How pro-Putin ideologues have united both the far-right and the far-left in their unwavering support of the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda
This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.
A little more than a year ago, a limited circle of fans gathered in a small far-right bookstore located underground of one of the most prominent plazas in Budapest to welcome the new book of the European “alt-right” (in fact: Nazis in suits) titled “The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition”. The audience was composed of mostly older pensioners burnt out by the Trianon trauma and some youths sporting discreet Hitler-Jugend haircuts, all of them ready to hear the author, Daniel Friberg, speak about the immigrant situation in Europe.
A journalist, Mariann Őry was also among the crowd and even introduced Mr. Friberg as a regular economist in her journal. The author is in fact an ex-Swedish neo-Nazi turned CEO of the Arktos group, the main European publisher of the works of the leading neo-Eurasian ideologist Alexander Dugin.
The sympathy of Ms. Őry to the pro-Kremlin emigre circle of far-right activists residing in Budapest is not surprising. She is the Head of the Foreign Desk at the right-wing Magyar Hírlap newspaper – owned by a pro-Fidesz oligarch – that openly promotes an anti-immigration, illiberal, misogynistic and homophobic agenda, resonating governmental messages.
Where this story gets interesting is that Őry is in fact the daughter of Gyula Thürmer, the Chairman of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP) – a successor of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), the only political remnant of hardcore, orthodox communism. She used to be on the political board of the party, when her father turned it into a pro-Russian family-business after 2010. She also enthusiastically reported about her father’s press conferences on Syria, Crimea and other foreign policy issues – in all of these cases, presenting standpoints totally compatible with the Kremlin’s. Thürmer, for example, appeared bizarrely enthusiastic after the annexation of Crimea by Russia –
“If Albanians have the right in Kosovo for self-determination, Russians have the same right in Crimea. (…) We should rather cherish that the borders of the second world war are not carved in stone. We should not feel sorrow over Trianon, (…) Europe would be much better off by re-drawing the map according to the will of the people.”
Gyula Thürmer’s son, Gyula Máté T. is also politically active: he used to be a candidate for the Hungarian Communist party, and he is right now also the columnist of pro-governmental newspapers such as Magyar Hírlap and Pesti Srácok that are also pushing an authoritarian, illiberal, xenophobic agenda and tons of fake news.
Where all radicals converge
Two important conclusions can be drawn from this seemingly marginal and particular case. First of all, an increasing overlap between the narratives of the radical left and the radical right, especially when it comes to foreign policy issues in which Russia is involved. They usually come to the same conclusion on different logical routes; while the radical right, for example, like to refer to Putin as the last real Christian, conservative leader in Europe and celebrate his attempts to dominate this sphere of influence, the radical left in Europe – from Syriza through to the Czech Communists and Die Linke to the Dutch Socialists and Podemos – refer to the maintaining of peace, neutrality and self-determination when justifying, for example, the Crimean annexation. When talking about Syria, the radical left tend to see Assad as an eternal comrade fighter against the imperialists; the radical right, in a similarly positive light, portrays him (as well as Putin) as a Saint George who fights against the dragon of Islamic terrorism.
The second important point is that converging anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-NATO narratives on the radical left and radical right often manifest themselves in cooperation. One such example involves the “nationalist radical leftist portal” called Bal-rad. This webpage, pushing several pro-Russian articles embedded in a bizarre combination of radical left-nationalist and anti-globalist narratives was sponsored by Lukoil – despite their being an utterly marginal site and, therefore, having zero PR value. Then, not-so-surprisingly, it moved to a Russian server in April 2017.
Here, we can see again the manifestation of a global phenomenon on a local level: the ideological convergence of the fringes is at the same time spontaneous and facilitated. Russia, a natural ally of fringe movements in their fight against the global establishment, is trying to make the most out of this anti-Western coalition.
Another important instance involved the Hungarian communist party which cooperated with the now dissolved neo-Nazi Hungarian National Front (MNA). This party became notorious for its leader shooting down a policeman in late 2016. He also conducted “airsoft drills” with members of the Russian military service, the GRU (disguised as Russian diplomats accredited in Hungary). Surprisingly enough, it acknowledged the Workers’ party as a genuine representation of the “Hungarians’ real interest.” While the Hungarian communists are, originally, known for their notorious and militant anti-fascism, Thürmer’s party protested together in social matters with the neo-Nazis, and the MNA published ideological articles promoting the “formation of a workers’ state” on Hungarian communist websites.
After the annexation of Crimea, both far-right and far-left “independent European observers” went to legitimize the illegal secession referendum, in March 2014. Despite the fact that the Hungarian Workers’ Party was unable or unwilling to send an envoy, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), the German Die Linke, the Polish Democratic Left Alliance and Mateusz Piskorski, the founder of the leftist-national Zmiana party, did so along with scores of far-right party representatives.
Anti-Fascists in arms in V4 countries: Hungary, Czechia and Poland
Of course, after four decades of state socialism, the post-communist block is not the stronghold of the radical left anymore. The general fate of Central-Eastern European far-left parties is that they fade away, unable to modernize themselves, losing their old voters while having difficulties to attract the new urban, educated electorate that the green parties reach out to. Instead, these parties keep living as communist spectres of the Soviet past.
The only relevant political force in the region is in Czechia. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) received 15% of the vote in 2013, but has declined to 8% by 2017. Over the years, they have been able to maintain a close relationship with the Russian Communist Party – after the Soviet Union fell apart – which is, these days, a pseudo-opposition party with a strong nationalist and even nostalgically imperialist agenda.
While having seen better days, the leader of the Russian communist party, Zyuganov, received almost 30% of the vote in the presidential elections in 2000 when Putin was first elected as president. In the latest Duma elections, they were still the strongest opposition party with more than 13% of the vote, and Russian communists keep an important role in keeping the old comrade networks alive.
However, the Russian communists are not the only force reaching out to the radical left in Europe. While the Kremlin-driven disinformation campaigns are frequently described as strongly ideological, in fact, they are totally opportunistic, aiming to reach different audiences via various channels. In 2016, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, for example, published an English article in the Russian Global Affairs (the “Russian Foreign Affairs magazine”), which explicitly targets left-wing intellectuals and politicians in the West with quotations from George Orwell, and statements to the effect that Western European welfare states just copied the Soviet Union’s success.
After the Maidan revolution, the Kremlin launched the single biggest disinformation campaign in the last decade about a Western initiated “Fascist coup” in Kiev. This message resonated well with both the fellow Ukrainian Communist parties, Russian compatriots evoking the “Great Patriotic War” fought by Stalin, and European left-wing parties and intellectuals. Three years after the war against Ukraine unleashed by Russia, the KSČM still warns of the “open Western aggression against Russia,” and the emergence of “fascist, and Nazi forces”. KSČM organized the first “Current Fascism in Europe” workshop in 2014 on Russian foreign policy in the Czech Parliament in cooperation with the Institute of Slavic Strategic Studies (ISSS) founded in Prague in 2013. Again, we can obviously see the joint far-right far-left platform. The latest pro-Russian discussion titled “Myths about Russia” was held by the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party together with the ISSS in 2016 in the Czech Parliament.
In Poland, obviously pro-Russian voices are usually more silent and more marginal. Still, beside the far-right, we can find strong proponents of Russia on the left as well. A member of the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), Adam Krzysztof Kępiński, for example, participated as an election observer at the 2014 “referendum” on the secession of Crimea. Leszek Miller, the party’s former chairman and former PM of Poland, has frequently criticised politicians of being too harsh towards Russia and has called for a friendlier relationship with their eastern neighbour.
In 2014, Miller called the Russian aggression a “fratricidal war” in Eastern-Ukraine, blaming the Right Sector for the crisis without mentioning Russia’s role in the war. In an interview given to Sputni, the former PM later criticised the Polish authorities for not letting the pro-Putin “Night Wolves” motorcycle gang through “honouring the fight against the Fascist Germany,” and for “Russophobia becoming the official foreign policy doctrine” of Poland. Twice the presidential candidate of the SLD, Magdalena Ogórek, advocated for a stronger partnership with Russia, trying to put it as the European mainstream: “The world needs Russia to fight terrorism. Angela Merkel and Franocis Hollande are conducting very balanced talks with Russia and I am so proud of this.”
The infamous and aforementioned Mateusz Piskorski, a well-known pro-Russian political figure in Poland, personally embodies the pro-Putin coalition of the radical left and right. Piskorski started his career around extremist organizations and later became an MP of the far-right Self-Defence of the Republic of Poland in 2005. Later he became one of the organizers of the “election business” with CIS-EMO in the post-Soviet space, aiming at legitimising Kremlin-backed regimes, breakaway regions and referenda. In 2015, the politician founded Poland’s first and only openly and blatantly pro-Russian leftist party called Zmiana (Change). At the same time, he was pushing the “Ukraine is fascist” narrative as a “geopolitical expert” on Sputnik and Russia Today. Piskorski was arrested by the Polish authorities in May 2016 allegedly on charges of espionage for Russia and China. Shortly after, the “Laundromat scandal” proved that the European Centre of Geopolitical Analysis (ECAG) led by Piskorski was – using money coming from Russia.
Tactically blind, deaf and mute
While Zmiana is rather an extreme case, the Polish Democratic Left Alliance’s behaviour sums up the far-left’s paradoxical connection with Moscow. Leftist parties, even in the centre, are usually much less blatant about their support for the Kremlin as compared to their far-right counterparts. Most European leftist parties rarely praise Putin or his regime openly. They call for “neutrality”, “peace” and the “stopping of western aggression” instead. The majority of European far-left parties showcase a double-edged strategy of rhetorical self-containment and the denial of pro-Putinism with an almost unconditional support of the Kremlin’s core geopolitical goals. While the far-right is rather vocal in its ideological pro-Putinism, the left is deaf and blind to the perceived human rights violations and imperial ambitions of Russia, and mute when talking about these issues. But they lose their inhibition when it comes to criticising the West- especially the US, the EU and NATO for aggression and provoking conflicts.
Péter Krekó is the director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based Central European political research and consultancy firm. Lorant Gyori is a political analyst at Political Capital.