The “Russian factor” in European elections recalls the heightened dangers and intrigues of the Cold War, when the superpower competition for European hearts and minds served as preparation for World War III. In the sixty years of European integration since the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community in 1957, Europe and Russia have changed so much but their relationship has changed very little.
In those days the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a multinational experiment in pooled sovereignty aimed at achieving a grand ideological vision: a worker’s paradise. The European project was a collection of states trying to build trust through establishing common rules, values and norms. In this adversarial Cold War environment, the Soviet Union prepared for confrontation with the United States by shaping the political interests of European states.
Fast-forward to the present and the roles have switched, but the relationship between Europe and Russia remains familiar. Once more it is unclear where Europe and Russia begin and end, and under whose institutions values, and norms will the in-between countries follow. The European Union is now the multinational experiment in pooled sovereignty aimed at achieving a grand ideological vision – an economic and political union generating and sustaining interdependence and harmony. At the same time Russia is promoting a new version of very old values – conservatism, nationalism and state sovereignty – that is striking at the very heart of how Europe runs itself by promoting political forces advocating national interests over the greater good.
The battle over where Russia and Europe begin and end reflects the overlapping conclusion of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union was not going to win the Cold War in any appreciable fashion and was counterproductive for the USSR’s relations with Europe in general, he helped bring the Cold War to an end. At the December 1989 US-Soviet Summit in Malta, he noted, “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era. (…) The threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past.”
In Malta Gorbachev acquiesced to the reality of political changes in Eastern Europe. Socialist governments were collapsing metaphorically and the Berlin Wall was brought down quite literally, and the Soviet leader accepted German reunification. That decision permitted the two Germanys to come together under Western rules, which created a very powerful precedent: Euro-Atlantic political and economic institutions could spread eastwards and incorporate former communist states into Europe.
From the European perspective, those states that wish to adopt its rules served to justify the European project. From the Russian perspective, Europe was stealing its past and future satellite states, taking its natural sphere of influence and buffer against Europe itself. Each subsequent expansion of the European Union and NATO deepened the integration dilemma: the more Europe moved east, the more threatened Russian leaders became because they could not compete with Europe’s economic power, nor did they want to become part of the European Union itself and give up Russian sovereignty. Great powers are not good joiners.
This fundamental tension between the spread of Europe eastwards and Russia’s ongoing strategy to reclaim great power status has led to the trend of Russian participation in European elections, for which there exists a long history. In earlier years the Soviet Union sought to appeal directly to the European masses via the Communist International (Comintern) and the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). These bodies organized the international socialist movement through overt, covert (for passing agents and secrets back), and semi-covert “front organizations” from the post-revolutionary era through the end of de-Stalinization.
As the visceral ideological appeal of Soviet communism declined over the course of the Cold War and revelation of Stalin’s crimes, the Soviet Union changed tack, supporting peace and anti-nuclear movements in the 1970s and 1980s. In this approach, the Soviet Union took advantage of political polarization in European societies and the widening generation gap between those who lived through a traumatic event (World War II) and those who did not. By supporting groups that appealed to European values but were out of step with mainstream, anti-Soviet parties, the Soviet Union used the openness of European societies and radicalization of youth movements against their governments.
The contemporary Russian turn towards supporting European far-right groups is similar to supporting far-left groups in the 20th century because both are anti-systemic forces weakening local elites and intra-European unity, obliging national governments to negotiate with Russia from a position of relative weakness. Russia supports far-right euroskeptic groups and politicians because it failed to forge common understanding with the European Union over basic cooperation even prior to events in Ukraine, which have only accelerated the division.
The populist anti-EU forces in Europe existed long before Vladimir Putin, but the Russian leader recognized the congruence. The European far-right nativists want to weaken the European Union to reassert state sovereignty while Russia wants a weakened bloc unable to maintain unanimity on issues important to Russia: economic sanctions, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and support to the anti-Assad opposition in Syria. Politicians such as Marine Le Pen (France), Geert Wilders (Netherlands), Nigel Farage (United Kingdom), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Rumen Radev (Bulgaria), and others seek Putin’s support to take advantage of anti-establishment sentiment. Moreover, Russia’s dominant ruling party, United Russia, has signed memoranda of understanding with the Northern League (Italy), the Freedom Party (Austria), the Independent Greeks (Greece), hosted European Parliament members of the Five-Star Movement (Italy) and the leaders of the National Front (France), Alternative For Germany (Germany), Jobbik (Hungary), Ataka (Bulgaria), and others at lower levels of official interaction, such as inviting individuals to conferences. Meeting with the Russian president and taking Russian money signals to domestic voters sick of their political elites that they are serious about change and distance from Atlanticist-European mainstream.
The European Union is a powerful example of human cooperation and cannot be defeated directly by Russia or any other single state. Yet Russia can certainly cause social instability within these countries to pursue its own agenda on specific issues and the general extent of European versus Russian power. So long as Russia seeks access to the European market but without accepting its rules, values and norms, the “battle” between the European Union and Russia will continue.