Russia turns to right-wing parties in EU

A Russian loan to France’s National Front. Invitations to Moscow for leaders of Austria’s Freedom Party. Praise for Vladimir Putin from the head of Britain’s anti-European Union party.

As the diplomatic chill over Ukraine deepens, the Kremlin is keen to enlist Europe’s far-right parties in its campaign for influence in the West.

Russia fears that NATO could spread to countries it considers part of its sphere of influence. And it has rightly served notice that it will not tolerate meddling, most recently with its Ukraine campaign.

Europe’s right-wing and populist parties, meanwhile, see an Atlanticist-dominated EU as contrary to their vision of Europe. They want to see a union of strong national states that do not toady to America.

The fact that many of Moscow’s allies are right to far-right reflects the Kremlin’s full turn. Under communism, nationalist parties were shunned as “xenophobic”.

Statements by leading critics of the EU, or euroskeptics, reflect their admiration of the Kremlin.

National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen told The Associated Press this month that France and Russia “have a communality of interest.”

Daughter Marine Le Pen, party president and a strong contender for the French presidency in 2017, envisions a Europe stretching “from the Atlantic to the Urals” — a “pan-European union” that includes Russia and is supported by other right-wing parties.

Nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban perceives prevailing winds as “blowing from the East” and sees in Russia an ideal political model for his concept of an “illiberal state.”

The head of Britain’s euroskeptic Independence Party, Nigel Farage, has said Putin is the world leader he most admires.

Among other Moscow regulars from euroskeptic parties across Europe are members of Hungary’s anti-Semitic Jobbik and Austria’s Freedom Party.

Jobbik parliamentarian Bela Kovacs is under investigation in Hungary for allegedly “spying” for Russia.

While in Moscow recently, Freedom Party firebrand Johann Gudenus accused the European Union of kowtowing to NATO and America and denounced the spreading influence of the homosexual lobby in Europe.

Shunned at home by the liberal establishment and pro-American media, many are eager to gain air time on RT television, Russia’s international answer to CNN.

For them, “the benefit is that they can receive diplomatic support from a very high level from a superpower,” says Peter Kreko of Hungary’s Political Capital research institute.

Financial rewards are also incentives. Orban just signed a nuclear-reactor deal with Moscow. France is abuzz over the National Front’s recent 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank owned by a reputed Putin confidant.

Marine Le Pen describes it as “a perfectly legal loan that we will reimburse perfectly legally,” saying the party turned to Russia after being rejected by Western banks. But the transaction has galvanized fears among the National Front’s opponents of increased Kremlin influence, with the Socialists calling for an inquiry.

Links between Russia and the right predate the Ukraine conflict. A 2005 US diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks noted close ties between Bulgaria’s extreme-right Ataka party and the Russian Embassy in Sofia.

And Joerg Haider, the late leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, helped powerful Russian businessmen with residency permits more than a decade ago in exchange for close to 1 million euros in campaign funding.

Putin’s friendships with German ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italy’s former Premier Silvio Berlusconi were also useful for the Kremlin.

Now the diplomatic gloom is settling in, their strong domestic and EU election showings this year will help further its own interests, Moscow hopes.

Of the 24 right-wing populist parties that took about a quarter of the European Parliament’s seats in May elections, Political Capital lists 15 as “committed” to Russia.

Many owe their popularity to evidence that EU-friendly parties in power are to blame for the continent’s economic woes — a view that could grow if the downturn persists.

“What Russia is saying is, ‘It’s fine for you to be the way you are’,” says analyst Melik Kaylan, in a study for the Institute of Modern Russia.