Will Voters Back Putin’s Parties in Europe?
In the coming weeks, France and Hungary will cast their votes for either far-right, pro-Putin candidates or the opposition. Will the elections create the Europe the Kremlin wants to see?
While the world’s eyes are on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political parties in Europe are distributing election leaflets, canvassing voters and posing for billboard photos. April heralds elections in France and Hungary – with the latter also holding an LGBTIQ rights referendum.
Both elections are being fought by far-right parties with relationships to President Putin. In Hungary, Fidesz is seeking to hold power, while in France the Rassemblement National hopes to defeat En Marche’s Emmanuel Macron.
Meanwhile, voters in Spain’s north-western autonomous community of Castilla y León put a ‘cross’ next to the far-right Vox Party candidates in March’s snap election. Vox has offered vocal support to Putin in the past, although its leader has condemned the invasion of Ukraine.
There are dozens of far-right and right-wing populist parties in Europe that have adopted Vladimir Putin’s playbook when it comes to migration and gender issues, opposing the EU, opposing sanctions on Russia, and campaigning for a closer alliance with the Kremlin. They include AfD in Germany, L’SNS in Slovakia, the Freedom Party in Austria, Lega in Italy, and UKIP.
Putin’s people have, in turn, funded and supported a variety of far-right parties and actors in Europe.
That backing has fuelled an influence war with an end goal of creating a fractured and weakened EU – an aim that benefits an aggressive and imperialist Russia. His regime’s support comes in exchange for those same parties taking an antagonistic stance towards the EU and lobbying for closer relationships with Russia.
This strategy is something people in Ukraine have understood since at least 2014.
Quoted in Catherine Belton’s book Putin’s People, Konstantin Batozsy – aide to the former Donetsk Governor – said that “Russia will undermine Europe. Russia is laying huge bomb in the foundations of the European Union. Russia is looking for vulnerable points to split Europe”.
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Roubles in Spain
The snap election in Castilla y León delivered Vox – which campaigns against immigration, LGBTIQ rights, abortion, and laws protecting women from domestic abuse – its first serious parliamentary success.
The party won 16 seats in the regional parliament, allowing for it to cut a deal with rivals the People’s Party (PP) and secure the regional vice-presidency, three regional ministries and the speakership of the Castilla y León parliament.
The deal was called “a pact of shame” by Spanish Socialist Workers party vice-president Adriana Lastra.
The far-right party is close to the organisation CitizenGO, which during the 2019 European elections was accused of acting as a super-pac for Vox. In an investigation by openDemocracy, CitizenGo’s director described plans to run attack ads against Vox’s political opponents, and advised an undercover reporter about how to get around campaign finance laws.
Sitting on CitizenGO’s board of trustees is Alexey Komov, a business associate of the sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev. The telecoms multi-millionaire was considered by US intelligence as Putin’s right arm for operations of political interference in Europe.
Komov is a staff member at Malofeyev’s St Basil The Great Foundation and is Russia’s representative at the World Congress of Families, an annual gathering of anti-LGBTIQ, anti-abortion activists, politicians and thinkers – co-organised by Malofeyev’s people in 2014.
Getting Vox closer to power suits the Kremlin’s aims, and CitizenGO is through Komov close to Russia’s anti-rights movement.
Komov’s presence on the board has led to speculation that Malofeyev may have helped to finance CitizenGO as it launched anti-LGBTIQ, anti-abortion campaigns across Europe, Africa and Latin America.
This represents a pipeline crucial to understanding Russian influence in Europe. Putin’s people back anti-gender, anti-migrant and anti-rights organisations, which run campaigns that promote his divisive aims. Those organisations then work with or lobby political parties which enact those aims by introducing anti-rights, anti-Europe policies.
In the case of Vox, this has mainly focused on traditional far-right ideas about women, migrant people, and the LGBTIQ community. But for France’s far-right, Russia’s aim is to get the party to advance Kremlin interests in Europe, and lobby for a closer relationship between the countries.
Hungary, France and a Refugee Crisis
France’s far-right politician Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN) have not shied from boasting of their Putin connections. Her 2022 campaign literature featured a photo with the Russian President. The party denied it asked local offices to destroy the document in the wake of his attack on Ukraine, as was reported.
Photo opps are one thing, but RN has also been in receipt of Kremlin-linked funds. In 2014, the party then known as Front National received €9 million from First Czech Russia Bank to fund its election campaigns.
“It was in the interest of Russia to support Marine Le Pen,” Aymeric Chauprade, told the Washington Post. Chauprade was a member of the European Parliament who advised Le Pen on foreign policy before leaving her party. “Every time you have a political leader who says we should change our policy regarding Russia… they are interested in supporting him.”
Although she has criticised Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Le Pen has claimed the invasion is being judged on Western, not Russian norms. In doing so, she is helping to push anti-EU propaganda that states the west is imposing its values on Russia – as well as on traditionalists in European countries.
This has been a successful rallying call for far-right parties over the past decade, including Vox, Lega in Italy and Fidesz in Hungary.
Le Pen has also praised Russia’s support for Assad in Syria, claiming it helped to defeat Islamic State and therefore protect France. In fact, the crisis created by Russia’s bombardment of the region helped foster support for Le Pen and her fellow far-right leaders.
In 2015, Putin launched a bombing campaign in support of Kremlin ally and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, fuelling a crisis which led to millions of people fleeing towards Europe. Putin’s decision gave the far-right a golden opportunity to position the EU as ignoring the needs of its citizens in favour of what Hungary’s Viktor Orbàn called “Muslim invaders”.
For RN, the refugee crisis helped to whip up the Islamophobic, anti-migrant narratives the party was increasingly adopting, with the EU’s relatively pro-refugee approach accused as threatening France’s European traditions.
In the UK, the Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum used images of Syrian refugees to accuse the EU of pushing the region to “breaking point”. Orbàn meanwhile claimed the EU was trying to replace Europeans, while he would create a “Christian Hungary in a Christian Europe”.
The fractures between a pro-European, pro-refugee rights electorate, and an anti-migrant, nationalist electorate helped to undermine European unity during the crisis.
Proposals from the European Commission to reform the Common European Asylum System to better allocate asylum applicants among EU countries fell apart; the EU shifted to prioritising enforcement against migrants seeking to enter the region by sea; the UK voted to leave the EU; and pro-Russian, anti-EU parties did well in the 2019 European elections.
This was all a boon to Putin, who depends on a weakened EU in order to push his own aggressive and imperialist aims, and who needs his allies lobbying for his interests in the European Parliament. As such, Putin’s support of Assad was in itself a useful tool in his plan to sow division across the region, using desperate families as pawns.
That was 2015 – now Europe faces a new refugee crisis in 2022 and Orbàn’s and Le Pen’s support for Putin may have backfired.
In contrast to the response to Syria’s war, Hungary has shown a much more open-door approach to refugees fleeing Ukraine. Orbàn has backed the EU over Russia in the conflict, potentially aware that his previous stance would not play well with voters. Le Pen meanwhile has criticised the invasion, with French President Emmanuel Macron seeing a polling boost in correlation with his robust response to Russian aggression.
That said, Orbàn’s Government has also said that it will veto EU sanctions against Russian gas transfers and any EU peacekeeping mission. Perhaps Vladimir Putin has some friends yet.