Since Russian financing of the French National Front was uncovered last year, the Kremlin’s sponsorship of extremist parties in Europe has ceased to be a matter of speculation and become a matter of fact. Which other pro-Russian fringe parties receive Kremlin funds is unclear, but our earlier piece on the subject gives some clues. As Britain’s commitments both to the EU and to NATO come into question, it is worth considering the means employed by Russia to split the Western allies and exploit the openness of their democratic systems. In light of Russian aggression against Ukraine and its menaces towards the Baltic states and Poland, these developments represent a clear and present danger to the UK, NATO and Europe as a whole.
Recent developments in France and Hungary now point towards Russian-backed extremist parties making a bid for respectability among mainstream voters and forming governments. Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic expert on these movements, describes the process as ‘strategic de-radicalisation‘ – something that brings a real danger of Russian proxy parties gaining power and unwinding NATO and trans-Atlantic ties.
This process of investing in unelectable crackpot parties and then mentoring them to electability owes something to Comintern’s ‘entryism’ and ‘popular front’ tactics in the 1920s and 1930s. But first it is worth looking at recent developments in Hungary and France.
Jobbik in Hungary
Hungary’s Fidesz government is not the most popular with western allies; Senator John McCain memorably called the prime minister Victor Orbán a ‘neo-fascist dictator’ last year. But with the leftist opposition in disarray, the far-right Jobbik party has become the de facto opposition, as Orbán acknowledges. Recent polling puts Jobbik’s approval rating in the high 20s, just a few percentage points behind Fidesz.
Jobbik’s MPs have a long track record of slurs against Jews, Roma and neighbouring states that do not bear repeating. So there was widespread surprise in Hungary in April when Jobbik’s leader Gabor Vona gave an interview to the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet in which he sounded almost reasonable:
‘Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary is knocking on the door of government. These parties are new in ways we are only beginning to grasp’
He went on to renounce racism (although not his openly racist colleagues) and went on:
‘Ever since 2010 I have been voicing the message that Hungary must represent its interests in a Germany-Russia-Turkey triangle. Recently, Viktor Orbán recognized it as well. My party and I do not and will not have difficulties in terms Russia and Turkey, it's Germany that I must develop good relations with. It will be an extremely difficult challenge because the German media is even worse than the Hungarian one, they label us as a neo-Nazi party. However, I would like to present the real Jobbik to the leading German politicians.’
The interesting thing in this formulation of Germany-Russia-Turkey is the country that is left out: the US. This gives a clue to the real aim of pro-Russian parties in Europe, which is to get elected on a reasonable-sounding mandate and then break trans-Atlantic ties; ultimately the Russians care little about internal politics in these countries and can tolerate the EU. The strategic objective is to separate a militarily weak Europe from the US and bring it under Russia’s shadow.
According to a senior politician from Hungary’s Fidesz party:
‘Jobbik are softening their line on racism and anti-Semitism and rallying around opposition to TTIP and Hungary’s military contribution to Iraq. This is all the more damaging to relations with the US because for 18 months there was no ambassador, and so we had virtually no channel of communication with Washington.’
In the same month Jobbik made a great advance by winning its first directly-elected seat, in the Tapolca by-election. Hitherto Jobbik had party list seats in the parliament, but had never achieved a majority in a by election.
It should be noted that Jobbik sent several ‘election monitors’ to Russia’s sham ‘elections’ in eastern Ukraine in November, in the hope of adding some spurious legitimacy to the process. While the party has an open and strong orientation towards Russia, no definitive proof of Russian funding of the party itself has yet been uncovered, although Hungary’s security service is reportedly investigating. In September 2014 Hungary’s security service accused the Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács (who was one of the Ukraine ‘monitors) of being a Russian agent. As Newsweek reported:
The Hungarian government is requesting the right to lift immunity from a member of the European Parliament so that it can investigate accusations he has been acting as a spy for Russia.
Béla Kovács, who is a member of Hungarian far-right party Jobbik and a vocal advocate of pro-Russian politics, is suspected of having ties with the Russian intelligence dating back to the late 1970s.
"The case is currently in front of the European Parliament, after the Hungarian prosecutor general's office turned to its President requesting the suspension of MEP Béla Kovács' immunity," Hungary's Prime Ministerial office confirmed…
… On Tuesday, Hungarian newspaper Index revealed that Kovács's wife, Russian Svetlana Izstosina was also legally married to two other men, one of whom was a nuclear scientist from Moscow's state university.
In the decades prior to Kovács's emergence into Hungarian politics in the 2000s he and his wife had travelled unhindered by the USSR's strict border laws.
Index alleges Izstosina was employed or at least backed financially by the KGB to act as a messenger for the Soviet government, with Kovács as a suspected accomplice.
Hungarian and international intelligence services are also believed to be in possession of recordings of "conspiratorial" meetings Kovács had with Russian diplomats dating back to 2009, Index said.
If Jobbik were indeed to form a majority government in Hungary’s next general election in 2018 – something Vona naturally forecasts – McCain and many others may yet look back with fondness on Victor Orbán.
National Front in France
Confirmation of Russian support for the French National Front came in November 2014, when it was disclosed that the party had received a €9m loan from First Czech-Russian Bank, which is owned by a Russian individual with strong ties to the Kremlin. The French news site Mediapart subsequently published excerpts of over 1,100 pages of text messages leaked by Anonymous in April 2015 that further exposed Russian support for the National Front. Marine Le Pen admitted that the party had taken the Russian money, but dismissed allegations that this was the first installment of a series of loans worth €40m. Other party sources told Mediapart that there was indeed a further €31m to come from First Czech-Russian Bank.
As with Jobbik, the party’s objective of breaking links to the US is clear. At the party’s congress in Lyon in November 2014 Andrei Isayev, an MP from Putin’s United Russia party, told delegates: ‘The will of the people of European countries is being subsumed by the will of a few little-known officials from the EU who in reality are simply American puppets’.
The party’s manifesto is oddly reminiscent of Jobbik’s. One promise is to create a ‘trilateral alliance between France, Russia and Germany’ and a ‘Pan-European Union of Sovereign States, to include Russia and Switzerland.’ It also undertakes to remove France from NATO.
The parallels with Jobbik, however, go much further. In April, the same month that Vona gave his interview to Magyar Nemzet, a ferocious row erupted in public between Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The daughter had decided to renounce the father’s distasteful views (including describing the Holocaust as ‘merely a detail’ of the second world war and praising Pétain) and in May had him suspended from party membership and his post as honorary president. In early June the patriarch launched legal action against the party he founded and threatened to start a rival rightist party. The aim, without doubt, is to extend National Front support from its base of disaffected working class voters into the middle classes – something the party must do if it is to win national elections.
Before this move, polls gave Marine Le Pen the strongest public support among the candidates for the 2017 Presidential election. An Ifop poll in January gave her 30% electoral support, ahead of Hollande, Sarkozy, Juppé and Valls. A subsequent Opinionway poll in April put Le Pen in second place, but it is clear that she is now a serious contender for the Presidency.
An emerging pattern
Based on incomplete evidence, a pattern is nevertheless emerging. First, Russian backers offer support to an extremist political party be it right or left. Second, working from a new position of financial security, the party discards its more objectionable rhetoric and policies and lurches towards the centre and electability. In the third phase, which we have yet to see materialise, the party succeeds in its bid for mass electoral appeal and forms a government. Once in power, its main obligation to its Russian backers is to withdraw from NATO and to reconfigure its foreign policy to exclude the US and draw close to Russia. It is likely that Russian mentors care little either way about EU policy – if Brussels is deemed appeals to voters, as in Hungary, they may be pro EU; if not, as in France, then the party is hostile to the EU. The core Russian aim is to push out the US in general, and TTIP and NATO in particular.
As in many aspects of contemporary Russia, there is a distorted echo of Soviet practice here. In the 1920s and 1930s the Communist International (Comintern) was charged with exporting communism throughout the world. Its modus operandi was remarkably pragmatic, since Soviet leaders understood that the masses in the western democracies were not ready for a Marxist revolution. They therefore advocated an oblique approach whereby Comintern agents and sympathisers would infiltrate socialist and social democratic movements. Similarly, militants sought to organize ‘popular fronts’ of left-leaning parties, acting as parasites on a larger host organism. Ultimately, they hoped to ride to democratic success and then seize control of governing parties. And so it appears now that Russia is using fringe parties to exploit popular discontent and foist its hostile schemes on western states: as Mark Twain reputedly said, ‘History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’
What to do
The patterns described above amount to nothing less than state-sponsored subversion of European democratic systems, which is proved in the case of the National Front, and suspected in several other cases. It is again an echo of Soviet Russia that the openness and supposed weakness of liberal democracies are used as a weapon against them. Indeed, it is ironic that in 2012 the Duma passed a law requiring NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive foreign funding and engage in political activity; it is unthinkable that the Russian state would tolerate foreign-funded parties.
And yet France appears to have taken no action against the National Front. As well as the allegations against Jobbik’s Béla Kovács, the Times reported on 25th November 2015 that there were similar indications towards Vlaams Belang Belgium, Greece’s Golden Dawn and Italy’s Northern League, among others. (The Northern League illustrates a secondary passion of the Kremlin, for secession.)
In Greece the far-left Syriza is now in power, and may yet wreak havoc both on the EU and NATO. While no evidence of Russian funding has come to light, the party has strong links to Russian nationalist organisations and the Kremlin. Indeed, for whatever reason, one of the few European states where there is no sign of this phenomenon is the UK.
It is clear that lawmakers throughout Europe should pay more attention to such subversion, so that parties involved in it can be held to account by law. Similarly, security services and prosecutors should not shy away from investigating, documenting and prosecuting movements and individuals who act as ciphers for hostile powers. Open the West should be, but weak it must not be.
Neil Barnett runs Istok Associates (www.istok.co.uk), a corporate intelligence consultancy, and is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies