The upsurge of populism in Europe has provided Russia with an ample supply of sympathetic political parties across the continent.
The upsurge of populism in Europe has provided Russia with an ample supply of sympathetic political parties across the continent. These parties – mostly from the far right but also from the far left – are pursuing policies and taking positions that advance Russia’s agenda in Europe. They tend to be anti-establishment parties ― some on the extreme fringes of the political spectrum ― that challenge the mainstream liberal order in Europe. Many of these parties are working actively to undo the European project. They are generally suspicious of the United States and want to reduce its influence in Europe.
In June ECFR carried out the first comprehensive survey of ‘insurgent’ parties in Europe. It found that, despite their differences, a majority of them are positively inclined towards Putin’s Russia and pursue policies that promote Russia’s interests in Europe.
While Russia is not responsible for the emergence of these pro-Russian parties, it has embraced them, especially as relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated. The parties are useful for Moscow in that they help legitimise the Kremlin’s policies and amplify Russian disinformation. At times they can also shift Europe’s domestic debates in Russia’s favour. But it is their politics of disruption – underpinned by their scepticism towards the European Union – that does most to destabilise European politics.
It would be a mistake to portray these parties as Russian stooges. The parties’ pro-Russian policies are underpinned by conviction and an affinity with ideological tenets of Putin’s Russia. But while the parties are not under Moscow’s control, the extent to which Russia directly supports them has become an increasingly important question, as tensions rise between Russia and the West. Russian influencing efforts in the West have come under particular scrutiny since the leak of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails in July was attributed to Russian meddling in US politics.
Alignment with Russia
To what extent do the insurgent parties align with Russia? A majority of the 45 insurgent parties identified by ECFR were favourably inclined towards Russia and sympathised with Russian positions. The most pro-Russian of these parties (of a significant size) on the far right are: the AfD, FPÖ, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB). On the far left, the most pro-Russian parties are Cyprus’s AKEL, Germany’s Die Linke, the Czech Republic’s KSCM, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza. The Italian Five Star Movement and the Human Shield Party in Croatia also belong to the pro-Russian camp.
Voting patterns in the European Parliament shows that on issues such as Ukraine, the human rights situation in Russia, and association agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the Dutch PVV leads the pack in pro-Russian votes. UKIP, the Sweden Democrats, Italy’s Northern League, and France’s Front National come in a shared second place. Insurgent parties from the far left – Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Germany’s Die Linke – are not far behind.
All of these parties, with the exception of Syriza and PVV, oppose EU sanctions on Russia and none believe that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Ukraine should be implemented in full. All the parties are Eurosceptic to varying degrees.
The pro-Russian stance of these parties derives largely from conviction and from an ideological affinity with Putin’s Russia. On the far right, many are attracted to Russia’s socially conservative values, its defence of national sovereignty, and its rejection of liberal internationalism and interventionism. On the left, many of the insurgents are attracted by Russia’s antipathy towards globalisation and its challenge to the US-dominated international capitalist order, as well as a nostalgic link to the Soviet Union. Both fringes tend to see Russia as a counter to the United States.
Friends with benefits
These parties have proven useful to Moscow in various ways. They have provided convenient sources of legitimisation domestically – and to some extent internationally – on issues such as Crimea. The Kremlin is able to point to them as “evidence” of Russia not being isolated and of there being supportive voices in Europe. This was seen during the referendum in Crimea in March 2014. While the OCSE did not send observers to Crimea, a group of European politicians from far right parties, including from the FPÖ, VB, FN, Jobbik, and Northern League, went there as observers. This was presented by Moscow as international legitimisation of the referendum.
They have also proven capable of shifting the centre of political discourse in Russia’s favour. In France, for example, former president and presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy, who belongs to the political mainstream has taken an increasingly sympathetic line towards Russia as presidential elections in 2017 approach. He has called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia and argued that Crimea has a right to become part of Russia. This line is part of his election strategy to adopt positions from the National Front in order to co-opt their votes.
But it is not just in matters of policy that these parties’ sympathies with the Kremlin are revealed. In them Moscow has also found convenient and willing conveyors of its anti-Western, anti-globalisation narratives. Several of the far right leaders, such as Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, are frequent guests on Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, with Farage reportedly having been offered his own show on RT.
The “Operation Liza” case in Germany, where a false Russian story of a 13-year-old Russian-German girl having been raped by immigrants was picked up and spread by members of the far right AfD and Die Linke, which has close ties to Germans of Russian descent, was a prime example of the role these parties play in amplifying Russian disinformation.
Finally, the anti-EU and anti-NATO strand of insurgent parties benefits Russia by weakening Western consensus and institutions. The Dutch referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine in April 2016 was an example of how insurgents in the minority were able to obstruct EU policy to Russia’s benefit. But this was most clearly seen in UKIP’s leading role in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, with several Eurosceptic parties in Europe now following in UKIP’s footsteps and pushing for their own referendums on EU membership. Several parties, including AKEL, Die Linke, FPÖ, Golden Dawn, KSCM, and Jobbik are also opposed to the NATO alliance.
Russian support and the populist upsurge
But while it is clear that Moscow benefits from the pro-Russian stance of populist parties in Europe and in some cases uses them for propaganda purposes, it is less clear to what extent there is collusion. The notion that Russia might be funding agents of influence by providing financing to sympathetic parties in Europe has become more salient as relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated.
The most well-publicised case of a European political party receiving funding from Russia is the loan to Front National, which has aligned itself with Russia on a range of issues. It has recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea and event sent observers to the Crimean referendum, providing international legitimisation for the Kremlin.
Leaked SMS exchanges indicate that the Front National’s stance on Crimea was the subject of correspondence between Russian officials, who agreed that the party should be “thanked” somehow for recognising the results of the referendum in Crimea. While Front National has denied that there was any quid pro quo, eight months later the party received a loan of €9.46 million from the First Czech Russian National Bank ― a financial institution with links to the Kremlin. Marine Le Pen has publicly acknowledged the loan - equivalent to the Front National’s total revenue for 2013 - citing the party’s inability to secure financing from European sources.
The founder of Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has also received a €2.5 million loan through his company Cotelec, from a Cyprus-based company that is owned by a former KGB agent who was expelled from Britain in 1985 on charges of spying.
The loans to Front National seem to be a rare case of acknowledged Russian financing of a party. But does it amount to collusion? Not necessarily since Front National would probably have taken pro-Russian positions in any case. But the money does act as an enabler.
There is circumstantial evidence and rumours of covert support for other radical parties in Europe, but little solid evidence exists in the public domain. The lack of information may not be surprising since this sort of activity typically belongs to the opaque world of intelligence services.
But even if one assumes that Russia does not provide financial support to any other party, the way Moscow uses them to legitimise its own narrative and spread disinformation is in itself a cause for concern. They become ― wittingly or unwittingly ― part of an increasingly assertive and hostile Russian foreign policy towards the West.
So what should Europe do?
To begin with, European leaders should recognise that dealing with domestic populism is the greater challenge. Today, anti-establishment politics are a fact throughout Europe. And the political tides are still moving in their direction; several more may find themselves empowered after elections in Germany, France, Netherlands, and possibly Italy, in 2017.
But while Russia is not behind the growth of populism but it is certainly benefiting from it. Insurgent parties have a right to take positions that align with those of Russia, within the limits of democratic politics. But covert Russian actions to support these parties and to spread disinformation undermine the democratic basis of European societies.
European law enforcement agencies should prioritise looking into Russian covert support for populist parties and taking steps to counter such support. European governments should consider publishing intelligence on this in the public domain. Voters have a right to be informed about whom they are voting for.
European governments should introduce stricter regulation of political party financing, notably when that financing is from foreign sources, and increased transparency requirements in relation to funding. A stricter implementation of national corruption and money laundering legislation would also go some way to countering illegal money transfers.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.