Anton Shekhovtsov
Anton Shekhovtsov
Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (Austria)
Putin and the European Far-Right: Partners in Crime

On Saturday, March 10th, at Kiev’s Free Russia House, Anton Shekhovtsov presented his book “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir.” The book is the first to study the critical trend of the growing connection between the Kremlin and Western far-right activists, publicists, ideologists and politicians in considerable detail. An in-depth discussion with Mr. Shekhovtsov was held after his presentation.

About the book

It is impossible to analyze the Kremlin’s relations with nationalist and far-right European activists and political parties today if we do not first examine the roots of this partnership, which started to form in the 1990s. In turn, that cannot fully be understood without returning to the Cold War and events that preceded it in the 1920s and 1930s.

Just after World War I, National Bolshevism, a movement of far-left nationalists who rejected the Treaty of Versailles, appeared on the scene in Weimar Germany. This movement was greeted with some flirtatious interest by the Soviet Comintern, still in its infancy.  German National Bolshevism defined the western powers of France, Britain and Belgium as enemies. German National Bolsheviks, with their young proletarian movement, became associated with the USSR to a certain extent. However, after the consolidation of Nazi Germany in 1933, this movement lost its momentum. National Bolsheviks and the left-wing faction of the Nazi Party were destroyed by Hitler’s SA during the Night of the Long Knives.

A few years after the Second World War, neutralist far-right milieu (former representatives of the Nazi SS and Hitlerjugend) existed in West Germany, hoping to keep West Germany neutral and non-aligned. These policies, once again, lined up with the interests of the Soviet Union. According to some reports, until 1955, when West Germany became a member of NATO, the Soviet Union financed far-right groups in the West with more money than their socialist counterparts in East. During the Cold War, that money quickly dried up as agency activity became more expedient.

Shekhovtsov’s book goes on to examine the connections in 1990s between Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Aleksandr Dugin, Sergei Baburin and Sergei Glazyev. In the chaos of the 1990s, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s far-right nationalist LDPR first attempted to create an international far-right force. Between 2000 and 2004, Putin’s first term, a number of conferences related to Zhirinovsky’s ambitions were held, but the Kremlin was largely uninterested. That period could be described as a honeymoon between Putin and the West. Everyone praised Russia, ignored human rights, and believed that perhaps giving Putin a little more time would lead to democratization.

In 2003, while getting ready for the “First People’s Patriotic Congress”, where Zhirinovsky’s far-right allies in France and Belgium were guests, Vladimir Volfovich wrote that the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia holds “patriotic views”, and the European “patriotic forces” are increasingly close to power. Their rise to power would turn out to be politically expedient for the Kremlin.

The next attempt to consolidate power was a more institutionalized form of cooperation between allies of the Kremlin and the far-right during controversial election monitoring in 2005. Then the media cooperated in 2008-2009, after the war with Georgia. A third wave, since 2011, has been crashing ever since as direct representatives of the Putin regime began to cooperate openly with such political forces as “National Front” (“Front National”) in France, the “Freedom Party” of Austria (“Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs”), the Italian “Northern League” (“Lega Nord”), the Bulgarian “Attack” (“Атака”), among others. Today, agreements between “United Russia” (“Единая Россия”, hereinafter “UR”) and Austria’s “Freedom Party” in 2016 and Italy’s “Northern League” in 2017 represent direct cooperation at high levels within both countries’ governments.

Today, the Austrian “Freedom Party” is the junior partner in the Austrian government coalition, and the “North League” recently stormed to its best performance in Italy’s recent election. People who maintain clearly pro-Kremlin stances are moving closer to power in Europe.

Does the Kremlin place the stake only on potential winners and why the far right need Russia?

The Kremlin’s desire to cooperate with the Austrian “Freedom Party” was formally signed in 2016, as Austria went to the polls to elect a new president. For the first time since the Second World War, no representative of the main conservative (Austrian People’s Party) and socialist (Socialist Party of Austria) parties made it to the runoff round of Austria’s presidential election. A couple of weeks before the second round, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was invited to Moscow to sign agreements with United Russia. United Russia seemed to get the ball rolling only when the far right looked within reach of victory…but then they narrowly lost the presidential election. By contrast, the agreement with the “Northern League” which sought to institutionalize cooperation since 2014, did not get signed until 2017. Ironically, the original agreement sought to create an agreement at a time when polls showed no significant support for the nationalist Lega Nord party.

Support for the Kremlin is not universal among European far-right parties, but for some of them, cooperation with the Kremlin legitimizes their cause. Extreme right-wing ideologies were marginalized after the Second World War, and while many realize they cannot fully break the liberal-democratic consensus in the West, they still preach a release from the endless marginal circle. Therefore, they claim: “We are in favor of Putin’s Russia, which has the same ideology as us, and at the same time, is a global actor” . They surreptitiously promote the rhetorical narrative to legitimize themselves through an indirect reference to the Kremlin.

Do the far right continue to strengthen their positions in Europe now?

The growth of support can be traced throughout Europe, with the exception of Portugal and Spain. But it is important to understand that  many far-right groups have become more moderate since the 2000s. Many have moved closer to the center-right, because they understand they will not come to power with fringe ideals. In political science, there is a classic case when the fascist party became conservative in Italy when the “Italian social movement” (“Movimento Sociale Italiano”), a party with roots in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, managed to rebrand in the 1990s and join forces with Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party.

In Norway, the “Progress Party” (“Fremskrittspartiet”), considered far-right in the early 2000s, has moved to the center and now it’s a national-liberal party. In Hungary, there was a unique situation when the parties reversed roles. Since 2015, “Jobbik” (“Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom”) deliberately decided to move closer to the center and effectively switched spots with “Fidesz” (“Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség”). Fidesz later began to borrow slogans from “Jobbik.” According to the “Political Capital” think tank’s analysis, 10 different proposals from “Jobbik” were realized by “Fidesz”. ”Jobbik” couldn’t implement these proposals while in opposition. Now “Jobbik” has moved towards the center-right insofar as it supports the Central European University and defends George Soros, while “Fidesz”, being the far right party now, wants to close the university and demonizes Soros completely.

In other words, the support of the far right in Europe is growing not only due to the refugee crisis since 2015 and the weakening of mainstream forces, but also due to the face that the far-right is becoming more moderate so they can be acknowledged as legitimate participants of the political process by many people.

Legitimation of Putin’s regime via the far-right Europeans

The Putin regime has a constant legitimization problem. According to the UN’s voting results regarding the occupation of Crimea in 2014, no Asian, African and South American countries voted against. For Russia, it is important to show not only that Asians and Africans support it, but the “real Europeans” as well. They need to bring these Europeans to Crimea to let them wax poetic on TV about how wonderful life is on the peninsula.

In addition, this resource can be used to legitimize elections.

When it comes to Russia’s population, political elites and a vast majority of the television media are anti-Western and anti-American, but the ordinary people don’t always subscribe to this mentality. Russian society considers itself a part of European civilization, so they subconsciously want to be accepted by “white Europeans”.

Even though Putin’s Russia has totally anti-fascist rhetoric, it sometimes ties itself in knots trying to legitimize itself with European approval. When Luc Michel, an old-school Belgian marginal skinhead from the 1980s was brought to Crimea’s referendum in March 2014, he was introduced to the media as “head of the OSCE observation mission”, a complete fabrication. In fact, the OSCE refused to send a mission to the illegitimate referendum.

You can see the full version (in Russian) of the discussion in video.

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