By Cas Mudde, published on Russian edition of Open Democracy, Dec. 8, 2014
The news that the French National Front (FN) has received a 9m euro loan through a Kremlin-connected Russian bank – it pays to be well connected – sent the international media into a frenzy of speculation. The recent stories come on top of months of coverage about the alleged pro-Russia bias of European far-right parties (not coincidentally started in the run-up to the 2014 European elections). But what is ‘the’ European far-right’s position on Russia? Are they ideological brethren or opportunistic collaborators? And is the far right really Putin’s Trojan Horse in the European Union (EU)?
Documented personal connections
Leaders of some of the most prominent far-right parties in Europe have visited high-ranking Russian politicians over the past years. In May 2013, before the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Gábor Vona, leader of the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), gave a lecture at Lomonosov University in Moscow at the invitation of the notorious Russian far-right ‘Eurasianist’ Alexander Dugin, then still a professor there. Vona also met with a host of high-ranking Duma members, mostly linked to the energy sector.
In April 2013, Marine Le Pen met in Moscow with Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Duma, while Italian Northern League (LN) leader Matteo Salvini visited leaders of Putin’s United Russia parliamentary faction in the Duma in October 2014. Last month, a heavyweight Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) delegation visited Moscow, where party leader Heinz-Christian Strache participated in a roundtable on ‘overcoming the crisis in Europe,’ chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
In return, a prominent United Russia member, Viktor Zubarev, was present at an important meeting in Turin, Italy, where leading members of the Belgian Flemish Interest (VB), the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the FN, FPO, and LN discussed the activities of the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), the now largely defunct EU-wide collaboration of far-right parties. Last month Andrei Isayev, deputy chairman of the Duma, was the only non-far right foreign speaker at the FN party meeting in Lyon, where he toasted France and stressed the good relations between Moscow and the FN.
In addition, some far-right politicians have functioned as referendum and election observers for the pro-Russia separatists in the so-called ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk,’ and Luhansk, sometimes together described as ‘New Russia.’ As meticulously documented by Anton Shekhovtsov, the Eurasian Observatory For Democracy & Elections (EODE), an obscure offshoot of the marginal Belgian far-right activist Luc Michel organised observers for the (illegal) referendum in Crimea of March 2014 and the (illegal) elections in ‘New Russia’ of October 2014. While the majority of observers that actually went were related to marginal far-left and far-right parties, some prominent members of the Bulgarian Ataka (Attack), FN, FPO, Jobbik, and VB (Flemish Interest) were also present.
Few documented financial connections
Rumours about Russian financial support for EU far-right parties are not new. Allegations of Jobbik being ‘backed by Russian roubles’ date back to at least 2010, yet no evidence has ever been presented. Similarly vague is ‘the case of ‘KGBéla’: Béla Kovács, a Jobbik member of the European Parliament alleged to be a spy for Russia. Despite sensationalist stories in the Hungarian and international press, the ‘evidence’ presented for the allegations do not go much beyond the facts that he has a Russian wife and holds a pro-Russian position.
The only documented financial connections between Russia and a far-right party (so far) are related to the FN. This year the party received a 9m euro ‘loan’ through a Russian bank, which Marine Le Pen has confirmed – she denies, however, that the real amount is in the order of 40m euros – while her father has admitted a loan of 2m euros from ‘a former KGB spy’. In both cases, there is no evidence (yet) of a direct link to the Kremlin or of specific political expectations related to the loans.
Allegations toward other far-right parties have been strongly denied. For example, FPÖ leaders Strache and Harald Vilimsky have stated categorically that the party has received ‘not a rouble’ from Russia or any other foreign country
Anti-EU rather than pro-Russia
The Political Capital think-tank has published the most comprehensive study of far-right positions on Russia to date. It concludes that ‘most major European far-right parties typically fall in the ‘committed’ category, openly professing their sympathy for Russia’. However, the study includes twenty-four parties, of which many have never been relevant (e.g. Czech Workers’ Party and Estonian Independence Party); are no longer relevant (e.g. Polish League of Families and Greater Romania Party); or are not far right (e.g. Lithuanian Order and Justice and Polish Self-Defence). Moreover, what constitutes a ‘committed’ (i.e. pro-Russian) position remains vague in the study, as is the case in most of the media coverage.
The study says that it makes sense to only speak of a ‘pro-Russian’ position when a party sees Putin’s Russia in a positive light, representing core values that the far-right party itself supports. If parties see Russia as a country like all others, they are better described as ‘neutral.’ But the difference between ‘neutral’ and ‘open’ (to influence) described in the study adds more confusion than clarification. Finally, a party is ‘anti-Russian’ when it considers Russia in a negative light, representing core values it opposes – this has become the default position within the EU today.
If we look only at the relevant far-right parties within the EU, we find a small majority that is ‘neutral,’ a large minority that is pro-Russian, and virtually no far-right party that is anti-Russian. In fact, the only party that is anti-Russian, the Latvian National Alliance (NA), is a borderline case; it is a merger of two parties: All for Latvia! (VL) and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (TB/LNNK), which are both strongly anti-Russian, but only the VL is far right; TB/LNNK is better classified as national conservative.
Five of the twelve (eleven if NA is excluded) European far-right parties are pro-Russian. These parties see Russia as a natural ally of their country in a world dominated by Israel and the United States. For example, Golden Dawn declares itself ‘a natural ally of Russia’ in its fight against ‘American expansionist policies’, while Jobbik leader Vona has stated that ‘Euro-Atlantism must be replaced by Eurasianism’, a term used by both Dugin and Putin. Various far-right politicians have heaped praise on Putin and Russia. Aymeric Chauprade, leader of the FN faction in the European Parliament and Marine Le Pen’s adviser on foreign policy, sees Russia as ‘the hope of the world against new totalitarianism’, while Marine Le Pen allegedly has said that Putin is a defender of ‘the Christian heritage of European civilisation’.
Despite these strong public statements, mostly made in Russia and in the past two years, the official party literature entails a much more moderate position on Russia. Jobbik’s 2010 election manifesto Radical Change only includes one reasonably neutral statement on Russia – ‘We will develop a partner relationship with Russia, which should bring our homeland positive economic and national-political benefits’ (p.20). Golden Dawn (XA) officially supports a Third Way, ‘opposed both to communist internationalism and universalism-liberalism,’ a position held by most extreme-right – but few radical-right (e.g. FN, FPÖ, VB) – parties during the Cold War. The LN has no mention of its position on Russia in its 2013 and 2014 programmes, while the 2014 FN programme Our Project just speaks of ‘restarting the Franco-Russian cooperation’ in the area of defence and of forming a ‘trilateral alliance Paris-Berlin-Moscow’.
Most relevant far-right parties take a fairly neutral, if any, position on Russia. They hardly address the country or its leader in their official literature. For instance, the FPÖ devotes little attention to the relationship with Russia in its party programmes. Even the extensive Handbook of Freedomite Politics (2013) mainly notes, ‘The Russian sphere of interest is to be respected to the extent that Russia respects Europe’s sphere of interest’ (p.270). Many parties almost exclusively deal with Russia in the context of EU policies. For example, the Sweden Democrats (SD) voted against the Ukraine Association Agreement in the European Parliament, arguing that the Ukraine conflict is ‘only the latest in a series of foreign policy failures’ of the EU. Similarly, while PVV leader Geert Wilders echoes some of the standard Russian propaganda on Ukraine, such as virtually equating Euromaidan supporters with ‘National Socialists, Jew-haters and other anti-democrats’, he has explicitly condemned Russia’s interventions in Ukraine. Similarly, while the Danish People’s Party (DF) has recognised the (illegal) Crimea referendum, it has also proposed the use of Denmark’s navy to send Russia a warning and let Poland and the Baltic states know that the country supports them.
In short, the positions of the EU’s relevant far-right parties are not so straightforwardly pro-Russian as the media have made them out to be. A small majority of far-right parties is neutral towards Russia, seeing it as a country like all others, and opposing a different treatment of it. A large minority is pro-Russian, seeing the country and its leader as a positive international force and a role model for their own country. In all cases the party position on Russia is very strongly related to the party position on the EU. In most cases it is indeed a consequence of their Euroscepticism.
Nothing specifically ‘Russian’ about the relationship
Several commentators have likened Russian support for the EU’s far-right parties to Soviet support for West European communist parties during the Cold War. In the words of Mitchell Orenstein, ‘Russia today is using a lot of the old Soviet techniques, but this time is finding the far right a better partner than the far left’. But the connection between Russia and the far right is much weaker than that between the Soviet Union and the far left ever was. There is no far-right Comintern or Cominform. The Kremlin doesn’t control the far-right parties and is not even looking for full control. In the self-flattering terms of FN foreign affairs spokesman Ludovic de Danne, ‘Our independent stance is appreciated by those in power in Russia, that’s why we have good contacts with them’.
In fact, Russia sees the far right largely the same as the Soviet Union and its satellites saw the far right in Western Europe during the Cold War, which it actively supported (particularly in West Germany). They are seen as a useful irritant within the EU, one of its main competitors, potentially obstructing (perceived) anti-Russian actions, and providing the Russian elite with propagandistic ammunition for the home audience. In their propaganda, Russian elites alternate between references to the European far right as positive examples of ‘the protection of genuine and social interests of the population’ and negative examples of widespread xenophobia in the European Union.
While the connections between the European far right and Russia deserve serious scrutiny, rather than wild speculation, they are not in fact Russia’s trojan horse within the EU. Rather, they are Greek soldiers throwing spears from outside Troy, slightly threatening and barely effective. Russia’s real trojan horse is not to be found on Europe’s political margins but in the EU’s political mainstream; in various establishment newspapers, including Figaro and The Daily Telegraph, which, while it takes a bearish stance towards the Russian economy, also publishes the online supplement ‘Russia Beyond the Headlines,’ produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Kremlin. The trojan horse includes the CEOs of major companies like Siemens and Total, who strongly oppose Western sanctions. And it includes former prime ministers like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Britain’s Tony Blair, and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, who still hold considerable economic and political clout. And, most of all, it includes political leaders like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who is worth more to Russia than all far-right parties together.
Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and editor of Youth and the Extreme Right (2014), Political Extremism (2014), and Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.
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