The Kremlin’s Loyal Friends in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has loyal friends in the European Union. They might not be the most influential ones, and their impact might still be too small to influence EU policies, but that may not even be the purpose of this friendship. They provide an extra layer of domestic legitimacy to the Kremlin, and help undermine the trust in Western liberalism. An interview with political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov, expert of the entanglements between the far right and the Kremlin.

Krisztian Simon: In your book, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango noir, you write that with the formation of the far-right Europe of Freedom and Nations (ENF) group in the European Parliament, “Russia secured a predominantly loyal political structure at the heart of European democracy.” How does this help the Kremlin further its interest in Europe?

Anton Shekhovstov: This group brings the pro-Kremlin narratives into the European Parliament. These include, among others, the following claims: the Maidan revolution was inspired by Washington to undermine Russia’s influence in countries of the former Soviet Union; the referendum on Crimea was legitimate; the US and/or NATO forced the EU to impose sanctions on Russia; Europe needs to fight US influence; and Europe and Russia should aim towards a common, Eurasian geopolitical structure. These pro-Kremlin narratives – that also extend to the members of the far left as well as to non-affiliated far-right members, but are mostly characteristic of the ENF – are mainly important for domestic Russian media because such narratives allow them to report that there are members of the European Parliament who, for example, argue for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. Thereby, they aim to show the Russian audience that there are allies of Putin’s regime and that not everybody in the West is against Putin.

Overall, the legitimisation of Putin’s actions plays a very important role within the framework of the connections between various Russian actors and the European far right. These connections manifest themselves in European far-right participation in alternative, politically-biased electoral observation missions, in media cooperation, and of course in MEPs making regular appearances in the Russian media, where they are not only treated as newsmakers but also as commentators and experts.

But there are also mainstream and even governing parties in EU Member States who are, to some extent, sympathetic towards the Kremlin – for example, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party which makes no secret of its sympathies towards Putin, and some members of the first Syriza government who openly admired the Russian far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. Why doesn’t the Russian government put more effort into using them for its goals, for example to lift sanctions?

These are individual cases. Fidesz, for example, is part of the European People’s Party (EPP, the dominant centre-right bloc in the European Parliament). And during the votes on resolutions regarding sanctions, I would not expect Fidesz to step out of line and rebel against the EPP. As for Syriza, the government in Greece very much depends on the benevolence of the European Union and Germany, so they cannot do much to further Russian interests. They may use this Russia card in their game with the European Union, but they will never go as far as to actually block sanctions that other EU Member States have agreed upon.

Of course, there are also other people and other parties in the European Union that are not really happy about the sanctions, but what is important is that, at least currently, the governments of European Member States understand that the unity of the EU regarding sanctions is of utmost importance. For Russia, of course, mainstream parties and mainstream political figures are important, but the problem for them is that there are not so many mainstream politicians who would be ready to go on with business as usual with Russia.

But Russia still has influential people, such as Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, on their side.

These influential friends exist, but their number is decreasing from year to year. It is not the same as it was during Putin’s first presidential term in the early 2000s.

Do the Russian relations of far-right parties influence the policies of more moderate parties or the European Parliament as a whole?

It depends. I don’t think they can have any impact on the politics of the European Parliament. The EFN are a very small group and there are some non-affiliated extreme-right candidates that don’t really have an impact. It is, of course, different on the level of the Member States. There you can see that some of positions of extreme-right parties may be taken up by mainstream political forces. In Hungary, for example, Fidesz has borrowed a lot from the far-right Hungarian party, Jobbik, to the extent that Fidesz now looks more extreme than Jobbik. But these positions are never foreign policy issues.

You focus mainly on three countries in your book: France, Italy, and Austria, where Russia has put a lot of effort into improving relations with far-right parties and other actors, for example through establishing news channels. But why exactly was the emphasis on these three countries?

I chose these three countries because in my opinion their far-right parties – the French Front National (FN), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and the Italian Lega Nord – have successfully established high-profile relations with Russian officials. And it is important to emphasise that in these countries it was the far right that wanted to establish good relations with Russian officials and politicians, and not the other way around. We cannot speak of any other country where the far right has been so successful in reaching agreements with some Russian banks or concluding agreements with the ruling United Russia Party, as has been the case with the Lega and the FPÖ. The leaders of all three parties had the ‘honour’ of meeting with the Russian president in person. But maybe today (because the book was finished in 2016), I would also include the Alternative for Germany in my pool, which has emerged as a strong far-right force in the country.

Can loyal far-right politicians also provide information to the Russian authorities? There has, for example, been the case of Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács, nicknamed ‘KGBéla’, who is believed to be spying for Russia.

I think, in the case of KGBéla, the point is that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wanted to somehow damage Jobbik, as the far-right party is now the largest opposition power in Hungary (when the scandal broke out, they were the second biggest), and the main challenge to his government. It was a very pragmatic and simple decision to make some hints about the role of Béla Kovács and to launch a counter-espionage investigation (the country’s Constitutional Protection Office requested that the European Parliament waiver Kovács’s immunity), even though we haven’t seen any evidence of his espionage for Russia. I checked out Kovács, and I saw that he could have had access to some sensitive information in the European Parliament, and that he was also involved in various pro-Kremlin efforts, but I doubt that he has done actual espionage.

Overall, the best friends of the current Russian regime are either on the far left or the far right. How can the Kremlin balance these two diverging positions so that it doesn’t alienate either side?

The contacts between the Kremlin and its European allies are managed by a wide range of Russian actors. Some of them cooperate exclusively with the far right, others exclusively with the far left.

What do you mean when you say that these groups “manage” the relationships between the Kremlin and its allies in Europe?

I think the most important ways are political and media support, which are both about legitimising each other in the eyes of the domestic electorate. There are not so many pieces of evidence of financial support. It can, of course, occur, but money is not the most common way of supporting them.

How did the European far right convince its voters that it is desirable to have good relations with Russia? In the case of Jobbik, a survey highlighted the puzzling situation that the party’s voters are still rather pro-American, not pro-Russian, while the party itself is on an obvious pro-Kremlin course. And this is just one example.

Domestic audiences don’t really care about the foreign policy positions of these parties. They don’t care who these parties are allies with; they care more about who these parties are against. And what is important is being against the Turks, the Roma, against Jews or against refugees, and so on. People are more easily mobilised against something than for something.

These far-right movements in different European countries could be both for and against Russia – it doesn’t matter, because this is not why people vote for them. When these parties try to explain why they are friends with the Kremlin, they talk about the conservatism of the Russian government, about traditions, family values, and they describe Russia as a defender of these values in Europe and the world.

Did the refugee crisis change the nature of the relationship between Russia and the far right?

It changed very little in their relationship. Its main impact was the rising popularity of the far right in the West, and it created a new opportunity for the Russian media to promote the European far right. The refugee crisis is a new topic around which the far right has been given more visibility. Here we can mention Russian media outlets as diverse as the state-controlled TV Pervy Canal , the TASS news agency, the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, or the official newspaper of the Duma, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, as well as the internationally-broadcast RT (formerly Russia Today) television station and the Sputnik website. The international outlets, RT and Sputnik, aim to undermine the confidence of international audiences in the legitimacy of their governments, as well as in the Western liberal order; the justification of Kremlin policy is not that high on their agenda.

Do you think that Putin and his regime can be seen as a role model for the Hungarian government, and for other populists in the Visegrad countries?

I think that Russia is not the only role model for the leaders of the Visegrad Four – people that behave in a very authoritarian way often learn from each other. I am sure that Orbán has at some point, somehow learned a lot from the Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico. Especially from Fico’s first government, when he made some moves towards establishing a less liberal system. In 2006, Fico formed a coalition government with the far-right Slovak National Party – as a response, the EU-wide Party of European Socialists temporarily suspended the application of Fico’s Social Democrats to the EU-wide coalition. Later, Fico changed his positions, but Orbán was looking at Slovakia and learned the lessons – and in turn, I am sure that Fico has learned a lot from Orbán.

I think one of the most important lessons that Orbán has learned from the Fico government is how to deal with Brussels, and how to respond to criticism from EU institutions. So, I think the other European examples are more important for these politicians, as the illiberal tendencies in Member States are mainly criticised by EU institutions and therefore it is important to see how these steps can be managed in this given context. Russia is not a very good teacher in this sense because it doesn’t face the same kinds of repercussions as Visegrad countries.

Since Orbán was elected, Putin has become a frequent guest in Hungary. Can these visits be part of some power game that Orbán is playing with the EU?

The funds coming from the EU to the Visegrad countries are far beyond what Russia could give them. Putin’s system might be able to build coalitions but it is not able to provide funding or the kind of assistance that these countries need. Thus, they cannot really blackmail Brussels by having contacts with Putin. The EU and Russia are simply not on the same level. Russia has a GDP resembling that of Italy, which is only one of the 28 Member States of the EU – and not even the wealthiest. Orbán and other illiberals may think that having Putin on side is somehow helping them to secure their interests in the European Union, but this is for sure a mistake.

You point out in your book that there are even far-right actors in Poland who do pro-Kremlin lobbying. How could this have happened, in a country where the nationalists are historically very much anti-Russia?

Mateusz Piskorski, founder of the European Centre of Geopolitical Analysis, is probably the main person in Poland in this respect, and the source of this admiration for the Kremlin can be found in the ideology of the Polish neo-Nazi movement. Amongst them, Russia is romanticised as the defender of the white European race and therefore there is nothing in history that can be problematic for an alliance between the Kremlin and the Polish extreme right.

The other reason that this sympathy has emerged is that among Polish extreme right actors one can witness a combination of ultranationalist ideas and left-wing economic positions. So, for example the party that Piskorski founded in Poland, Zmiana (Change), included initially not only former members of neo-Nazi organisations, but also former communists and socialists. Left-wing people can be very much pro-Soviet there, and many of them admire Putin. For them, the history of Poland is not as much of a problem as it is for some of the mainstream nationalists, as they believe that Poland was on the right side during the Cold War.

Can the Visegrad countries have an impact on the future of the EU, and on the way European values will be perceived?

Visegrad countries are already playing a huge role in shaping the future of the European Union and will play an even larger role in years to come. In my opinion, we will see the emergence of two major blocks: a Franco-German block and a Visegrad block, which might be symbolically joined by Austria under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz. The competition between these groups will play a large role in forming the future shape of the European Union, as they represent the two ideological poles of the EU.

How do you see the situation in Ukraine, four years after the Maidan protests?

In my view, there are important reforms going on in Ukraine, but they are only very slowly taking shape. On the one hand, there are visible improvements, but on the other hand, you also have serious drawbacks. Ukraine is still very much pro-European, but the leadership is going back to the semi-authoritarian system that existed before the revolution – and, what is even more severe, we can witness increasing corruption as well. One could even say that we see the re-emergence of the old regime under a pro-European slogan. Fortunately, there is a very strong pro-democracy sentiment in Ukrainian society, and there are numerous civil society groups trying to put pressure on the leadership of Ukraine.

Originally published in the Green European Journal.