EU elections may strengthen Putin in Europe
Far-right parties are set to do well in next month’s elections to the European Parliament, a fact that has thrown a spotlight on their links with the Kremlin.
A recent study by the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute documents the support that far-right parties in the EU have given to Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly throughout the Ukraine crisis.
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These parties repeated the Kremlin’s line that it is the EU and the West, rather than Russia, which are provoking tension and fuelling violence in the Eastern European country.
Several far-right politicians went to observe the Crimea referendum on re-joining Russia, a vote they said was free and fair although it was denounced as illegitimate by most Western leaders.
Among those that went were politicians from far-right or populist parties in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France and Hungary.
The EU-based parties – anti-European Union and favouring a strong nation state – see their world view reflected in the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on restoring his country’s status as a world power, while weakening Euro-Atlantic ties.
"There is reason to believe that Russian diplomacy seeks to build party families in Europe," the study says.
It cites numerous examples of far-right parties participating in events attended by or organised by Russian policymakers.
A congress held by Italy’s Northern League in December last year, for example, was attended by Austrian, Flemish, Dutch and Swedish far-right leaders as well as Vikto Zubarev, an MP for United Russia, Putin’s party.
Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn are both invited to the Russian National Forum organised by a group with close ties to Putin to be held later this year.
Admiration for Putin also extends to Europe’s softer right-wing. Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party, has openly backed Putin as a skillful "operator".
He recently said the Russian President was the current leader he most admired and said the EU had "blood on its hands” for making Ukraine choose between the European Union and Russia.
The support by the European parties – some of which are set to top the polls in the May EU vote – adds to an already muddled backdrop of the EU trying to form a unified response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
It was only after much discussion that the EU finally agreed to blacklist some Russian officials and companies.
Marine Le Pen: new 'Cold War'
Amid the controversy and debate about the state of EU-Russia relations, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, headed to Moscow for the second time this year. On 11 April she travelled to meet Sergey Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house, and named on the EU's sanctions list.
During the visit Le Pen asserted her support for Russia in the Ukrainian crisis, blaming the EU for declaring a new "cold war on Russia”.
Le Pen said Ukraine's eastern regions should be allowed to choose greater independence from Kiev and said she was in favour of a "federation inside Ukraine”. This would be the most "logical" and "respectful" solution to end tensions, she said.
Bulgaria: under pressure over Russia sanctions
Further to the east, recent history complicates matters further. Bulgaria is a member of Nato and the EU, but the former communist country is still very close to Russia. Not only are older citizens Russophiles, but many decision-makers too.
Georgi Kadiev, an MP with the ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, recently said his father used to be an officer in the Soviet army and today he finds it difficult to explain to him why Bulgaria will go along with sanctions against Moscow over the annexation of Crimea.
The government has so far maintained its support for the sanctions, but it may yet feel the pressure domestically.
The fragile coalition government in Sofia depends on the support of Ataka, an extreme right-wing nationalist party. But Ataka could withdraw its support if the government continues to back sanctions against Russia.
Daniel Smilov, a political analyst, said that Ataka acts as if it were a part of Russia or Putin's Eurasian Union.
Ataka’s official statements underline his point. The party says that the referendum in Crimea reflects the free will of its citizens and that it acknowledges the results and supports the annexation.
Far-right in Austria: flirting with Putin
Election observation in Europe is usually carried out by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but it ruled out monitoring the Crimea referendum which it said did not meet its criteria. A referendum review was instead financed and organised by the Brussels-based Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, led by well-known right-wing politician Luc Michel. The 56-year-old attorney is said to be an admirer of Putin’s United Russia party.
Austrian far-right MPs Johann Gudenus and Johannes Hüber (both from the Freedom Party, FPOe) as well MEP Ewald Stadler were there to check the process.
Bela Kovacs, a Hungarian MEP, and Milan Sarapatka, a Czech MP, were also among the many delegates to rubberstamp the result, recognised only by Russia, Kazakhstan and Armenia as legitimate.
For his part, Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria's Freedom Party leader, has been in contact with Putin’s supporters on a lower level. He visited Moscow in 2011, stating he would maintain "friendly contacts” with United Russia.
Hungary's Jobbik: the best performing pupils
Hungary’s Jobbik earlier this month (6 April) won over 20 percent in national elections making it the far-right party with the highest rate of popular support in Europe.
While some right-wing parties in Western Europe – such as France's National Front – refuse to build alliances with Jobbik, they are welcome guests in Moscow.
There have been rumours about Jobbik's financial ties with Russia in Hungary for years, but nothing has been proven. However, Jobbik politicians openly support the Kremlin, and believe that opening to the east and Russia is essential.
In an interview with The Voice of Russia in 2013, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona said: "I consider Russia as a country of key importance. Besides Turkey, I believe Russia is the other Eurasian power that could spearhead a real political, economic and cultural resistance against the Euro-Atlantic bloc.”
While the overall effect of this far-right support is diffuse, Putin has been clever to exploit more mainstream parties too, playing on member states' economic and energy ties with Russia.
This has seen Hungary's centre-right leader Viktor Orban, for example, agree a nuclear power plant deal with Moscow, financed with a Russian loan of €10bn.
In next month's EU vote, parties such as the National Front, Austria's Freedom Party or UKip are expected to do well, perhaps even emerging top among their domestic peers.
Most analysts say that the parties – notoriously unable to work with one another due to internal squabbling – are unlikely to hinder the legislative work of the European Parliament.
However, their very presence and their relative electoral success could push other mainstream parties towards the same eurosceptic stance – something that would no doubt be welcomed in the Kremlin.
This article originally implied that the OSCE had been blocked from monitoring the Crimea referendum. However, the OSCE had itself ruled out monitoring the 16 March poll.
Florence Morice reported from France; Florian Peschl from Austria, Nicoleta Popkostadinova from Bulgaria and Eszter Zalan from Hungary