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Strange Bedfellows: Putin and Europe’s Far Right

There’s love in the air between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western Europe’s far-right political parties.

The courtship between Eastern European far-right parties and Russia has been going on for years, of course. In 2008, Eastern Europe’s far right supported the Russian war against Georgia. In May 2013, leaders of Jobbik, the Hungarian far-right party with dubious fascist origins, met with Russian Duma leaders and academics at Moscow State University. The neo-Nazi Bulgarian Ataka party has vocally supported Putin and Russian foreign policy. In 2012, Ataka’s leader, Volen Siderov, traveled to Moscow, reportedly at his own expense, to celebrate Putin’s sixtieth birthday and express admiration for the Russian president’s strong leadership. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Siderov threatened to withdraw his party’s support from the coalition government if it supported further sanctions against Russia.

Since the Ukrainian crisis began, the romance has moved westward. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) holds forty (out of one hundred and eighty-three) seats in Parliament, having won a fifth of the vote in last year’s elections. The Danish People’s Party has maintained its position as the third-strongest party in Parliament since 2001. And in 2012, the Greek extremist neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party shocked observers when it won eighteen parliamentary seats. The oldest and best-known party of the Western far right, the French National Front (FN), had its strongest showing in the past fifteen years when the party took fourteen percent of the vote in 2012. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has struggled in national elections, but came in first in the May elections for the European Parliament.

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Until very recently, Marine Le Pen, de facto spokesman for the European far right, was unknown in Russia, even after she hailed Russia’s president as a true patriot and defender of European values. But after Le Pen praised Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while Angela Merkel and other centrist European leaders were condemning it, Putin invited her to Moscow along with other representatives of the FN and other European far-right parties to observe the March referendum on Crimea’s accession to Russia. When she endorsed the Crimean referendum as legitimate, others on the European far right, including Austria’s FPÖ and Britain’s UKIP, followed suit. Russian media and bloggers, meanwhile, embraced Le Pen’s endorsement. One blogger started a “Merci Marine!” Twitter campaign. After the European parliamentary elections on May 25th, in which Le Pen’s party took the largest share of votes in France, Russia’s president returned the compliment by publicly praising the right-wing leader’s success.

 

The relationship between Russia and Western Europe’s far right may be a marriage of convenience, but it also shows signs of genuine affection. Closer ties with rising political parties in the EU will give Putin more leverage against NATO. For its part, the European right sees the Russian leader as a staunch defender of national sovereignty and conservative values who has challenged US influence and the idea of “Europe” in a way that mirrors their own convictions.

The far right’s major gripe with the European Union is the euro, which strips eurozone countries of control over their monetary policy. The hostility has grown during the economic crisis of the last few years, which has forced all of Western Europe to bend to unpopular austerity measures set by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. In hindsight, the common currency looks like a terrible blunder to centrist political leaders and voters. Even the Germans, still the most pro-European members of the eurozone, are showing signs of buyer’s remorse.

For the Euroskeptic far right, endorsing the Crimean referendum was a carom shot that allowed them to reframe their defiance of the European Union and its growing influence over national politics, but it was also an endorsement of Putin’s nationalism and social conservatism. Le Pen derided the EU as an “anti-democratic monster” while in the same breath exalting Putin for doing “what is good for Russia and the Russians.” Meanwhile, the leader of Britain’s UKIP, Nigel Farage, sees Putin as a “brilliant” strategist who can outwit the West. When asked which world leader he admired the most, Farage’s answer was unhesitating: Putin.

Behind Russia’s affection for Le Pen and her fellow travelers may lie something more than appreciation for her endorsement of Crimea: a shared anti-Americanism. According to a recent survey by the Levada Center, in Moscow, seventy-one percent of Russians have a “bad or very bad” opinion of the United States. In fact, Russians’ opinion of the United States is the lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the Russian popular imagination, the US is still seen as setting the foreign policy agenda in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, Russian media framed the US as the instigator and sponsor of the Maidan revolution that toppled Russia’s ally—Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych—a view that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions subscribe to as well.

In early May, when I was in eastern Ukraine’s largest city, Kharkiv, pro-Russian protesters holding anti-American and anti-EU posters blamed a US-led “junta” for fomenting unrest. In this version of the story, the EU plays the role of the lackey sidekick: representing American interests because it is too spineless to adopt an independent stance.

For their part, Western Europe’s far-right parties have also been increasingly critical of the Obama administration’s campaign to impose economic sanctions on Russia. Leading the charge, Le Pen sees the sanctions as American meddling in European affairs. Echoing the Russians’ view of Europe, Marine Le Pen’s niece, French parliamentarian Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, called the EU “the poodle of the United States.”

But the infatuation of the Western European far right with Putin is about what it calls “values” as well as the constellation of nationalist issues that coalesce in opposition to the idea, as well as the fact, of “Europe.” Le Pen has gone so far as to call the Russian president a defender of “the Christian heritage of European civilization.”

The Putinist cultural conservatism that the far right admires has been enforced with an iron hand across Russian society. Most notorious is the anti-gay propaganda law passed in June 2013, which allows the government to infringe on LGBT individuals’ rights by banning peaceful demonstrations or imposing hefty fines on same-sex couples who are affectionate in public. The law was widely criticized by Western media, but in Russia, where population decline has reached a critical point, reinvigorating “family values” is high on the government’s agenda. Along with nationalism and law-and-order themes, traditional family values are key to Putin’s broader political ideology of “post-communist neo-conservatism.” To Putin and many Russians who support him, European cultural liberalism that grants equal rights to same-sex couples is not only degenerate, but also a threat to Russia’s survival as a nation.

For Russians, the Austrian bearded lady Conchita Wurst, nom de drag of Tom Neuwirth, whose song won the 2014 Eurovision contest, confirmed what many in the country already suspected: Europe is on a slippery slope toward cultural depravity. Vitaly Milonov, a conservative St. Petersburg politician who sponsored local legislation that laid the groundwork for the federal anti-gay law, urged Russian media to boycott the European song contest, which he called a “Sodom show.” Wurst’s win sparked anger in Russia. Even high-ranking Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, denounced the drag queen for embodying the loose morals that European integration entails.

In the renewed culture war between Western social liberalism and Eastern traditional conservatism for which Conchita Wurst has become a symbol, Europe’s far-right parties have stood with the Russians. In its party program, Austria’s FPÖ defines family as “a partnership between a man and woman with common children.” UKIP’s Nigel Farage has said that gay marriage in France was unnecessary. (But even among the far right, there are exceptions: Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, styles himself as a promoter of gay rights, which he sees as in line with traditional Dutch values.)

 

While the romance between Putin and the European far right is passionate right now, a question for both parties to face is how long this relationship can endure—and to what end. The importance of the far right’s gains in May’s European parliamentary elections is easy to overstate: voter turnout was low, the European Parliament is a weak governing body, and even in victory the far right is fractionalized across competing alliances. But the European elections could presage more important shifts in national politics. As Europeans grow more disillusioned with the EU, the far-right parties that have so far been marginal in national elections, like UKIP, could start to gain an audience.

Even if the alliance with Europe’s far right turns out to be transient, it has given the Kremlin a boost during a difficult time. If it turns out to have legs, it may give Putin a more powerful lever for influencing European foreign policy in the long term. With far-right parties on the rise in their own countries, centrist European politicians may eventually be forced to concede ground to anti-European, and now pro-Russian, sentiments if they want to win reelection. Fearing the power of voters aligned with UKIP, FN, and other parties, European leaders may become reluctant to take a strong stance against Russia. And an EU so crippled by inward-looking national politics that it cannot be a counterweight to Russian aggression is exactly what the Kremlin wants. If anti-EU, pro-Russian voices gain a foothold in national governments, a Europe united on foreign policy becomes difficult to imagine.

Alina Polyakova is a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington.

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