Last week, leaders of far-right parties from several European Union countries assembled in Milan to announce the creation of a nationalist alliance for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The group, known as the European Alliance for People and Nations, aims to win the largest bloc of seats in the European Parliament and already includes members from Germany, Italy, Finland, Denmark, Austria and France. “We share the same objectives, the same ideals and values,” Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the host of the meeting, told journalists ahead of the announcement.
Europe’s far-right parties share something else, too: a staunch affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. One after another, nationalist politicians across the E.U. have praised the Kremlin leader and harshly criticized their own governments for imposing sanctions on Putin’s regime over its human rights abuses at home and territorial grabs abroad. Austria’s vice chancellor and Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has called on the E.U. “to put an end to these exasperating sanctions” and “normalize political and economic relations” with the Kremlin; Salvini has declared his personal “admiration” for Putin and opined that “Italy could do with … men like him.” Similar praises for Putin have been sung by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally and runner-up in the last presidential election, and by Nigel Farage, who led the campaign to get Britain out of the E.U. and now heads the new Brexit Party.
The partnership goes beyond compliments. The leaders of Europe’s far right provide Putin with a commodity he has been lacking since the mass protests of 2011-12, and especially since his 2014 attack on Ukraine: international legitimacy. While most of the world has condemned the annexation of Crimea as unlawful, far-right E.U. legislators posed as “international observers” at the hastily organized referendum that formalized it. While credible multilateral organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe, have condemned “elections” in Putin’s Russia as choreographed spectacles with no real choice, far-right politicians praised them as examples for Western Europe. Italy’s Salvini expressed hope “that Italy has real parliamentary elections, just as open as in [Russia].” British Member of the European Parliament Nick Griffin commended Putin for “a robust, transparent and properly democratic system that made me even more aware … of the archaic and corrupted shambles that masquerades as free and fair elections in Great Britain.” Salvini’s League and the Austrian Freedom Party — both part of governing coalitions in their countries — have signed cooperation agreements with Putin’s United Russia.
Far-right politicians are keen to help when Kremlin interests are threatened – as when E.U. parliaments consider legislation on targeted sanctions against foreign officials complicit in corruption and human rights abuses. This is Putin’s biggest worry. Last June, at a parliamentary hearing in Denmark on the Magnitsky Act, Marie Krarup, a legislator from the Danish People’s Party, diligently recited Kremlin talking points. I must admit it was a surreal feeling, as a Russian, to be lectured by a Danish politician in Copenhagen about how great life is under Putin. As Lithuanian parliamentarian Gabrielius Landsbergis observed, he was unsure whether the Russian Embassy had sent its representatives to the hearing, but in any case it didn’t need to.
There has been much discussion about the possible financial underpinning of this cozy relationship. Nationalist leaders have categorically denied all allegations. Salvini asserted that he has “never received a lira, euro, or a ruble from Russia.” (An assertion that cannot be made by the leaders of France’s far right, whose election campaign was once rescued with an $11.7 million loan from a Moscow-based bank.)
Earlier this month, it was reported that an investigation conducted by the London-based Dossier Center, along with media outlets from Britain, Germany and Italy, had uncovered documents that point to direct Russian government support for a German lawmaker from Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party that forms the largest opposition group in the Bundestag. A 2017 letter from Pyotr Premyak, a former secret service agent, to Sergei Sokolov, a senior official in Putin’s administration, calls for “support in the election campaign” for AfD candidate Markus Frohnmaier, referring to him as “our own absolutely controlled member of the Bundestag,” should he be elected. He was. And since then he has called for the removal of E.U. sanctions and visited Russian-controlled Crimea and Donbass. (Note: The Dossier Center is financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian political exile who also funds Open Russia, my employer.)
Frohnmaier, predictably, has dismissed the document as a “fake.” While the Kremlin continues under current management, documentary evidence of its support for foreign legislators and political parties is bound to remain contestable and fragmented. In the 1980s, rumors of Soviet financial support for the miners’ strike against then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government in Great Britain, or the Kremlin’s close ties with Finland’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa were angrily dismissed as slander — until they were proven by documents found in the former Central Committee archive in 1992. In the end, as they say, the truth will always out.