The impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe
Author: Sabine Roehrig-Mahhou
24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, sparked the worst conflict in Europe since World War II. In Ukraine,. Tens of thousands people have been killed, countless buildings and the Ukrainian infrastructure have been destroyed, and live of millions of people has been turned upside down.
For other countries, the war also has brought fears and uncertainties in terms of the security situation, but also economic aspects. The war disrupted global trade that was still recovering from the pandemic. Prices for food, gas, oil and many other products have increased dramatically which has a noticeable impact on peoples live all around the world.
The consequences in relation to the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics. For populists, this situation offers further opportunities as anxieties are fuelling support for populism at both ends of the political spectrum.
“The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism.”
In a new report, published in March 2023 by the European Center for Popiulism Studies, the impact of the Russian invasion on right-wing populism in Europe is examined.
Traditionally, many radical right-wing populist parties have ties with Russia. This includes the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, the Freedom Party (PVV) and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands, Lega in Italy, and the Rassemblement National (RN) and Reconquête! in France. “These parties illustrate the populist Radical Right’s admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberal politics, as well as his forceful defence of Christian values and opposition to Islam.” Especially the last aspect is also shared by the German AfD, Alternative für Deutschland. VOX in Spain, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) in Italy, and Chega in Portugal have weaker ties to Russia, according to the report. “These parties may share Putin’s support for “traditional” family values, opposition to LGBTQ rights and what they call leftist “gender ideology”, but they stop well short of backing the Kremlin’s foreign policy.”
After the outbreak of the war, right-wing populists were criticised for their pro-Russian positions and their sympathy for Vladimir Putin. As a consequence, many populist parties have condemned the war, e.g. Le Pen (RN) in France or Meloni (FdI) in Italy, also AfD in Germany and Chega in Portugal. But there are differences in the degree of distancing from Russia.
It is noticeable, however, that more populist parties of the radical right hesitate to support sanctions against Russia than condemning the war itself. This is due to the direct link of sanctions to economic difficulties such as high inflation and volatile markets.
Populists have a fine sense for the public sentiment. They pick up on concerns and use them for their own purposes. Usually they do not propose own solutions and often they distract from the actual problem and its cause by focusing on an issue and simplifying it. Already in the past, crises were beneficial for populist parties (e.g. the financial crisis in 2008, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis in 2015).
In September 2022 and in March 2023 several 10,000 people gathered in the centre of Prague and demanded to stop the war, stop NATO and sanctioning Russia, and for the start of negotiations for the supply of cheap Russian gas. The demonstrations had been co-organised by several fringe left and right parties, including the Communist party and the SPD.
In Germany, Monday protests are being reinterpreted. The choice of Leipzig as place for the demonstrations has a powerful symbolic resonance: In the 1980ies, the Leipzig Monday Demonstrations proved to be a precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall and later East Germany and the Soviet Union. Today the marches are usually against increased living costs, most oppose either sanctions against Russia and/or weapon deliveries to Ukraine. In October 2022, it came to an escalation when protesters insulted Ukrainian war refugees as “Nazis”. The audible chants included “Your are living at our expense” and “Nazis out,” apparently an allusion to Russia repeatedly labeling Ukrainian authorities as fascist.
The rising food and energy costs as well as the economic insecurity can further increase dissatisfaction with national governments. Populist parties use this dissatisfaction and the socio-economic problems, they link them to the sanctions and emphasise their costs for the population.
In Germany, Alice Weidel (AfD), claimed that the „main loser“ of the war is neither Russia nor Ukraine but Germany, being a victim of the economic war. In Portugal, Ventura questioned Portuguese financial support to Ukraine and other European populist parties argument in a similar way and exploit war-related issues such as energy prices. However, realistic solutions or acceptable alternatives to the actions of governments are not proposed.
“By shifting the debate to domestic socioeconomic issues, populist Radical Right parties have managed to maintain their anti-elite and anti-establishment stances, appealing to frustrated voters while also avoiding uncomfortable questions about past relations with the Kremlin. Thus, the war has proved another fruitful arena for forwarding populist Far Right arguments and playing on voters’ fears and frustrations.”
Copyright: Justus Poehn, Leipzig_28032023, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/197999672@N04/52777781500/
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