Amid the sinister circus of Russian-sponsored ‘elections’ in eastern Ukraine last weekend, the Russians have done us a small favour. In an effort to legitimise the votes, ‘election observers’ were brought in via Russia. The identity of these ‘observers’ serves as a handy guide to Russian influence networks in Western and Central Europe.
A list of ‘observers’, compiled by the website interpretermag.com, is reproduced below. The list is a veritable rogue’s gallery. It includes openly neo-Nazi organisations such as Hungary’s Jobbik and Bulgaria’s Ataka, both of which are implicitly anti-Semitic, pro-Moscow and strongly anti-EU. (Jobbik, for example, has proposed compiling lists of Jews in Hungary.) This is rather grotesque in light of Russia’s main justification for its invasion of Ukraine, namely that the country is allegedly in the grip of a ‘fascist junta’.
There are also representatives of Stalinist groups such as the Communist Party of Greece and, ironically, one Viliam Longauer of Slovakia’s ‘Union of Fighters against Fascism’.
Then there are two representatives of Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, and a man from the Serbian Progressive Party, the party of Serbia’s President, Tomislav Nikolić.
So what can we learn from this assortment of misfits and, to use Lenin’s term, useful idiots? The answer is quite a lot, some of it rather disturbing.
First, the observers were organised by the Eurasian Observatory of Democracy and Elections (EODE) run by the Belgian far-right politician Luc Michel and the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) run by the Polish fascist Mateusz Piskorski. Orysia Lutseyvych of Chatham House identifies EODE as one of Russia’s increasing array of fake NGOs and human rights groups. She says that ‘facing an increasing international criticism about the state of human rights in Russia, the Kremlin decided to develop its own set of institutions to use human rights as a political tool. Attacking the West is perceived as the best defence by the Kremlin. By providing funding and visibility to various so called human rights and democracy support groups, Russian state aims to establish a parallel discourse and accuse the West of double-standards. These Russian groups publish alternative human rights reports, observe elections abroad, and act as human right defenders for compatriots.’
Second, the co-opting of European far right groups, in particular, is a Kremlin strategy to promote discord and alienation in Europe, to undermine the EU and to foster anti-Americanism. Having greatly narrowed down political opposition and free expression in Russia, Putin is trying to use Europe’s openness against it, something that no doubt appeals to his judo training.
Throughout Europe, in different forms, it is clear that electorates are dissatisfied and open to the ideas of extremists, imposters and demagogues. These range from opportunists like the Scottish Nationalists and UKIP to more aggressive outfits like Ataka and Jobbik. By allowing a gulf to open between themselves and voters, Europe’s political elites have unwittingly opened the door to new and unpredictable forces. Abundant detail on this subject can be found on the blog of Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic who follows the subject of Russia’s engagement with Europe’s new right (http://anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.co.uk/).
Aside from the Ukraine ‘monitor’ group, there are of course other parties of the far right in Europe that admire Putin’s brand of demagoguery and surprise annexation. The French National Front is perhaps the best placed of these parties in any large EU state, and Marine le Pen and her foreign policy chief Aymeric Chauprade are regular visitors to Moscow. During one of those visits in March, days after the annexation of Ukraine, she told a press conference, ‘I am surprised a new cold war on Russia has been declared by the EU.’ She favours ‘independence’ from the US and NATO. France, of course, is not Hungary: it is a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council.
This room for Russia to operate has been created by European political elites’ failure to listen to their electorates: they are widely viewed as arrogant, aloof and disconnected from those they represent. It would be as well for these elites to descend to the level of their electorates on matters such as immigration and gay rights, or else abdicate to far less reasonable forces.
And at a more prosaic level, the various security services of Europe might pay some attention to the ultimate sources of funding of their populist and far right parties. They might find some interesting fauna lurking under the stones.
Neil Barnett has 15 years' experience as a journalist in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)
and the Middle East, writing for the Telegraph, the Spectator and Jane's Defence
Weekly. He covered the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine and the conflict in Iraq and
has written a biography of Tito.
He now runs Istok Associates, a risk consultancy specialising in CEE and the Middle