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Random friends or asymmetric ‘Trojan horses’? An analysis of the far right in Central and Southeast Europe.

What has orientated parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn towards Moscow, and what are the implications for Russian foreign policy in the EU-peripheries of Central and Southeast Europe?   

Members of Jobbik at a rally in Budapest. Demotix/David Ferenczy. Some rights reserved.

The latest developments in Ukraine indicate Russia’s motive to solidify its status within the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, Kremlin has gained sympathizers among the far right parties in the ‘old’ (e.g. Golden Dawn in Greece) as well as the ‘new’ (e.g. Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria) EU member-states in Central and Southeast Europe.

This acquires greater importance if one considers the successful performance of populist and far right parties in the latest European elections. Due to the limitations of this piece, I mostly concentrate on the cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn with a broader overview of the Greek and Hungarian political landscapes. Of greater importance it is to concentrate on the alignment of these parties with Kremlin: What, in particular, has orientated parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn towards Moscow? What are the implications for Russian foreign policy in the EU-peripheries of Central and Southeast Europe?   

Why the appeal to the far right in Central and Southeast Europe? The cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn

The leaders of Jobbik (Gábor Vona) and Golden Dawn (Nikolaos Michaloliakos) have been insisting that Hungary and Greece must extend their bilateral cooperation with Russia. Márton Gyöngyösi and other Jobbik MPs had participated in the ‘independent’ electoral commission during the recent referendum in Crimea. Even more emphatically, Ilias Kasidiaris (Golden Dawn’s second-in-charge) has stated that ‘a crucial task for the nationalist government must be to render Greece a strategic ally for Russia in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean’. However, why these pro-Kremlin sentiments among parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn?

Anti-liberalism makes up an essential component of Golden Dawn’s as well as Jobbik’s engagement into politics. A series of articles in Golden Dawn’s website have been denouncing Liberalism as an ideology that may ultimately turn human societies into herd-like aggregates of individuals without any awareness of collective belonging. On the other hand, Jobbik’s political programme (2010), pledges to reverse the ‘…intentional Liberal destruction of Hungarian national consciousness and protect all symbols of national identity’.

Indeed, the prospective erosion of the collective bonds which, allegedly, constitute human societies (e.g. family, religion and cultural traditions) features as one of the greatest fears among the European far right. Meanwhile, the same political actors tend to regard Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a ‘healthier’ political model in comparison to the mainstream patterns of politics in the West (e.g. a leader-centred and strong government, the promotion of national values, and the safeguarding of the ‘naturally ascribed’ gender-roles).

The second factor is hard Euroscepticism. Jobbik and Golden Dawn reject the EU as a bureaucratic construct that promotes the interests of the powerful states to the detriment of the peripheral ones. The two parties have condemned the EU as a feeble entity within which the Franco-German axis and the post-industrial states of Northwestern Europe maximize their national interests over the EU peripheries.

Nevertheless, whereas Golden Dawn has spoken explicitly of the necessity to align Greek national interests with Russian foreign policy, Jobbik has refrained from calls to turn Hungary into a ‘satellite-state’ of Russia. Despite the intensive networking between Gábor Vona and Kremlin, Jobbik’s party-programme still advocates for ‘an independent and sovereign foreign policy doctrine that will maintain an equal distance from East (e.g. Russia, China) and West (e.g. EU, the US)’.

The third factor is anti-capitalism and Russia’s image as an ‘economic alternative’. Jobbik, as well as Golden Dawn, have frequently condemned the EU as a ‘pseudo-union built upon cultural Marxism and relentless capitalism’. In their political platforms, these parties often blend elements from the traditional political culture of nationalism in their countries with an artificial ‘anti-capitalism’. Within this context, and taking into account that Greece and Hungary are two countries that have been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis, both parties have been considering alternative partnerships for economic cooperation.

Panos Kammenos and other deputies from the populist Independent Greeks had been urging Greece to borrow money from Russia (with, allegedly, more favourable interest-rates) in order to repay the country’s foreign debt. Rumours about Russia’s economic success had flooded the Greek web-sphere and Golden Dawn was quick on its feet to call for ‘Greece’s closer alignment with Moscow and tighter cooperation in military as well as economic affairs’. The threatening spectre of the economy’s collapse in Russia may dispel quite a few of these rumours. However, the political impact of Russia’s image as a self-sufficient power and an economic alternative to the EU still persists among certain segments of Greek society.      

The fourth factor is the interaction between identity-politics and foreign policy. Jobbik, Golden Dawn and other far right parties have been very sceptical of the ways that globalization may allegedly result in ‘worldwide acculturation’. Along these lines, ideological trends such as (neo)Eurasianism coincide with Jobbik’s calls to reconnect Hungary with the Asian part of its cultural ancestry. Although it subscribes to Hungary’s ‘historical’ image as a hegemonic power inside the Carpathian Basin, the Jobbik leadership equally acknowledges the Eurasian origins of the Hungarian ethno-genesis (i.e. the references to the Ancient Magyars and Huns). Gábor Vona and other high-rank members of Jobbik have been quick on their feet to dispel any Eurocentric or Orientalist outlooks and emphasize Hungary’s role as a bridge between East and West.

This aspect of Jobbik’s foreign policy doctrine has come to legitimize Vona’s campaign in emerging regional actors such as Turkey, Kazakhstan or, in this case, Russia. It is the shared belief in cultural exceptionalism and the conviction that neither the Russian nor the Hungarian culture can confine within the narrow limits of ‘Europe’ or ‘Asia’ that provides a common ground between the Russian Eurasianists’ (Alexander Dugin, in particular) and Vona’s understandings of Eurasian identity. This common ground has helped bypass the obstacle of ‘traditional’ Russoscepticism among Hungarian nationalists.

Implications for the future

By contrast to the bipolarity of the ‘80s and the unipolarity of the ‘90s, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a multipolar international system. The European economic crisis revealed not only the feeble foundations of monetary unification but also the conflict among various models of governance and financial management inside the EU. Meanwhile, Russia has reasserted its ambition to evolve into a potent global actor. The two parties that have been discussed operate in EU peripheries marred by economic stagnation and political instability.

As far as Russia’s foreign policy is concerned, one might argue that Kremlin does not endorse concrete ideological prerogatives. Instead, one might detect a pattern of situational adaptation. Russian nationalism, an abstract Eurasian identity and, even, the Soviet heritage have been occasionally invoked in order to legitimize Russia’s foreign policy in the ‘near abroad’. During the recent crisis in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Kremlin’s spokespersons and pro-Kremlin media outlets, rushed to portray the conflict as a war between neo-Fascists and anti-Fascists.

Through linking the recent developments to the Soviet heritage and Ukraine’s home-grown tradition of Fascism (e.g. Stepan Bandera and the OUN), the coordinated endeavour of the abovementioned actors succeeded in making certain leftist parties rather sympathetic to Russian foreign policy. Germany’s Die Linke, for instance, has interpreted the developments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as a justified response to the ‘EU-sponsored, Fascist government in Kyiv’.

Meanwhile, this did not prevent Kremlin from utilizing representatives of far right parties in an ‘independent’ electoral commission during the recent referendum in Crimea. On the one hand, Kremlin has managed to capitalize on grievances that do not confine in the cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn but resonate with a considerable chunk of the European far right (e.g. Euroscepticism and anti-liberalism). On the other hand, the Great Patriotic War against Fascism and its symbolism form a major component of nationalist imagery in contemporary Russia.

Nevertheless, instead of being national in shape and Socialist in content, the image of the Great Patriotic War has been given a distinctly national (Russian) content. In this light, Russia is being portrayed as an anti-fascist force not on ideological but, mainly, on national grounds through references to the Russian nation’s war-effort against Nazi Germany. It is this reappropriation of the Great Patriotic War’s imagery that has provided an, even by default, common ground between certain parties of the broader left and Kremlin. Furthermore, it is this ‘ideological void’ that has enabled Kremlin to network with a variety of, occasionally conflicting, political actors and juggle with their resentment towards mainstream politics within the EU.                  

With specific regard to the European far right, it might be an exaggeration to argue that Kremlin employs far right parties in such a coordinated manner that the Comintern had utilized Communist parties during the interwar era. Moreover, the map of the far right is too diverse and multifaceted to form a coherent whole. For instance, Jobbik’s increasing popularity is an additional factor that has spurred a more decisive turn towards the right on the part of the ruling FIDESZ. At the same time, Golden Dawn’s extremism has resulted in the conviction of the party’s leading figures and this opens up new prospects (although the results of the European elections demonstrated that Golden Dawn has managed to maintain its electoral base).     

However, depending on the evolution of the balance of power between Russia and the EU, one should not dismiss the possibility for such political actors to function as (asymmetric) ‘Trojan horses’ inside the framework of Russian foreign policy. In all of this, it should be borne in mind that the role envisioned for the sympathetic ‘Trojan horses’ from Central and Southeast Europe within the EU bears a qualitative difference from the role reserved for certain parties from the ‘core’ of Western Europe.

In the former case, the focus is cast on systemic transformation, or a radical shift in the foreign policy agenda, that would bring the states in question within Russia’s sphere of influence. In the case of Greece, the drastic realignment of the party-system and the state of turbulence between 2010 and 2011 revealed the fragile foundations of political institutions. Moreover, the current prospect of new elections and the possibility that the leftist SYRIZA may win them generates further anxieties in regards with the consolidation of the new government. In the case of Hungary, the state of friction between Budapest and Brussels over the management of the economic crisis has been a driving force behind the readjustment of this state’s foreign policy towards Moscow.

By contrast, the polities of Western Europe are characterized by greater stability and their democratic institutions have been established as result of a long process. Therefore, the prospects for systemic transformations with groundbreaking repercussions are rather weak. Within the West European context, then, Kremlin’s focus is cast on a more gradualist strategy. This may consist in an attempt to employ sympathetic parties from Western Europe as a bulwark with the aim to counter the impact of the US and the EU upon the foreign policy agenda(s) in these states. So far, a variety of political parties, as diverse as the National Front in France and the UKIP in the United Kingdom, seem to endorse Russian foreign policy. The growing popularity of these parties signals the shape of things to come.  

About the author

Vassilis Petsinis is a Marie Curie Experienced Researcher at the University of Tartu (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies). His specialisation is European politics and ethnopolitics with a regional focus on central and southeast Europe (including the Baltic States). He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham. His personal profile on academia.edu can be accessed here.


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