During the Cold War era, Western communists often looked to Moscow for ideological inspiration, economic help and political support. The Soviet Union, for its part, was more than happy to oblige. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism is long gone, but some European party leaders are once more reviving ties with Russia, for very different reasons.
In an interview this month, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National party, expressed her admiration for Putin. “There is a cold war being waged against him by the European Union at the behest of United States, which is defending its own interests,” she said. Le Pen, whose party catapulted to first place in France in the EU’s parliamentary elections this year, applauded Putin’s brand of nationalism. “He has managed to restore pride and contentment to a great nation,” she said.
Le Pen is one of many European far right-wing leaders who support Putin. Matteo Salvini, the head of the rightist Lega Nord and a rising star in Italian politics, signed a deal this October between his and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party based on what he called common values. And during the Crimean “referendum” — which legitimized Russia’s fait accompli annexation of the Ukrainian province — at least 12 European right-wing parties accepted the controversial invitation to act as ‘observers.’
So what makes Putin appealing to Europe’s far right? Many of these movements see Putin as a protector of continental European values. They welcome the Russian leader’s conservative positions on issues like homosexuality, especially as support for gay rights grows in the West. They also share common opponents. Putin is strongly opposed to the European Union — he sees the eastward expansion of the bloc as an encroachment on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The majority of Europe’s far right, meanwhile, sees the EU as equally hegemonic. They say it has robbed European member states of their sovereignty, and many are advocating breaking away from it.
But it is Putin’s style of leadership which best explains the far right’s attraction to him. Beginning with the years between the two World Wars, the far right has consistently looked for strong leaders to inspire a dedicated mass of followers. Benito Mussolini was the first, though not all subsequent leaders idolized by the extreme right were fascists. Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, who were renowned for their firm grip on their respective parties and parliaments, were held in high esteem by the far right for their unwavering nationalist and anti-leftist positions. Today, Putin fills that role.
Putin offers just what far right today wants. In Western Europe, the economic downturn and the EU’s austerity policies have contributed to a rise of public anger about everything from liberalism to immigration. Putin, who has built his political career on rebuilding the prestige of Moscow, has created a model for regaining grandeur that they are keen to follow. Similarly, they see the assertive ethno-nationalism in Russia as an answer to Europe’s woes.
All of this sycophancy has benefitted Putin. Moscow is keen to foster links with Europe’s far-right groups as a way to diminish its international isolation. According to some reports, it is directing considerable amounts of money towards these parties, as a way to bolster Russia’s image nationally and internationally. Consider that France’s Front National recently admitted to receiving 9 million euros from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank, which has ties to Putin, to cover their electoral expenses.
You would be forgiven for thinking this all sounds very similar to the days of the Iron Curtain. But where will this all end? The far right may become more closely linked to the political elite in Russia. Increased funds could help their visibility, propaganda, and electoral results.
However, it is far from sure that all of these parties will be benefit from promoting solidarity with Russia’s foreign policies. Some movements have been receiving negative coverage in their own nations for their nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-EU stances – and being pro-Putin can be yet another obstacle to attracting further public support.
Right now, what is clear is that we are seeing a peculiar phase of European politics: the heirs of fascism smile across the Urals at the sons of Soviet communism, while the rest of the continent looks on with some bemusement.
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Dec. 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev