Recent press reports claim that extreme right-wing parties in Europe are being financed – at least in part – by Russia. While such allegations are wanting for proof, it is a fact that far-right parties in several eastern European countries have become prominent supporters of Russian interests and admirers of the Russian political-economic model. A number of far-right groups in post-communist countries regard Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian political infrastructure as a model, while urging greater openness toward Russia and a break with the Euro-Atlantic community. Support for the far right has shown an upward trend over the past few years in eastern Europe. From Russia’s point of view, forming partnerships with ultranationalists could facilitate its efforts to influence these countries’ domestic politics – that is, until Moscow finds an even more influential ally elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Changing Relations With Russia
- Russia was considered foreign enemy #1 in much of eastern Europe for a long time after the fall of communism. After all, the communist Soviet Union had invaded these countries and oppressed their people for decades. This sinister image has changed over the past few years. Oddly, the shift has been most notable among those politicians who embrace anti-communist and ultranationalist rhetoric with the greatest gusto.
- Part of eastern Europe’s far right – in lock step with their supposed enemies on the far left – regards capitalism and globalization (read the United States and the European Union) as the greatest evil. Based on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle, these parties adopt foreign policy positions that move them closer and closer to the Russian leadership, whom they view as a rival to the West. Eastern Europe’s ultra-right is moving closer to Russia despite the fact that the Putin era has ushered in a swell of nostalgia for the country’s imperial past, along with a favorable “new interpretation” of communism. These Russian attitudes are self-evidently out of step with the interests of eastern European nations.
Russia’s Secret Appeal
- The media tries to explain this phenomenon by claiming that Russia is providing certain European ultra right-wing parties with material support. Journalists have yet to present any real proof to back up these allegations. However, funding may not even be the most important component in some far-right parties’ ties to Russia. The ultra right-wing parties in question have an ideological and political affinity to Russia that creates a much longer-lasting, well-defined relationship than money ever could.
- Eastern Europe’s extreme right sees in Russia a political and economic paragon that is worthy of emulation. They admire Russia’s nationalist and, in many ways, authoritarian political infrastructure; its heavy-handed leader who is supported by the overwhelming majority of the people; its great-power rhetoric; its behind-the-scenes suppression of basic freedoms; its success in bringing strategic industries under state control; its policy of promoting “the national interest” at the expense of market mechanisms; and its centrally directed economy that keeps “big capital” at bay.
Making Common Cause
- In recent years, a kind of synergy has clearly developed between the Russian leadership and certain eastern European ultra right-wing parties on the international stage. This is evident in the far-right’s pronouncements on large-scale international conflicts in which Moscow took part.
- Most extreme right-wing parties in eastern Europe supported Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, reserving special condemnation for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s decidedly pro-American policies. The far-right press portrayed the conflict as Russia flexing its muscle and chalking up a victory against the big American enemy.
- Regional right-wing parties take similar positions on Russia’s energy-policy activities, with most of them supporting Russia’s South Stream natural gas pipeline project over the European Union’s Nabucco. They prefer the energy giants that openly serve Russia’s geopolitical goals over the European Union and European companies.
National Autonomy, or New Dependence?
- All of this is happening in the general political framework of the extreme right wing’s anti-Western dogma. These ardent promoters of national self-reliance paradoxically want to break away from the Euro-Atlantic political and economic community by moving closer to the Great Power to the east.
- Russia, which is trying to wield greater influence in the region and destabilize former Soviet bloc countries, clearly does not oppose this effort. None of this portends greater independence for countries in eastern Europe; rather, it means domestic instability and mounting reliance on Russia – and not just in the energy sector.
- Russia, therefore, must ask itself if its operatives are not being counterproductive by recruiting principally from ultra-right wing groups in Europe. Should a right-wing party such as Hungary’s Jobbik make a major push for Russia’s South Stream project, it may damage the project’s credibility, perhaps even strengthening support for rival pipeline Nabucco among other parties and the public.
In this report we examine the pro-Russian orientation of the Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Slovak far-right, keeping in mind that Russia-friendly policies rest upon totally different political, societal and cultural traditions in each country.
While pro-Russian politics are hardly popular in Hungary, they are abundantly evident in the Jobbik party’s otherwise populist program and in its leaders’ public statements. This first became obvious during the Russian-Georgian border dispute, when Jobbik’s politicians took Russia’s side and press outlets close to the party – after a brief period of hesitation – condemned Georgia. Surprisingly, the Magyar Nemzet newspaper and the Demokrata weekly magazine – two publications that are generally regarded as unconditional and unquestioning supporters of Hungary’s main right-wing party, Fidesz – began to criticize Fidesz for what they deemed its overly Atlanticist policies and for being “servile to America.”
Jobbik’s drift toward Russia became increasingly apparent after the border war ended. Jobbik President Gábor Vona has traveled to Moscow on at least two occasions. A fundamental part of the party’s economic platform is to open Hungary to eastern markets and to sell Hungarian products to Russia, China or even Iran instead of the European Union. The party’s energy-policy ideas show similar tendencies: Jobbik says it believes in the importance of increasing Hungary’s energy-independence, and they want to achieve it by expanding capacity at Hungary’s nuclear power plant at Paks. They would presumably turn to Russia for help with this project. When it comes to natural gas, Jobbik prefers Russia’s South Stream pipeline to the EU’s Nabucco, saying South Stream is the only pipeline with a credible plan. In Jobbik’s view, Hungary needs to commit itself to the Russian project. Zoltán Balczó, a Jobbik member of the European Parliament, has given numerous speeches in support of South Stream. Balczó says he thinks the EU should treat Russia as more of a partner than it has in the past and not dictate conditions to Moscow.
The majority of Hungarians support Nabucco, according to recent opinion polls. Also, “pro-Russian” has been somewhat of a dirty word in Hungarian politics since the fall of communism, as reflected in the country’s knee-jerk pro-Western foreign policy. Jobbik’s commitment to Russia absolutely does not fit in with its populist politicking.
Up to this point, Jobbik’s idiosyncratic view on energy policy has been an anomaly in Hungary. Fidesz, Hungary’s main right-wing opposition party, has committed itself to the EU’s Nabucco project, as have the smaller opposition parties, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). The Socialist minority government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai (MSZP) also supports Nabucco, while the former Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany was rather a supporter of Southern Stream.
This picture of multi-party harmony has become slightly cloudier since Fidesz President Viktor Orbán (who is all but certain to become Hungary’s prime minister after the spring 2010 elections) visited Russia in November. Upon his return, he gave an interview to Hungarian state television, where – in sharp contrast to his previous statements – he declared “the Russians will help us achieve energy independence.” Russian nuclear-energy specialists and companies can play a major role in increasing production capacity at Paks, he explained. After a comment like that, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that Fidesz’s position in the Nabucco vs. South Stream debate will become more complex.
Never before have either Jobbik or other members of Hungary’s far-right shown such clear support for Moscow in their public statements and political priorities. Members of Hungary’s extreme right were not known for kowtowing to Russia in the early debates surrounding Nabucco (which will traverse Georgia – and which many people say was one of the reasons for Russia’s 2008 invasion). When the Gyurcsany government was making overtures to the Russia over South Stream, the far-right slammed the leadership for being Moscow lackeys and selling out part of Hungary’s sovereignty to an expansionist, imperialistic Russia. Anti-Russian rhetoric was even more evident in the Hungarian far right’s assessment of the riots that broke out in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, after authorities decided to remove a monument to Soviet war dead two years ago. Using slogans that in many ways sprang from anachronistic anti-communism, they condemned the (mostly ethnic Russian) rioters as “communist riff-raff.” They also demanded the removal of a similar monument in central Budapest without a thought for how such a move would impact Hungarian-Russian relations.
Jobbik’s change of tack on Russia after 2007 was accompanied by a meteoric rise in the opinion polls. The party made stronger relations with eastern countries an important part of its strategy, while effectively consolidating the extreme right’s increasingly extreme policies under its own umbrella. Thus Jobbik’s position has become the dominant viewpoint on the far right – on the question of relations with Russia, as well.
Bulgarian public opinion has a much stronger pro-Russian streak than Hungary does, partly due to the Balkan nation’s geopolitical position and partly due to its history and cultural-religious traditions. Russian vs. Western political orientations generally run along the country’s left-right divide. The left wing (especially the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)) pursues Russia-friendly policies; the right wing (especially the current governing party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB)) is more or less Western-oriented. GERB strives to loosen political and economic ties to Russia instead of tightening them. This policy has had a visible impact on Russian-Bulgarian relations and is connected to Russia’s threat to reroute the South Stream gas pipeline and bypass Bulgaria. Pro-Russian sentiment in Bulgaria was seriously shaken by last winter’s Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis, which left the country without gas for days.
The Ataka (“attack”) party is the most prominent far-right political formation that is oriented toward Russia. Formed just before the 2005 general election, it quickly became the third-strongest force in Parliament. It is capable of uniting the country’s best-known radical groups.
Before Ataka became an official political party, its leadership included a number of former army officers and agents from Bulgaria’s communist-era state security forces – a group that generally has connections with the Kremlin and pays almost fanatical homage to Russia. Suspicions that Ataka’s operations are largely financed by Russian money have cropped up repeatedly since the party’s success in the elections four years ago. Ataka’s rhetoric is anti-minority, nationalist, anti-EU and favors a strong economic role for the state: Its platform includes nationalizing electricity distributors, gold mines and other strategic industries. Ataka’s support has declined in recent years and the party has fallen out with members of the Bulgarian National Alliance, Bulgaria’s most radical party. While Ataka has adopted some new positions on economic policy, it remains nationalist, Euroskeptic, anti-Turkish and anti-Gypsy. Its popularity has remained above 8 percent since 2005, although its support appears to have been declining in recent elections.
The current party president is Volen Siderov, who can be considered a friend of Russia even if this is not always apparent from his political positions. Siderov once attacked his country’s former Socialist-led government for being anti-Russian because it did not want to build a natural gas pipeline directly between Bulgaria and Russia; he later proposed that the EU should invite Russia to become a member. Ataka’s party program – similar to Jobbik’s – stresses the importance of rebuilding commercial ties with Bulgaria’s “lost markets” outside the European Union. Such countries include Russia, Libya, and Iraq.
Serbia is undoubtedly the region’s strongest supporter of Russian economic and political interests. It strives to maintain a strategic partnership with Russia. This is primarily for historical and cultural reasons. The two countries’ ties go back to when Russia supported Serbia’s drive for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Pan-Slavic ideals thus form part of the Serbian national consciousness, even if Serbia’s relationship with Russia has not always been trouble-free. These ideals experienced something of a Renaissance during the years when former President Slobodan Milosevic was in power. Even when his government was on its last legs in 1998, the leadership was still considering joining a union with Russia and Belarus. A survey of 42 countries conducted in the summer of 2009 showed that Serbs had the fifth-most favorable opinion of Russia: Some 53 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of the country, while 61 percent expressed negative feelings toward the USA.
NATO’s bombing raids on the former Yugoslavia and Western countries’ subsequent decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence gave an especially strong impetus to pro-Russian politics, including the idea of a Pan-Slavic union. Serbia’s political elite is very open to Russia: The top two vote-getters in the last presidential election, Boris Tadic and Tomislav Nikolic, both held talks with Moscow officials ahead of the vote. The South Stream-Nabucco debate is not an issue in Serbia, since only the Russian pipeline will traverse the country. Serbia’s leadership is committed to South Stream, the two countries cooperate closely on energy policy, and Serbia’s natural gas company is partly owned by Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom monopoly. The agreement that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed in Serbia in October will boost Russia’s influence on Serbia’s energy and infrastructure development even further. It’s important to note that this friendship has a tactical side as well: By moving closer to Russia, Serbia strengthens its negotiating position with both the EU and the US.
Pro-Russian policies are most conspicuous among Serbia’s extreme right-wing parties. The nationalist-chauvinist right enjoys much higher support in Serbia than in other countries in the region. The ultra right-wing Serbian Radical Party has received more than 1 million votes in each of the past three parliamentary elections, while its 33% support has allowed it form the biggest caucus in Parliament on several occasions. Nonetheless, the party is in a kind of political quarantine. The only time it was a member of Serbia’s governing coalition was between 1998 and 2000; it has been in opposition ever since. Formed in 1991, the Radicals seek to unite what they consider historically Serb lands into a Greater Serbia. Their ideology is ultranationalist and anti-globalization. The party’s official president is Vojislav Seselj, who is currently on trial in The Hague on charges of war crimes during the 1992-1995 war with Bosnia.
The Serbian far-right split in two slightly more than a year ago. Milosevic’s former ally, Tomislav Nikolic and 19 other breakaway MPs established a new formation known as the Serbian Progressive Party. Both the Radicals and the Progressives pursue blatantly pro-Russian policies. The Progressives, however, are more open to the EU. This is hugely important: The breakup of the far-right is what made it possible for Serbia to ratify the EU Stability and Association Pact, a first step toward eventual EU membership. The Progressives are also more acceptable to the government and have been mentioned as a possible coalition partner. According to opinion polls, the Serbian Progressive Party is the second-most popular party in Serbia and would get three times as many votes as the Radicals. The two organizations’ combined popularity has grown in spite of their breakup.
Nikolic has declared himself an unconditional believer in Russia and believes that the two countries are struggling together to transform the current world order. In 2007, Nikolic said the presence of Russian soldiers in Serbia could help solidify the country’s situation, and – one-upping his friend Milosevic – proposed a Russian-led alliance of countries that oppose the hegemony of the European Union and the United States. In recent years, the Serbian Radical Party’s most important issue has been Kosovo’s independence, which it vehemently rejects. Nikolic said the issue might even lead to war. Russia is the only major world power that did not recognize Kosovo’s independence, a decision that significantly raised the Putin administration’s popularity – not just in Radical circles, but among the public at large.
In Slovakia – as in Serbia – Pan-Slavic ideology and pro-Russian politics enjoy strong public support. These precepts have roots that go back more than a century to the days when Slovakia was struggling for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Consequently, a number of political parties in Slovakia have a pro-Russian orientation. However, this line of politics frequently takes a back seat to more pressing interests. Leading political parties had to drop their erstwhile Russia-friendly policies in the interest of Euro-Atlantic integration. As a result, pro-Russian politicians do not necessarily fit in with the biggest political groups anymore. That’s why the Slovak National Party (SNS) was able to assume the pro-Russian mantle and represent the country’s interests. As a member of the governing coalition, the party is in a strong position to exercise influence. Pan-Slav notions also fit in nicely with the SNS’s fundamental principles.
The Slovak National Party is the only extreme right-wing party in the region that has been a force in politics from 1990 onwards. It currently has 20 seats out of 150 seats in Parliament and is a member of the governing coalition, as it has been a number of times already.
The SNS is the only current member of Slovakia’s government that did not support NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan and urged the withdrawal of Slovak soldiers. The party’s name has come up in connection with Russia on several occasions: For example, SNS Vice President Anna Belousovova also serves as the deputy president of the Slovak-Russian Circle of Friends club. (The organization’s membership includes representatives from other parties as well.) Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently honored Belousovova with the country’s Order of Friendship award in recognition of her work to renovate the graves of Soviet soldiers, which she did in conjunction with a volunteer group.
The SNS’s position in Slovak politics has been weakening lately, which might affect its future relations with Russia. The party performed poorly in the 2009 elections for European Parliament and the government of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is trying to boot it from the coalition. Also, the Russian leadership has recently established good relations with Fico, which reduces the value of SNS’s role. This illustrates the point that Russia may only consider the far-right important until it finds new, more influential partners in these countries.
Since 2001, Fico has visited the Russian Federation on multiple occasions. From the very beginning, he praised Vladimir Putin’s protection of national interests and his heavy-handed, law-and-order governing style as a shining political model. Also, Fico has frequently been at odds with transatlantic military policy. For example, he didn’t consider it important for Slovakia to join NATO, insisting that Europe would be unable to build up its security without Russia. He also strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The Nabucco pipeline will not run through Slovakia, so Fico did not have to take an official position on the gas-supply question. Still, the Slovak leader plans to build an atomic power plant with Russian help, a project that he has already announced to EU forums. This serves Russia’s interests: In addition to keeping its gas markets, the country is also looking to expand its control over new nuclear energy projects. Nuclear energy is a key part of Russia’s preparations for a “green era” that will roll back the economic power of the fossil fuel giants.
 Suspicions of Russian support for western European far-right parties have also come up, especially in the case of the British National Party.
 Alexei Kazachkov, Russia’s deputy commercial attaché recently said in Paks that Russia would be happy to play a role in expanding the atomic power plant.