Tearing Apart the Far Right: War in Ukraine and the break with Putin

Adam Holesch, Piotr Zagórski

7 mins - 10 de Julio de 2023, 07:05

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has had severe, instantaneous effects on the European Union (EU), likewise affecting its democratic status. Our comparative study in West European Politics reveals that Putin’s regime has become toxic for Radical Populist Right (PRR) parties. The invasion influences not only the unification efforts of these parties, but also sheds new light on the recent discussion about the break-up of the ‘grand coalition’ in the European Parliament (EP) and the rapprochement of the European People’s Party with parts of the PRR ahead of the EP elections in 2024. 

More than a decade ago political scientist Cas Mudde argued that the unification of far-right parties in Europe was unlikely due to a lack of political convergence and strategic coordination. However, there have been some attempts at cooperation. One occurred in the 1990s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (FN) sought ties with the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), but the partnership fell apart due to nationalist conflicts. In 2005, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) launched a right-wing populist partnership initiative through the Vienna Declaration. While it laid the groundwork for future attempts, the parties involved focused primarily on domestic rather than transnational political agendas.

These examples illustrate two important points. First, the difficulties that far-right parties in Europe face in unifying as they struggle to overcome differences in ideology, organisational capacity, and political agendas. If the core ideology is based on national ego, every international engagement is counter intuitive. This is the main reason why the search for a cohesive right-wing populist movement at the European level has been challenging with elusive results.

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Second, what divides the radical right in Europe is the stance of different parties towards Russia. For example, far-right parties in Germany, France, and Austria used to propagate anti-democratic and illiberal narratives promoted by Russia as early as the 2010s. Putin’s regime has funded parties such as the FN and has been significantly active in Hungary, with the Orbán government in Hungary being called Putin’s ‘Trojan horse’. On the other side are parties more assertive towards Russia’s interests, especially on Europe’s Eastern flank, with Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) probably being the most hardline.

Since 2020, these two points have become increasingly interconnected. After fairly satisfactory electoral results for the radical right parties in the 2019 European Parliament elections, several parliamentary groups were formed. ‘Identity and Democracy’, consisting of National Rally, Lega, Freedom Party Austria, Alternative for Germany, and Vlaams Belang, is one of them. Other parties also collaborated in groups such as the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, with the Polish Law and Justice party, the Italian Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), the Dutch Juiste Antwoord 2021 (JA21), and the Spanish VOX among its members. However, the Hungarian Fidesz party did not join these groups after leaving the European People’s Party (EPP) in March 2021 to avoid expulsion. It seemed logical to try to unite these groups, as, once united, they could form the third largest parliamentary group in the European Parliament. Although it is difficult to clearly identify who was the prime mover in this effort, Poland’s PiS party and Hungary’s Fidesz party, both in conflict with the EU for not respecting the rule of law, undoubtedly played an important role.

In the summer of 2021, the leaders of the PRR signed a document in several European capitals, calling for a profound reform of the European Union. They then met at summits in Warsaw (December 2021) and Madrid (January 2022). Most of the signatories were present. In addition to the ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Lega, the Dutch JA21, the Vlaams Belang/Flemish FDP of Belgium, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) took part. The Finnish Party and the Danish People’s Party fell by the wayside, showing the first ruptures. The Madrid summit ended with the signing of different versions of the joint declaration, with Marine Le Pen crossing out the reference to the imminent Russian invasion from the final document.

However, even between Warsaw and Budapest, there had long been sharp divisions in their relations with Putin. In 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power with a clearly anti-Putin ideological stance. After the death of President L. Kaczyński in 2010 in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński accused Putin of murdering his twin brother. In the 2010s, PiS became a major force in the European Parliament, acting as a far-right party that warned of Putin’s dangers. Orbán’s rapprochement with Putin was not crucial during peacetime but became decisive in wartime. The two diverged on issues related to sanctions against Putin’s regime, military and financial aid to Ukraine, and the perception of Russia as a military threat. As a result, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tried to pursue a middle way between the EU and Russia, the Polish government became one of Kiev’s most vocal supporters.

In 2022, other far-right actors took a stand against Putin. During her election campaign, Georgia Meloni and her party Fratelli d’Italia strongly criticised Russia, thus distancing themselves from Matteo Salvini’s Lega, who in the past has been photographed wearing a Putin T-shirt in Moscow’s Red Square.

In our recently published study, we analysed the votes of MEPs belonging to the Populist Radical Right (PRR) parties in the European Parliament, showing significant variations in their positions towards Russia even before the invasion. This division ranged from highly assertive positions held by Vox, PiS and Fratelli d’Italia to a greater conformity with Russian interests of FPÖ, AfD, and RN MEPs. It is important to note that Hungary’s Fidesz party was the most assertive within the group of less assertive parties, also falling in the middle.

Figure 1.- Assertiveness Towards Russia
Source: Holesch & Zagórski (2023)
Our study reveals that, overall, the Russian invasion has diminished the pre-existing differences between the EU’s far-right parties in terms of their stance towards Moscow. Surprisingly, the assertiveness of PiS and Vox decreased, while the assertiveness of Fidesz more than doubled. These findings are surprising, as one would expect a divergence in assertiveness towards Russia among these parties. Unexpectedly, the Russian invasion seems to have brought PiS and Fidesz closer together. Orbán’s image as Russia’s ally in the EU contrasts with Fidesz’s unclear position in its vote. In the Hungarian case we can observe a tendency to abstain or not turn out for votes that are uncomfortable for the party. 

As we delve deeper into other aspects of the analysis, intriguing revelations emerge. Spain’s VOX party emerges as the boldest and most assertive, possibly motivated by its desire to counter the pro-Russia stance of Spain’s far left, at least before the invasion. Also surprising is the stance of Italy’s La Lega, considering that its leader, Matteo Salvini, was quite close to Putin. Germany’s AfD, which does not participate in the unification of the far right, shows increased assertiveness towards Russia after the invasion. Meanwhile, the French RN party and its leader Marine Le Pen seem to maintain a favourable stance towards Putin.

In conclusion, the Russian issue continues to divide the parties of the Populist Radical Right (PRR), even as they become more critical of Putin. The Russian invasion of 2022 has eroded Russia’s ability to influence these parties, calling into question existing ties. As a result, Putin’s regime became toxic, further complicating the prospects for far-right unification ahead of the 2024 European parliamentary elections.
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