Fellow travellers: Russia, anti-Westernism, and Europe’s political parties

Press release

Pro-Russian, anti-Western ideologies abound in European parliaments

Anti-Western elements, exploitable by the Kremlin, exist not only on the fringes of European politics, but reach right into the heart of established parties.

A new study from the European Council on Foreign Relations has revealed for the first time how ideologically close many European political parties are to the Kremlin .

It finds that, while the focus in recent years has concentrated on parties on the extremes of European politics, important common ground exists between the Russian government and many mainstream political parties. Indeed, in some countries, these views have spread across the national political system to become the dominant view.

The research examined all 252 parties represented in the EU’s 28 national parliaments and the European Parliament, collecting sufficient data to assess 181 parties in 22 countries. It ranked these parties in terms of their support for, or opposition to, the Western liberal model - defined by support for ideas such as liberalism, secularism, the EU, the Western security architecture, free trade, globalisation, and transatlantic relations.

The paper groups these parties into four categories, including ‘pro-Western’ and ‘moderately pro-Western’. But it is the anti-Western parties which are of greatest interest.

Hardcore anti-Western parties (30 parties):

These parties reject all or almost all elements of the Western order. They include far-right parties such as the Ataka party in Bulgaria, Kotleba–Our Slovakia, Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France, Fratelli d’Italia-Centrodestra Nazionale and Lega Nord in Italy, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Austrian Freedom Party, as well as a few radical left-wing parties like the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Unitary Democratic Coalition in Portugal, and populist parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy.

With the exception of the Sweden Democrats, all the parties in this group support closer ties between their country and Russia, oppose sanctions on Russia, or have party contacts with the Russian regime. They want to bring an end to the ‘NATO/EU-centric’ European security order in favour of a system that would suit Russia’s interests.

The Austrian FPÖ and the Lega Nord have gone further and agreed cooperation pacts with United Russia. However, with a few exceptions, it is unlikely that any of these parties will enter power any time soon.

Moderate anti-Western Parties (31 parties):

This group rejects more elements of the Western order than they accept, and includes several mainstream parties, such as the Austrian Social Democratic Party and Austrian People’s Party, the Slovak Direction-Social Democracy, Fidesz in Hungary, Forza Italia, and Les Republicains in France.

Most of the parties in this category show a preference for close relations with Russia and lifting sanctions, and have ties with the Russian regime. The exceptions to this rule are the Finns Party, Centrum (also from Finland), the Südtiroler Volkspartei in Italy, Kukiz’15 in Poland, and the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia.

National political systems

 The parties, however, are not the end of the story. They exist within national political systems, and it is the balance of parties within each system that determines the overall orientation of the country. The 22 countries assessed by the paper again break down into four groups.

The anti-Western Stalwarts

In five countries – Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia – the overall party system tends towards anti-Western positions.

Hungary, whose social conservatism provides an opening for Russia, is the EU member state whose parliament exhibits the greatest disagreement with the liberal order in Europe. It has the highest ranking on Euroscepticism, the strongest scepticism about liberalism and transatlantic relations, and the most negative stance towards European solidarity in the refugee crisis. It also ranks second to Poland in its anti-secularism, and second to Austria in its opposition to globalisation and free trade.

In Austria, the political left is the main purveyor of anti-Western discourse, but the growing might of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria is contributing further ideological elements. Scepticism of free trade and globalisation are [1] strongest in Austria, and these attitudes are shared by both right-wing and left-wing parties. In fact, Austria is the only EU country that receives an anti-Western score on all 12 questions – although sometimes only marginally so. Its position on European support for Ukraine – which it sees as an unwelcome obstacle to closer relations with Russia – is unique in Europe.

Both Bulgaria and Greece suffered extensively in the economic crisis after 2008, and were key transit countries in the refugee crisis. This has left them particularly susceptible to anti-Western tendencies. In Bulgaria, support for the continuation of Assad’s rule as a means to end the Syrian war is the policy issue that sets Bulgaria apart from the rest of Europe. But the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov, has tried to contain Russian influence, often finding himself at odds with Bulgarian business elites.

In Greece, the pro-Russian agenda is much more dominant. There is greater support for closer ties to Russia and bringing an end to sanctions in Greece than in any other country in Europe. It is also the country most sceptical of a European security order based on Western institutions, and scepticism of transatlantic links is almost as strong as in Hungary.

The Malleable Middle

In several countries the overall consensus is pro-Western, but challenged by some mainstream parties’ anti-Western ideological patterns. In France, for example, Russia learned to exploit the Gaullists’ anti-Americanism to encourage Russophile attitudes, which are now embedded in the French Republican Party.

But with France’s conservative elites out of favour with the electorate, Italy is expected to be at the centre of Russia’s efforts to maintain influence in Europe. Italy’s right-wing elites and the Russian leadership share the view that both Russia and Italy were denied their rightful great power status by the West after WWII, and Russia has invested considerable resources into building relationships and shaping the Italian debate.

Italy is thus home to several anti-Western, pro-Russian parties, among them the mainstream Forza Italia, headed by Silvio Berlusconi, whose friendship with Putin is well known. Forza Italia holds anti-secular views, is sceptical towards the established European security order, supports deeper ties with Russia and the lifting of sanctions, and opposes immigration. And to the party’s right flank stand even more radical anti-Western opposition parties, including the Lega Nord and the Fratelli d’Italia, both heavily inclined towards anti-Westernism on all 12 issues. Meanwhile, the populist Five Star Movement promotes the anti-Western agenda from a left-wing perspective.

The Nordic-Baltic Exceptions

These political systems in these countries share a certain amount of Euroscepticism and a certain fear of the loss of their Christian identity. But, perhaps owing to their proximity to Russia and consequent vulnerability to Russian military  action, in none of these countries is establishing closer ties with Russia, lifting sanctions, or altering the European security order to Russia’s liking on the table.

The Resilient Rest

The other national party systems seem rather less open to anti-Westernism, and so it may be more difficult for Russia to influence national debates in those countries: [2] Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom. However, this does not mean that anti-Westernism is not present at all or that there is no reason for caution.

In Germany, for example, the left-wing Die Linke is the only anti-Western party represented in the Bundestag. But the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a strongly anti-Western party and is set to enter the Bundestag in the September 2017 election.

European policy

Anti-Western ideological attitudes correlate closely with opposition to important elements of Europe’s Russia policy, such as sanctions. Lifting sanctions and creating closer ties with Russia are popular in Greece, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, France, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Portugal. On the other hand Poland, Estonia, the United Kingdom, Romania, Denmark, Sweden and Germany are sceptical of the possibility of achieving better relations with Russia. For the moment, the sceptical states seem able to hold the line on sanctions. But it is a fragile status quo.  

Consequently, pro-Western European politicians need to actively counter the ideological threat that Russia and its apologists represent. Strengthening counter-intelligence services, tightening anti-corruption legislation and supervising institutions, strengthening anti-trust laws and strictly implementing the third energy package would make it more difficult for Russia to develop and exploit its various channels of influence.

Report author Gustav Gressel said,

“Despite the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election, the anti-Western revolt has not yet run its course. Allegations of Russian meddling, influencing, financing, supporting, or cultivating relations with anti-Western parties will not fade away. Russia is not solely responsible for the recent ideological revolt in Europe, but it may yet be its main beneficiary.


Notes to editors

Report author Gustav Gressel is available for comment and can be reached at [email protected].

Alternatively, please contact ECFR’s Communications Manager at [email protected] or 07413636323.

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