged to have close ties with the Russian embassy in a diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks.
Even Syriza, Greece’s radical left coalition that took power in last month’s election, has been accused of having close ties to Moscow in recent weeks.
These may be indicative of Russia fanning the flames of dissent in Europe, but they do not prove the case that Russia has actual control or genuine political influence. Here is an extract from a 2009 article by think tank Political Capital, the source often cited as the origin for the story:
Recent press reports claim that extreme right-wing parties in Europe are being financed — at least in part — by Russia. While such allegations are wanting for proof, it is a fact that far-right parties in several eastern European countries have become prominent supporters of Russian interests and admirers of the Russian political-economic model.
In recent months some of the evidence used to support these claims has become downright bizarre. A website for a supposed new think tank called the “Center for Eurasian Strategic Intelligence” (CESI) mysteriously appeared last year. The website claimed to “provide analysis and surveys of political, economic and security processes in Eurasia region”.
And so it did. In December it produced a research report showing all of the political parties in Europe that it claimed were under the thumb of Moscow. Unfortunately, a large chunk of its research appeared to have been plagiarised from other sources and its analysis appeared suspiciously superficial.
Anton Shekhovtsov, a blogger and researcher of the European extreme right, looked into the story. What he found was even more interesting than the think tank’s incendiary claims.
The think tank listed “William Fowler” as its chairman and chief executive. A Facebook page purportedly belonging to Fowler boasted a picture of a besuited, grey-haired businessman but there was very little information on him otherwise. It turns out that the picture is actually a stock photo with the title “suited old businessman” and “grey hair man glasses”, Shekhovtsov says.
The only member of the think tank that appeared to exist at all was Alex Kraus, its supposed chief analyst, who appeared in videos on the site speaking with what is described as a Slavic (but not Russian) accent.
Since Shekhovtsov’s investigation the CESI website has been taken down, as has Fowler’s Facebook page. Indeed the only evidence of the think tank’s existence online appears to be a LinkedIn page here which claims that the company has 11-50 employees but lists none, and a Facebook page that was last updated in December blaming an “attack” for the website going down.
It is undoubtedly true that Russia is happy to accept useful idiots who are willing to argue against what it sees as an anti-Russia consensus within the European Union. The fact that Moscow felt compelled to pressure Kiev into walking away from an integration pact with the EU — a decision that spurred the protests that ultimately led to the government’s collapse — demonstrated that it now views Europe’s expansion eastwards with the same level of suspicion as it previously held NATO’s.
However, that they are willing to indulge nationalist movements is not the same as controlling them or using them as a Trojan horse in European politics. There are nationalist factions in Moscow pleased to see how disruptive these groups are proving, many of them members of the current administration such as deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, but it was ever thus. Their alliance is much more likely to be a tactical move rather than a strategic alignment of long term interests (e.g. their support is likely to quickly evaporate once a resolution is finally found to the Ukraine crisis).
Beyond that one loan to the French National Front, there is no evidence that Moscow is funnelling huge sums of cash to fuel bogus nationalist movements all over Western Europe.
Much though we might like to blame the rise of the xenophobic, authoritarian right as a product of Moscow’s devious plotting, the support for these parties appears to be largely organic and springs from the general disillusionment with mainstream political parties that can be seen across Europe.
In other words, they’re our fault, not Putin’s.
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