Far-right supporters clash with riot police during a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium on December 16, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on ties between the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Putin regime

Pauwels, Teun. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on ties between the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Putin regime.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0013


Download Report on Belgium


The populist Radical Right party, Vlaams Belang (VB), has consistently proved itself a successful electoral competitor in Belgian politics. Already in 2004, the party obtained 24% of the vote in Flanders, focusing on issues such as immigration, Flemish nationalism, crime and law and order. As of 2007, however, the party faced increasing competition from the Flemish nationalist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which has been able to present itself as a democratic alternative to the populist VB. In recent years, the VB has tended to radicalize rather than moderate its tone to differentiate itself from competitors. While foreign policy has not been a salient issue within VB ideology, various party members have developed close ties to the Putin regime since 2010. For example, Filip Dewinter, a prominent member of the VB, has met Russian officials and appeared in Russian media. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. The current leader, Tom Van Grieken, has admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter has strongly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about sanctions against Russia.

Keywords: Vlaams Belang, Belgium, Russia–Ukraine war, nationalism, Flanders, Populist Radical Right.



By Teun Pauwels* (Flemish Ministry of Education and Training)


The Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB) has consistently been one of the most successful populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In its early years, the VB was a real fringe party focusing almost exclusively on the goal of an autonomous Flemish state. As a result, only its leader Karel Dillen, who previously had shown sympathy towards the collaboration movement during German occupation, managed to gain representation in the national parliament when he was elected in 1978. However, after ideological and organizational changes, the party made its electoral breakthrough at the 1991 general elections (also known in Belgium as “Black Sunday” due to the VB’s success), gaining more than 10 % of the votes in Flanders.

In the south of Belgium, the Front National (FN) tried to reproduce the success of its French counterpart led by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite some occasional successes, the Belgian FN failed to break through. Led by the erratic Daniel Féret, who was unable to organize the party in a coherent way, the Belgian FN is no longer represented in the national parliament. Using evidence from interviews with media practitioners, De Jonge (2019) suggests that in the absence of a credible right-wing populist challenger, media practitioners in Wallonia adhere to a strict demarcation, whereas the Flemish media have become gradually more accommodating to the populist Radical Right. Since the populist Radical Right has been only successful in the Flemish part of Belgium, this report will focus entirely on the VB.

The structure of this report is as follows. First, we will briefly provide an overview of the ideology of the VB before turning to the organizational and electoral development of the party over time. The final section explores the relationship with the Putin regime and the impact of the war with Ukraine on VB’s ties with the Kremlin.

The ideology of the Vlaams Belang

The VB can be considered a textbook example of a populist Radical Right party focusing on nativism, populism and authoritarianism. Therefore, it is worth briefly outlining what each of these themes means and how they apply in the case of the VB.

Nativism is an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (“the nation”) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state (Mudde, 2007). Since the Flemish “nation” does not coincide with the state (Belgium), it has been evident to the VB that the artificial Belgian state should cease to exist and that the Flemish and the Walloons should go their separate ways. An independent Flemish republic has always been the principal goal of the VB. With the challenge of immigration, the VB has come to further underscore the need for internal homogenization. In 1992, Filip Dewinter developed a seventy-point programme, which provided an operational plan for the guided repatriation of non-European foreigners to their countries of origin (Mudde, 2000). These harsh stances have been softened throughout the years, and by 2003, Dewinter admitted that the plan was no longer realistic. Today the VB sees non-European immigrants and particularly Muslims, as one of the main threats to the nation. The party stresses the fundamental and irreconcilable antagonism between Islam and Western values and argues that Muslims increasingly impose their values upon the Flemings.

Even though the party featured elitist viewpoints in its early phase, the VB has increasingly presented itself as populist since the 1990s. The “pure people” is the equivalent of the common Fleming, who is honest, works hard and pays taxes but is politically quiescent. These people, the VB alleges, have been betrayed by a corrupt political class, which is willing to sell the Flemish cause due to self-interest. This corrupt mechanism is reinforced by the media, which is dependent upon subsidies (and is hence biased). Like other populist parties, the VB favours direct democracy to remove power from the establishment and give it back to the people.

Consistent with its nationalist–populist ideology, the VB thinks the individual cannot be separated from tradition and can only develop within his ethnic community. The traditional family, consisting of a heterosexual couple whose duty is to contribute to the continuity of the Flemish people, is considered the smallest unit of a harmonious, organic society. The party favours the promotion of traditional values to combat what it sees as an ongoing process of moral decay. In line with traditional ethics, it is argued that human life is only possible in a well-ordered community focusing on law and order (authoritarianism).

The development of the party over time

Figure 1 shows the electoral results of the VB in national and regional elections from 1978 until 2019. It reveals that the party has gone through roughly four phases: (1) party development at the margin of the Belgian party system (1978–1990); (2) electoral breakthrough (1991–2004); (3) new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014); and (4) renewal and electoral comeback (2015-present).

Figure 1: Electoral results for the Vlaams Belang in regional (Flemish) and national (Belgian) elections, 1978–2019

Source: Pauwels, 2014; Vlaams Parlement, 2019;  Note: Figures represent the share of the vote the VB achieved in Flanders at each election (national and regional)

Phase I: Early developments at the margin of the party system (1978–1990)

The Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) emerged in 1978 following rising dissatisfaction with the Flemish nationalist Volksunie (VU). In the second half of the 1970s, the VU’s perceived overly moderate and left-leaning stances drew increasing criticism from the Flemish movement. This frustration peaked when the VU signed the so-called Egmont Pact, which envisioned a reform of the Belgian state leading to autonomy for the regions while also granting the French-speaking population in the periphery of Brussels some privileges. As a result, one VU member, Lode Claes, quit the party and established the Vlaamse Vokspartij (VVP). At the same time, Karel Dillen founded the Vlaams-Nationale Partij (VNP). The two parties decided to participate in the federal elections of 1978 under the name Vlaams Blok (VB). Against expectations, Dillen, and not Claes, was elected. The latter decided to leave politics, and Dillen absorbed the nationalist wing of the VVP. In May 1979, the VNP was dissolved, and the VB was officially established. The VB remained a small fringe party dominated by Dillen in its early years. Its programmatic focus was almost entirely directed against the Egmont Pact while striving for an independent Flemish state.

Phase II: Cordon sanitiare, breakthrough and electoral peak (1991–2004)

At the end of the 1980s, Dillen started a project to “rejuvenate” the party, promoting several young VB members within the party. As a result, a youth organization called Vlaams Blok Jongeren (VBJ) was established by, among others, Dewinter and Frank Vanhecke. However, these changes provoked internal tensions as a group of committed VB members accused the VBJ group of sidelining the Flemish cause in favour of the anti-immigrant issue in 1988. Dillen supported the VBJ, leading to the exit of the dissatisfied VB members and strengthening Dewinter’s position (Mudde, 2000). As a result, the VB gradually started to evolve into a modern populist Radical Right party.

The ideological and organizational changes started to pay off at the end of the 1980s. At local elections in 1987, the VB showed its electoral potential by gaining 17.7% of the vote in the city of Antwerp. The party’s national breakthrough came in 1991 when it secured 10.3% of the Flemish vote in the general election (corresponding to 6.6% of the national vote) (see Figure 1). “Black Sunday”, as the election came to be known, alarmed all the other Belgian parties, who agreed to construct a cordon sanitaire around the VB by pledging not to cooperate with it under any circumstances and on any political level. In 1996, Vanhecke — widely considered a consensus figure between the Flemish nationalist wing (symbolized by Gerolf Annemans) and the anti-immigrant wing (represented by Dewinter) — replaced Dillen as VB leader.

In 2004, the Court of Appeal in Ghent condemned several VB organizations for violating Belgium’s Anti-Racism Law, passed in 1981. Consequently, the party changed its name from Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang. The party also moderated its discourse somewhat, indicated by Dewinter’s admission that his infamous seventy-point plan was no longer realistic. Still, the changes were acknowledged as more about tone than substance. At the 2004 party conference, Vanhecke confirmed that the VB changed its name but not its identity. Still, the court’s ruling significantly increased the party’s visibility in the media and enabled the VB to present itself as the “victim” of the established parties. A few months after the 2004 conference, the VB polled its best result ever, taking 24% of the vote at regional and European elections in June (Pauwels, 2014).

Phase III: new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014)

The party faced its first electoral setbacks in the elections of 2007 and 2009. This setback cannot be explained by demand-side theories such as shifting public opinion on immigration or political trust, which remained static. Instead, the VB’s declining fortunes reflected a shrinking ideological niche for the populist Radical Right (Pauwels, 2011). On the one hand, the party faced competition from the newly established Lijst Dedecker (LDD), a neoliberal populist party that campaigned on a platform of defending hard-working people against corrupt elites and big government. On the other hand, a new party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (Flemish Nationalist Alliance or N-VA), gained momentum. The party was formed in 2001 as the successor of the VU, which had split because of internal tensions.

After the VU’s implosion, the N-VA had a hard time proving its relevance to Belgian voters. Therefore, the party chose an electoral alliance with the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, CD&V) in 2004. Following the 2007 elections, the CD&V–N-VA alliance promised meaningful state reform but failed to achieve much due to the formidable resistance of most francophone parties. Consequently, the N-VA left the coalition, claiming the Christian Democrats were insufficiently bold in defending Flemish autonomy. As a result, in 2009, the N-VA reprised its traditional role as the anti-establishment party in Belgium. Due to a broadening of its ideological profile and the emergence of Bart De Wever, a wildly popular party member, the N-VA was able to revive its Flemish nationalist credentials among voters at the expense of the VB.

A post-electoral analysis in 2009 showed that the LDD and the N-VA had siphoned off 8 and 15% of VB voters, respectively (Pauwels, 2011: 72). Plagued by internal tensions, the LDD disintegrated rapidly. In contrast, as of 2010, the N-VA had become the largest Flemish party and continued to be successful afterwards. Post-electoral research suggested that at the national elections of 2010, the N-VA picked up 32% of those who had voted for the VB in 2007 (Swyngedouw et al., 2012: 13). At the elections of May 2014, the VB achieved its worst result since 1987. Five months later, the 28-year-old Tom Van Grieken, was elected as party president.

Phase IV: renewal and electoral comeback (2015-current)

After 2015, the VB sought to pursue two opposing strategies. The first was party mainstreaming, as advocated by the new party leadership; the second was radicalization pushed by a faction led by Dewinter (Van Haute & Pauwels, 2016). The mainstreaming strategy aims to polish the sharp edges of the party programme in an attempt to get closer to power and overcome the cordon sanitaire. On the other hand, Dewinter’s strategy to restore the VB’s electoral relevance differs as he believes breaking the cordon is unrealistic. Instead, for Dewinter, the VB should acquire policy influence by putting pressure on the mainstream parties (the so-called “whip party” doctrine). A good illustration of the tensions inherent in this dual strategy occurred in 2016 when Dewinter and Anke Vandermeersch held a speech for the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn after which party president Van Grieken openly criticized and sanctioned them (Pauwels and van Haute, 2017).

Despite internal tensions, the VB performed well in the 2019 elections. And according to an opinion poll conducted in November 2022, the VB could secure 26% of the votes making it potentially the largest Flemish party (Knack, 2022). While it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about why the VB gained momentum, two elements might play a role. First, the issues of immigration and terrorism have become more salient. The ongoing refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016 sparked extensive debate on immigration and multiculturalism. Eurobarometer data from 2019 suggest these issues are salient all over Europe; indeed, immigration is the most important concern at the EU level, as mentioned by more than a third of Europeans (European Union, 2019). Second, the N-VA has been part of the governing coalition at the regional (Flemish) level for almost two decades while the VB remained in permanent opposition. It is possible that voters who hold more (radical) right-wing ideas think the N-VA has become too moderate and consensus-seeking and have thus given thought to again voting for the VB.

Ties between the VB and the Putin regime and the impact of the war in Ukraine

Foreign policy has not been a salient part of the VB’s ideology. For instance, the party manifestos of 2007 and 2019 devoted just 3.5% and 6.3% of space to the issue, respectively. However, within the foreign policy debate, the EU has become an issue of growing importance. On the one hand, the EU has been recognized as a virtue, creating welfare and peace while providing an opportunity for a “Flemish nation” within a confederal “Europe of fatherlands”. At the same time, the VB has a Eurosceptic side that denounces the current European “superstate” for undermining national sovereignty, particularly concerning immigration policy. The bureaucratic nature of the EU and financial transfers within Europe are other targets of party criticism (Abts et al., 2015).

Regarding defence policy, the VB’s position could be summarized as “pragmatic” and “neutral”,  in order to guarantee national security. This pragmatism is illustrated by its stance concerning NATO. Given the lack of a European alternative, the VB supports Belgium’s NATO membership at a time of increasing security threats. At the same time, the party is sceptical towards NATO because it makes Europe overly dependent on the United States. The VB, therefore, calls for more military investments and cooperation with Belgium’s European allies to create a credible alternative to NATO and gain leverage in the international community. The recent invasion of Ukraine is explicitly mentioned as an illustration of the powerlessness of Europe in this respect (De Wachter, 2022).

While Russia has hardly been an issue in the VB’s official party literature, some VB members such as Frank Creyelman, Jan Penris, and Dewinter have been increasingly vocal in their support for the Putin regime, at least before the war in Ukraine. These more radical thinkers inside the party see Russia as an ally against globalization and Islam. For example, Dewinter has applauded Putin for promoting national sovereignty while defending Russia’s identity and conservative Christian values. He furthermore stated that “the only good thing about the Iron Curtain is that it has saved Eastern Europe from political correctness, multiculturalism and ‘wokeness’”, while embracing the dream of an “independent Europe from Vladivostok to the North Sea, separate from America, China and certainly the Arab world” (Verbergt, 2022).

In 2014, three VB members (Creyelmans, Penris and Christian Verougstraete) travelled to Crimea as “observers” of the referendum on Russia’s annexation of the region. It should be added that the party president at that time (Annemans) distanced himself from this action and stated that the VB “has no business in Ukraine” (Van Thillo, 2014). For his part, Dewinter has had meetings with, among others, Russia’s deputy prime minister and the president of the Russian parliament. He has also appeared several times in Russian media. Nevertheless, whether there are financial links between the VB and Russia has never been substantiated. However, this question has become increasingly relevant, as shown by the liberal Flemish Open VLD party’s recent call for an investigation into potential foreign influence and undermining of democracy. In doing so, the liberals focus, among other things, on the foreign financing of political parties and individual politicians (De Boeck, 2022).

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. Tom Van Grieken has claimed that the party initially considered Russia an ally against multiculturalism but admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter strongly condemned Putin as a dictator who had “totally lost it”. Political opponents have used Russia’s invasion to attack the VB. In April 2022, Russian consul general Georgy Kuznetsov was reportedly asked to leave Belgium on suspicion of espionage. Dewinter has been publicly seen with Kuznetsov several times and even invited him to the Flemish parliament. When it became known that Kuznetsov was potentially involved in espionage, the socialist party Vooruit (Forward) called on Dewinter to resign as first vice president of the Flemish parliament (which did not happen).

Since February 2022, the VB has distanced itself from Putin, noting that Russia’s invasion is a flagrant violation of international law. At the same time, the party remains sceptical about the harsh and “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia. This scepticism toward sanctions is informed, for the most part, by pragmatic economic arguments. There is the fear that “the Russian bear” might “claw back” in response to the sanctions with severely adverse consequences for already “exploding energy costs” (De Wachter, 2022). This might be surprising given the relatively high support for the current actions taken to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Belgium as well as in most other European countries (European Union, 2022). In November 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. While this resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of MEPs, the three from the VB chose to abstain.


Despite its ups and downs, the VB has been consistently successful in Belgian politics for over four decades. Foreign policy has not been a significant concern for the party, and when addressing international issues, it has called for a pragmatic or neutral approach to secure national interests. Yet some prominent VB members have developed ties with the Putin regime over time. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the party leadership and pro-Russian voices inside the party clearly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia because of the potential (economic) backfiring.

As explained earlier, the VB is doing very well in the polls, and it appears the party’s “position switch” on Russia has not harmed it in electoral terms. This is probably because the VB has never been focusing on foreign policy much and is also not associated with this issue by the voters. Instead, the VB remains the issue owner on topics like immigration, which remains a highly visible and contested subject. Combined with a very long governing period at the regional level of its rival N-VA, it seems that the populist Radical Right remains an attractive electoral alternative in the Flemish part of Belgium.

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(*) Teun Pauwels holds a PhD in political science (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and is currently working as a policy analyst for the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training. He is the author of Populism in Western Europe. Comparing Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands (2014, Routledge).


Abts, K., Van Craen, M., & Swyngedouw, M. (2015). Eigen volk eerst in een Europa der volkeren. Samenleving en Politiek, 12(9), 11–22.

De Boeck, A. (2022, April 4) Krijgen Vlaamse partijen geld uit Rusland? Open Vld wil het laten onderzoeken. De Morgen, https://www.demorgen.be/nieuws/krijgen-vlaamse-partijen-geld-uit-rusland-open-vld-wil-het-laten-onderzoeken~ba5b36f2/

De Jonge, L. (2019). The Populist Radical Right and the media in the Benelux: Friend or foe? The International Journal of Press/Politics, 24(2), 189–209.

De Wachter, J. (2022, April) Oorlog in Oekraïne: Russische agressie en Westerse zwakte. Vlaams Belang Magazine, https://www.vlaamsbelang.org/magazines/jaargang-19-nr-4-april-2022

European Union (2019). Public opinion in the European Union (Eurobarometer 91). https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/api/deliverable/download/file?deliverableId=70922

European Union (2022). Public opinion in the European Union (Eurobarometer 97). https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/api/deliverable/download/file?deliverableId=83378

Knack. (2022, December 2) Peiling: Vlaams Belang de grootste partij, Conner Rousseau de populairste politicus. https://www.knack.be/nieuws/belgie/politiek/peiling-vlaams-belang-de-grootste-partij-conner-rousseau-de-populairste-politicus/

Mudde, C. (2000). The ideology of the Extreme Right. Manchester University Press.

Mudde, C. (2007). Populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Pauwels, T. (2011) Explaining the strange decline of the populist Radical Right Vlaams Belang in Belgium: The impact of permanent opposition. Acta Politica, 46(1), 60–82.

Pauwels, T. (2014). Populism in Western Europe: Comparing Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Routledge

Pauwels, T. & van Haute, E. (2017) Caught between mainstreaming and radicalisation: Tensions inside the populist Vlaams Belang in Belgium, European Politics and Policy, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/01/11/tensions-inside-vlaams-belang-belgium/

Swyngedouw, M., Abts, K. and Billiet, J. (2012). De verschuivingen in het stemgedrag 2007–2010 voor de kamer in Vlaanderen, https://soc.kuleuven.be/ceso/ispo/downloads/ISPO%202012-1%20De%20verschuivingen%20in%20het%20stemgedrag%202007-2010.pdf

Van Haute, E., & Pauwels, T. (2016) The Vlaams Belang: Party organization and party dynamics. In R. Heinisch, & O. Mazzoleni (Eds.), Understanding populist party organisation: The Radical Right in Western Europe (pp. 49–77). Palgrave.

Van Thillo, J. (2014, March 14) Parlementsleden Vlaams Belang reizen naar Krim. De Standaard. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20140314_01024205

Vlaams Parlement (2019) Vlaanderen kiest, https://vlaanderenkiest.be/verkiezingen2019/#/parlement/02000

Verbergt, M. (2022, March 1) Droom van Europa ‘van Noordzee tot Vladivostok’ gaat in rook op. De Standaard. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20220228_98215003

Right-wing political rally in Zagreb's main square, featuring men dressed in black waving Croatian, black and anti-EU flags Croatia on June 23, 2019. Photo: Shutterstuck.

The repercussions of the war in Ukraine on Croatia’s Far Right

Petsinis, Vassilis. (2023). “The repercussions of the war in Ukraine on Croatia’s Far Right.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0014


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This report deals with the repercussions of the war in Ukraine on the national conservative parties, as well as the radical and extremist right, in Croatia. It focuses closely on these actors’ attempts to draw parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s, known as the “Homeland War” (Domovinski rat). It also seeks to place into context what, if anything, is so “specific” about the activism of this party family concerning the war in Ukraine – including any “dissident” stances in comparison to the political mainstream. This report covers the most established parties of the Croatian Far Right but focuses most closely on the national conservative Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret). This report clarifies how this party: 1) seeks to draw a linkage between the developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War; and 2) utilizes this process in its endeavour to antagonize Croatia’s ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union.

Keywords: National conservativism; Radical Right; Croatia; Ukraine; Yugoslav Wars; Russia–Ukraine war.



By Vassilis Petsinis* (Corvinus University)


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been generating shockwaves across Central and Southeastern Europe. Andrej Plenković, Croatia’s prime minister and chairman of the ruling centre-right, conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has pledged that his government will continue to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine and provide material support to the Ukrainian refugees hosted in Croatia (Jutarnji, 2023). Opposition parties such as the centre-left Social Democrat Party (SDP) and the Green–Left coalition Možemo (“We Can!”) have backed the government, asserting that the Croatian state should, within its capacities, provide Ukraine with the technological expertise and the logistical equipment required to withstand Russia’s invasion.

This report concentrates on the repercussions of the war on the national conservative parties, as well as the radical right, in Croatia. It focuses closely on these actors’ attempts to draw parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s, known as the “Homeland War” (Domovinski rat). It also seeks to place into context what, if anything, is so “specific” about the activism of this party family concerning the war in Ukraine – including any “dissident” stances in comparison to the political mainstream.

It begins by analysing the reactions to the conflict in Ukraine among the most established political parties of the Croatian far right, all of which claim to descend from Croatia’s original Party of Rights, founded by two nationalists, Ante Starčević and Eugen Kvaternik, in 1861—namely, the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), the Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP), and the Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP). The analysis also touches on minor parties like the Croatian Party of Rights 1861 (HSP 1861)—which, as the name suggests, also claims lineage from the original party—as well as grassroots and paramilitary actors. However, the principal focus is how the current war has been framed and interpreted by Croatia’s national conservative Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), which emerged as the third-largest party in the Croatian Parliament (the Sabor) after the June 2020 elections. The report asks how and to what extent this party: 1) seeks to draw a linkage between the developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War and 2) utilizes this process in its endeavour to antagonize the ruling HDZ.

The findings of the report emerge from qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2012). The primary material consists of official documents such as party programmes, statements, and declarations issued by the parties under study, complemented with quotations of leading members of these parties, monitored in the Croatian and international press, expert reports, and public surveys.

Croatia’s “Homeland war” (1991–95): National imageries and political appropriations

The “Homeland War” refers to the conflict over Croatian independence fought by the country’s armed forces, first against the Yugoslav military (1991-92) and then the forces of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska Krajina in 1992-95. The interpretations of the war vary and are subject to the cleavages across Croatia’s party spectrum (Cvikić et al., 2014; Banjeglav, 2012).

However, these diverse understandings converge in recognizing the Homeland War as a landmark event in consolidating Croatian statehood (Šuligoj & Rudan, 2022). Of greater significance here is nationalist political actors’ utilization of the war and its symbolism. Notably, the eastern Slavonian town of Vukovar has been awarded the status of “master symbol” in the nationalist imageries of the Homeland War due to the fierce resistance that the Croatian forces put up against Yugoslav and Serb auxiliary units there from August to November 1991. More recently, between 2013 and 2016, a series of mass protests against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script took place in Vukovar (Pavelić, 2013). The organizers of these demonstrations had deemed it unacceptable that the Serb Cyrillic script would be officially used in a town with such traumatic memories and a centrality in the symbolism of the Homeland War (Koska & Matan, 2017).[1]

Croatia’s far right and the war in Ukraine: Reactions by the established actors

The Croatian Party of Rights (HSP)

Dobroslav Paraga and Ante Paradžik established the HSP in February 1990. The leadership pledged commitment to the legacy of Starčević and Kvaternik, the nineteenth-century nationalists who founded the Party of Rights and laid the ground for modern Croatian nationalism. The HSP has no seats in the national parliament (the Sabor). However, the party controls the town halls of Popovača (City of Popovača, 2023) and Gospić. The mayor of Gospić is the former party chairman, Karlo Starčević (Gradonačelnik, n.d.).

Between 1991 and 1993, the HSP dispatched its paramilitary unit to Slavonia and Herzegovina (Petsinis, 2022). Between 2013 and 2016, the HSP participated in protests against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script in Vukovar. In the “Vukovar Declaration” of 2018, the party condemned “all those political forces who obstructed, prevented, or falsified the investigation process for the war crimes committed (by the Yugoslav and Serb paramilitary forces) during the Homeland War” (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2018).

As soon as Russia commenced its invasion on February 24, 2022, the HSP leadership expressed its unequivocal support for Ukraine by emphasizing that “what is defended with blood is not given away easily” (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2022). However, neither the party website nor the issues of the official HSP magazine, Hrvatsko Pravo (Croatian Right), nor any other declarations published between late February and December 2022 made any additional references to the war in Ukraine. Instead, the principal focus of the HSP’s official publications was internal party matters, anti-corruption themes and the function of Croatia’s judicial system, the veneration of selected historical figures (e.g., Ante Starčević and Rafael Boban[2]), the situation of the ethnic Croat communities in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the obligation to safeguard the symbolism of the Homeland War (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, n.d.). Meanwhile, no evidence exists that the HSP organized demonstrations or other public events supporting Ukraine during that period.

The Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP)

The A-HSP was established in 2005. Like the HSP and the HČSP, it operates as an extra-parliamentary actor, having won no seats in the 2020 election (see Table 1). An ideological difference between the A-HSP and the HSP or the HČSP consists in the greater stress placed by this party on the purported “cultural exceptionalism of the Croatian nation” in relation to the Slavic, Germanic, and Latin realms of cultural influence. This party has been accused of inciting hatred against the ethnic Serb minority (HINA, 2018).

On February 25, 2022, the A-HSP chairman, Dražen Keleminec, wholeheartedly voiced his solidarity with the struggle of the Ukrainian nation against “the new Hitler, Vladimir Putin […] and his endeavour to erase Ukrainian statehood” (Autohtona–Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2022). Keleminec also drew a linkage between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and “the invasion of Croatia by Putin’s allies, the Serbs, in the 1990s” and contended that “Ukrainians and Croats share the same ancestry from the ‘White Croats’ of the Middle Ages” (ibid.). Despite its marginality, the A-HSP has been more active and consistent than the HSP and the HČSP in its promotion of pro-Ukraine themes through the official website and other media. The party leadership has been repeatedly comparing the war in Ukraine with Croatia’s Homeland War (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022a). Furthermore, the A-HSP dubbed Croatian President, Zoran Milanović,[3] a “man in the service of the Kremlin” (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022b) and has been warning about the alleged “recruitment of Croats among the ranks of KGB spies” (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022c).

The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP)

The HČSP (founded in December 1992) claims continuity from the original Croatian Pure Party of Rights established in 1895 (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, n.d. a). The leadership pledges commitment to the legacies of Starčević and has equally been accused of historical revisionism and attempts at rehabilitating the fascist wartime Ustaše movement and the Nazi puppet state in Croatia during the Second World War (Vidov, 2015). Nevertheless, this party is even weaker than the HSP, without a single deputy in the Sabor (see Table 1) or any municipality under its control. In its extensive programme, the HČSP pledges to protect the dignity of the Homeland War and its legacy (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2021).

The HČSP leadership was quick on their feet to draw parallels with the Homeland War and grant its categorical support to Ukraine as soon as Russia invaded the country in late February 2022. In a more extensive declaration in comparison to the one issued by the HSP, the party underlined that “no one can be allowed to impose their will on a sovereign nation through violence […] in these difficult times we voice our solidarity to the Ukrainian people and the brave Ukrainian defenders who fight for their homeland” (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, n.d. b). The HČSP also expressed its anxieties over a potential “spill over” of the conflict to neighbouring regions. At the same time, in accordance with its programmatic apprehension vis-à-vis the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the party leadership castigated the “so-called allies” of Ukraine for “responding to Russia’s aggression only with economic sanctions and not with more drastic and urgently required measures” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, in a similar vein as the HSP, HČSP’s official website and the other party publications prioritize topics such as the operation of the party’s local committees across Croatia (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022b); the commemoration of the Homeland War in its major sites (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022c), and the veneration of leading figures from the NDH period, including Ante Pavelić (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022a). Furthermore, there is no evidence that the party has coordinated any protests or other public manifestations in support of Ukraine since late February 2022.

A ‘dissident’ outlier? The case of the Croatian Party of Rights 1861

Dobroslav Paraga, a formerly leading member of the HSP, established the HSP 1861 in 1995. This party is not represented in the Sabor (See Table 1). The programmatic principles of the HSP 1861 converge with those of the HČSP and the A-HSP along their criticism of NATO. However, with specific regard to the war in Ukraine, the HSP 1861 went several steps ahead the other two parties. In early March 2022, the party leadership contended that “Croatia is in greater danger from its NATO membership than from Russian aggression” and estimated that “Ukraine will opt for military neutrality” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2022).

The HSP 1861 condemned the Russian invasion and acknowledged the yearning of the Ukrainian nation for freedom, democracy, and independence. However, the party argued that this cannot be achieved through Ukraine’s membership of NATO and accused the alliance of having “provoked” Russia to invade the country. The party dubbed, Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “NATO puppet who did nothing to implement the terms of the Minsk Agreement (2015)” and drew an indirect parallel between he and Ivo Sanader (ibid.).[4] The party underlined that “Ukraine must be a bridge between Russia and the EU and not an apple of discord between Russia and NATO” (ibid.).[5]This party’s principled and integral opposition to NATO brings the HSP 1861 close to the outlooks of parties such as “Our Slovakia” (Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko, 2022) and “Greeks for the Homeland” (Kasidiaris, 2022) on the war in Ukraine.

The role of grassroots and paramilitary actors

Since 2014, there are allegations that small numbers of Croatian extreme right-wingers had fought on an individual basis with the Azov Movement in eastern Ukraine. A prominent part in the recruitment of these individuals was played by Denis Šeler, a former leader of FC Dinamo Zagreb’s “Bad Blue Boys” ultras (Colborne, 2019). In March 2022, sources from the Russian defence ministry claimed that 200 Croatian citizens had gone to fight in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the ministry rejected those allegations (Grgurinović, 2022). Moreover, the Croatian branch of the extremist “Blood and Honour” coalition is said to have been maintaining links to likeminded groupings in Ukraine. However, “Blood and Honour” did not issue any statements regarding the war in Ukraine (Kuloglija, 2022).

Ambitious contenders from the right and the war in Ukraine: The Homeland Movement

The Homeland Movement (DP) was established in February 2020 by former singer and TV host Miroslav Škoro. In the parliamentary elections of July 2020, the DP garnered 10.89% of the vote, sending 16 deputies to the Sabor (out of 151 seats), and took the third spot after the HDZ and SDP (Table 1). The party benefited from the weakening of the HDZ’s “right-wing faction” on the municipal and local levels, especially in the war-ravaged territories of Slavonia (Hrvatski Sabor, 2020). This was largely the case with the departure of Vukovar’s mayor and current leader of the DP, Ivan Penava, from the HDZ in May 2020 and his decision to join forces with the DP (Dnevnik, 2020). In 2016, Penava had played a pivotal part in the coordination of the demonstrations against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script (Petsinis, 2022).

On February 24, 2022, Ivan Penava stated that “our party expresses its firm solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people […] we hope that this conflict will last as shortly as possible with as few human and material losses as possible” (Domovinski Pokret, 2022a). The same politician urged the state authorities to organize the accommodation of Ukrainian refugees in Croatia and allocate the material resources required in an efficient manner. In addition to highlighting the commonalities between the Homeland War and the developments in Ukraine, Penava cast doubts on the competence of the government to manage a migration crisis in Croatia (ibid.) Furthermore, on April 6, 2022, the party’s MP Stipo Mlinarić praised Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dealing with the ’fifth column’ in Ukraine and lamented the fact that “the HDZ-led government has not done the same with the “fifth column” that operates from within the Serbian Democratic Independent Party (Domovinski Pokret, 2022b).[6]

Since 2020, the primary objective of the DP has been to antagonize the HDZ and the ruling party’s more nationalistic and socially conservative “right-wing faction” with which the DP shares core principles on identity politics (e.g., ethnic minority issues, gender-related themes, and the informal partnership between the Catholic Church and the state). So far, there is no evidence that the emphasis on the war in Ukraine alone has assisted the party to augment its appeal vis-à-vis the HDZ. On the contrary, as indicated in several public surveys, conducted by the Promocija Plus, 2X1 Komunikacije, and Ipsos polling agencies between March and December 2022, the DP has been lagging behind both Možemo and the centre-right Bridge List according to Europe Elects (https://europeelects.eu/croatia/).

To reverse this decline in popularity, the DP has been putting simultaneous stress on the rapidly increasing cost of living and the government’s alleged incompetence to harness the galloping inflation (Domovinski Pokret, 2022c). In this light, the strategy of the DP appears to resemble the policymaking patterns of populist and radical right-wing parties—such as Estonia’s far-right party, EKRE (ERR, 2022a, 2022b)—which have prioritized the deteriorating economic situation since the autumn of 2022.

Table 1. Vote share selected parties in the Croatian parliamentary elections (July 2020)


Vote share (%)

Seats won




Restart (SDP-led) coalition






Bridge List



Green–Left (Možemo)















Source: Compiled by the author with data from the Croatian State Electoral Commission (https://www.izbori.hr/arhiva-izbora/index.html#/app/parlament-2020). Note: Parties in shaded rows are far right. Neither the HČSP nor the HSP 1861 participated in the 2020 elections.


Several actors in the far-right spectrum of Croatian politics have sought to draw linkages between the war in Ukraine and the Homeland War. Among the older parties of the radical and extremist right, the HSP, the HČSP, and the A-HSP converge along their unconditional support for Ukraine, whereas the HSP 1861 prioritizes its geopolitical opposition to NATO. Nevertheless, as a result of their marginality, all these parties place a disproportionally higher emphasis on domestic politics than on the developments in Ukraine since late February 2022. Meanwhile, the DP, as a more ambitious actor, does not seem to have capitalized sufficiently on the conflict in Ukraine as a trajectory towards boosting their appeal, either. As a closing remark, I would note that both the DP and the forces of Croatia’s radical right appear to converge on the prioritization of themes such as anti-corruption and dealing with the increasing energy costs and the cost of living in general in their political discourses.


(*) Vassilis Petsinis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Corvinus University (Institute of Global Studies) in Budapest, Hungary. He is a political scientist with expertise in European Politics and Ethnopolitics. His Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA-IF) individual research project at the University of Tartu (2017–19) was entitled: “Patterns and management of ethnic relations in the Western Balkans and the Baltic States” (project ID: 749400-MERWBKBS). As a specialist in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe, Petsinis is the author of the monographs National Identity in Serbia: The Vojvodina and a Multiethnic Community in the Balkans (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Cross-regional Ethnopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe: Lessons from the Western Balkans and the Baltic States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), as well as other academic publications that cover a range of countries as diverse as Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Greece.


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ERR (2022b, August 18). Opposition demands electricity reform, EKRE threatening mass unrest. https://news.err.ee/1608689173/opposition-demands-electricity-reform-ekre-threatening-mass-unrest

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Hrvatska Desnica. (2022b, May 2). Zoran Milanović, ruski čovjek! [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v9geZ57AVw

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[1] In Vukovar and other parts of Slavonia where the ethnic Serb population meets the 30% threshold prescribed by Croatian law, the official use of the Serb Cyrillic script has not been implemented largely due to public opposition.

[2] Rafael Boban was a military commander in the fascist Ustaše (“Insurgents”) militia under the rule of the Nazi puppet state in Croatia (NDH) created in 1941. He disappeared in 1945 but a right-wing cult grew up around him in subsequent years.

[3] Zoran Milanović is said to have maintained a controversial stance on Ukraine. On this issue, see Trkanjec (2022) and Radosavljević (2022).

[4] Ivo Sanader is a former Croatian prime minister (2003–09) and member of the HDZ who is serving a sentence in prison on corruption charges. Croatia was admitted into NATO in 2009 at the end of his term in office.

[5] One should add that, as early as the Euromaidan protests in 2014, the HSP 1861 had been accusing the West of “Byzantine policies towards Ukraine” and had detected “geopolitical games of the global powers highly reminiscent of those in Croatia” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2014).

[6] The SDSS is the largest political party among the ethnic Serb minority in Croatia. It currently participates as a coalition partner in the Croatian government together with the HDZ.

Czech businessman and politician Tomio Okamura in Prague, Czech Republic on May 5, 2010. Photo: Shutterstock.

Our people first (again)! The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on the populist Radical Right in the Czech Republic

Havlík, Vlastimil & Kluknavská, Alena. (2023). “Our people first (again)! The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on the populist Radical Right in the Czech Republic.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0015


Download Report on Czech Republic


The report examines the impact of the war on the Czech populist Radical Right Freedom and Democracy Party (SDP) and its reaction to the war. Among the countries of the European Union (EU), the Czech Republic has become one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine, creating specific discursive opportunities for populist Radical Right actors. The paper investigates the supply and demand side of populist Radical Right politics, focusing on how the party positioned itself to attract support facing the challenge of reading and accommodating new public sentiments. We use qualitative analysis of the social media posts of the party leader Tomio Okamura to show that after the initial hesitant rejection of the Russian invasion, the party (re-)turned to pro-Russian narratives, incorporating the war into its populist nativist discourse and driving the ideas of welfare chauvinism and economic protectionism. Using data from the representative public opinion surveys, we show that the party supporters criticize economic support for Ukraine and the refugees and have the most positive attitudes towards Russia compared to the rest of the electorate. We discuss the potential long-term consequences on the position of the Czech populist Radical Right stressing the economic difficulties and war-related grievances.

Keywords: Populism, Radical Right, anti-populism, Czech politics, polarization, Tomio Okamura.



By Vlastimil Havlík* & Alena Kluknavská** (Masaryk University)


Among the member states of the European Union (EU), the Czech Republic has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion of February 2022. Petr Fiala of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS)—the Czech prime minister since September 2021—was among the first high-ranking politicians to visit Kyiv (in March 2022), alongside Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński (then deputy prime minister) and Slovenian prime minister, Janez Janša. Moreover, the Czech Republic has also provided Ukraine with extensive military support and implemented an open border policy for Ukrainian refugees, who have been provided both asylum and extensive social support (including financial and housing assistance). Almost half a million Ukrainians (equivalent to 5% of the entire population of the Czech Republic) have entered the country since the outbreak of the war, making Czechia home to one of the largest populations of displaced Ukrainians in the EU.

This paper examines the impact of the war on populism in Czechia through the prism of the Radical Right Freedom and Democracy Party (Svoboda a přímá demokracie, SPD) and its reaction to the war. We focus on the supply and demand side of their politics, showing how the SPD has positioned itself to attract support facing the challenge of reading and accommodating new public sentiments. On the supply side, we evaluate how the SPD has communicated the war in its political messages through qualitative analysis of the social media posts of party leader Tomio Okamura (Okamura, n.d.). We show that after the initial hesitant rejection of the Russian invasion, the SPD (re-)turned to pro-Russian discourse. The party successfully incorporated the war and related issues, such as the energy crisis and inflation, into its nativist–populist discourse, mainly as a way to drive the ideas of welfare chauvinism and economic protectionism. On the demand side, the electoral support of the SPD has increased modestly since the beginning of the war. Using data from public opinion surveys, we show that party supporters criticize economic support for Ukraine and the refugees coming to the country and have the most positive attitudes towards Russia compared to the rest of the electorate.

Populist Radical Right parties in the Czech Republic

The Radical Right populist “Rally for the Republic” or the Republican Party of Czechoslovakia was founded in 1989 during the transition to democracy; after some parliamentary success in the 1990s, the party fell out of national political favour (Hanley, 2012). Aside from several minor parties whose support seldom exceeded 1% (such as the Workers Party or the Republican Party), the Czech party system lacked a significant Far Right presence through the first decade of this century, diverging from most other European party systems. It was not until the 2013 general election that a populist Radical Right party crossed the electoral threshold and entered the parliament.

Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy was established shortly before the 2013 general election, in which it scored almost 7% of the vote and 14 seats (out of 200). The party, led by a well-known entrepreneur and sitting senator of Czech-Japanese-Korean descent, Tomio Okamura, was built around strong anti-elitist and anti-corruption slogans. The political context was favourable for such a strategy: already low public trust in established political parties was compounded by a series of political crises and deteriorating macroeconomic conditions (Havlík, 2015). During the initial phase of the party’s existence, Dawn was not focused primarily on issues preoccupying the Radical Right except for occasional exclusionist anti-Roma statements. After intra-party disputes about the party’s future direction and Okamura’s alleged embezzlement of party funds, he was expelled from Dawn. Shortly after, in 2015, Okamura founded the SPD.

Unlike Dawn, the SPD immediately embraced Radical Right rhetoric. It employed a stanch anti-Muslim and anti-immigration discourse, taking advantage of the unfolding refugee crisis and the prevailing anti-refugee xenophobic attitudes among the public. In economic terms, the SPD combined right-wing (low taxation) and leftist protectionist measures (decent state-guaranteed pensions) with welfare chauvinism (exclusion of immigrants and Roma people from social security measures). The party also adopted hard-Eurosceptic positions (calling for “Czexit”) and drew clear authoritarian and anti-progressive lines, including denying the existence of human-made climate change (Kim, 2020). The party has also forged a programmatic profile similar to populist Radical Right parties elsewhere in Europe. The SPD gained 11% of the vote (and 22 seats) in the 2017 general election and slightly less than 10% (20 seats) in the 2021 general elections. Because the party’s populist Radical Right profile hampers its coalition potential, the SPD has spent all its parliamentary presence in opposition.

The supply side: Freedom and Democracy’s populist framing of war-time conditions

After 2015, the SPD was among the few pro-Russian or pro-Putin political parties in the Czech parliament (alongside the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which is no longer in the parliament). The SPD’s discourse on Russia integrated anti-liberal, anti-EU, anti-American, and xenophobic narratives, depicting Putin and his regime as guardians of “traditional” values and Christianity. In his social media posts, Okamura endorsed Putin’s disparaging rhetoric on issues such as migration, same-sex marriage, and the role of the West and the United States in international relations. The party also shared the Russian narrative about the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas as the logical Russian reaction to Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” (also known as the Maidan Revolution). The party representatives recognized the referendum in Crimea as legitimate, described it as a decision made by the Ukrainian citizens, and even compared it to the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 (Hrbáček, 2018, p. 31).

Shortly before the invasion, Okamura downplayed the risks of Russia attacking Ukraine. During the weeks after February 2022, the party only rarely commented on the war. When public reactions became more readable after the initial shock of Russia’s war of aggression, the SPD developed a coherent discourse about the war. The party’s communication revolved around three main points: (1) a general and abstract anti-war narrative; (2) an overarching socioeconomic framing of the war combined with nativism (welfare chauvinism), and (3) persistent anti-elitism.

The underlying frame of the war-related communication of SPD can be best characterized as an abstract anti-war narrative. This narrative named generalized “aggression in Ukraine” as the problem to be addressed (omitting Russia’s criminal liability as the aggressor) based on an oversimplified version of reality in which there would be no war if only the conflict were resolved with “peaceful, diplomatic solutions” (Tomio Okamura – SPD, 2022a). Though this general statement was Okamura’s only comment on war published on his social media during the first two weeks following the Russian invasion, it set the tone of the party’s principal stance on the war: relativizing Russia’s responsibility by attributing part of the blame on Ukraine, and framing of the war as a logical reaction to security threats to Russia posed by Ukraine and the West. This victim-blaming position toward Ukraine replicated the official Russian narrative. The SPD also rejected the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, the United States, and other countries as “ineffective” and criticized the military supplies for Ukraine as potentially escalating the conflict and threatening Czech security. The abstract anti-war arguments thus equalled a position against intervention, eventually legitimizing the aggressor.

Nonetheless, direct references to war were rare in the SPD’s communication about the conflict. Explicit mentions of Russia and Putin, or the term “invasion”, were almost non-existent in Okamura’s social media posts. Interestingly, older positive mentions of Putin and his regime were deleted from Okamura’s Facebook page (Moláček, 2022), possibly to avoid accusations of direct sympathy for Putin.

The economic difficulties arising from the conflict became the central context in which the war-related issues were presented. The SPD repeatedly pointed to the high inflation in the Czech Republic, one of the highest in the EU, and the threats to energy security (Czechia is highly dependent on gas supplies from Russia) at the beginning of the war. Okamura’s economic messaging reflected the broader Putin-is-not-to-blame framing of the conflict. Although the inflation rate and spiking energy prices were not explicitly linked to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the SPD used these as vivid images in a broader narrative exploiting insecurity and the sense of crisis created by the war. More directly, the SPD supported policies that would help Russia economically, especially regarding energy supplies. Legitimizing this approach by pointing to Hungary’s policies and generating fear about the prospect of further inflation driven by spiking gas prices, Okamura advocated purchasing “cheap gas” directly from Russia’s Gazprom instead of through the “expensive” gas market in Germany.

The SPD also skilfully framed the economic impacts of the war through appeals to nativism and welfare chauvinism. In general, welfare chauvinism avoids direct criticism of the welfare state itself and instead focuses on its scope (and expense) by shining a light on the universality of entitlements (De Koster et al., 2013). Thus, policy choices around welfare spending are framed in terms of the prudent allocation of scarce economic resources setting up a competition between the (deserving native) “people” and the (undeserving foreign) “others”.

Initially, Okamura indicated a positive attitude to accepting Ukrainian refugees for “humanitarian reasons” and an “absolutely necessary period of time” (Okamura, 7.3.2022). Soon, however, the SPD leader set substantial financial support for Ukrainian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening macroeconomic situation and the need to shepherd scarce government resources carefully. The party described the immediate measures and planned public spending on integration as costly and destabilizing for the Czech social and healthcare system. Furthermore, accepting a large number of refugees was presented as a challenge for the job market, the education system, and community safety. The party leader also occasionally (though far less often than in the case of non-European refugees during the 2015 migration crisis) questioned the refugee status of Ukrainians by blaming them for “drawing too many solidarity and humanitarian benefits from our budget” (Okamura, 13.4.2022) and downplayed the severity of the situation by claiming that “there is no war on the majority of Ukraine’s territory” (Wirnitzer, 2022).

The party further created a persistent anti-elitist anti-government narrative. Okamura accused the governing coalition of incompetence, inefficient measures, and not solving the country’s economic troubles (or even deepening them). Against this discursive background, Okamura constructed a nativist divide between the Czech people and Ukrainians, claiming the government was placing the needs of foreigners ahead of its own people. Okamura described Fiala’s cabinet as “The government acts as if it were the Ukrainian government in exile, and not the government of our citizens. It takes care of Ukrainians but not Czech citizens. […] For example, single mothers or people who are disabled have been waiting for apartments for a long time without success, but priority is given to immigrants, whose arrival is at the same time still supported by the offer of free transport on sleeper trains from Lviv,” (Tomio Okamura – SPD, 2022b).

The number of issues the SPD mentioned in this context increased. Still, the main message remained consistent: the government (and the media) was prioritizing Ukrainians and neglecting ordinary Czech people whose already difficult circumstances were deteriorating further in the wake of spiking food and energy prices.

The demand side: Czech voters fed up with rolling crises

The war started just a few months after the October 2021 general election in the Czech Republic. The SPD gained slightly less than 10 % of the vote, a similar result to its 2017 performance. Public opinion polls indicated a modest increase in the popularity of the party and its leader in the wake of Russia’s invasion. According to data collected by the Czech research agency MEDIAN, the party’s support grew from 8.5% in November 2021 to 10% in March 2022 and 14% in August 2022 (iDnes, 2022). Party support then stabilized at around 12%.

Although it is difficult to draw a causal link between the outbreak of the war and support for political parties, we see an interesting pattern. Since the outbreak of the conflict, SPD support has been consistently higher than in the past, when it rarely surpassed 10%. Moreover, we can observe a significant increase in public trust in Tomio Okamura. According to a poll conducted by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (CVVM) in March and May 2022, 34% of respondents expressed trust in Okamura, roughly ten percentage points more than the average recorded in the two years preceding Russia’s invasion (Červenka, 2022a).

The increased support for SPD correlates with decreased public support for Ukraine and the Czech government’s handling of the war. The CVVM data shows that while almost 60% of voters supported the government’s general approach towards Ukraine in the spring of 2022, support had dropped to 40% by the autumn (Červenka, 2022b). A similar decrease was recorded regarding specific policies: 55% of respondents supported financial aid for Ukraine in the autumn (compared to 73% in the spring), and 43% of respondents supported providing Ukraine with military materiel (54% in the spring). Also, the public attitude towards the general approach to Russia “softened” over time. While 63% of respondents were for a “total political and economic isolation of Russia” in the spring, only 49% said so in the autumn.

The assumed linkage between the public perception of the war and the popularity of the SPD is supported by the data on supporters of individual political parties. According to a survey administered by CVVM between November 2022 and January 2023, 80% of the declared voters of SPD did not agree with the government’s support for Ukraine, and 70% of them were against accepting Ukrainian refugees to the country. Moreover, when asked about emotions induced by the current political and societal situation, 80% of SPD voters agreed with the statement that they feel fear (CVVM, 2023). Although we do not have hard data uncovering the causal mechanism, the evidence indicates that the SPD has succeeded in seizing the opportunities presented by the crisis to mobilize voters around its pro-Russian populist nativism.

Discussion and perspectives

The Russian invasion of Ukraine profoundly impacted the populist Radical Right in the Czech Republic. In this report, we have focused on the SPD, the only significant populist Radical Right party in the Czech Republic, showing how it adapted crisis communication to the new situation. First, the party discarded messaging that openly supported Putin and Russia or cast Putin as a role model for defending conservative values against the liberal and “decadent” West. SPD leader Okamura even removed pro-Russian social media messages posted before the war. Second, the SPD integrated its communications about the war into the party’s established populist and nativist narratives. Most notably, the party has deployed welfare chauvinist and anti-elitist arguments to contest the Czech government’s financial and military aid for Ukraine. Worsening macroeconomic conditions (especially high inflation) and the volatile energy market helped the party integrate these arguments into its discourse. Moreover, eschewing the cultural xenophobia it had adopted during the 2015 refugee crisis, the SPD instead framed its opposition to government policy on prudential grounds (careful allocation of scarce resources) and national security (pointing to the risk of escalation of the war). Finally, although the SPD stopped short of an explicitly pro-Russian stance, it occasionally downplayed the intensity of the conflict, failed to condemn Putin’s aggression and relativized Russia’s responsibility, eventually taking the Kremlin’s side by supporting vague “peace talks” and “diplomatic solutions”.

The data from public opinion surveys indicate that the war modestly boosted support for the SPD. Not surprisingly, most SPD voters do not support governmental aid for Ukraine, are against accepting Ukrainian refugees, and are most fearful when evaluating the current political and societal situation. By the end of 2022, the war had not lead to the emergence or rise of already existing populist Radical Right parties. As for other populist actors in the system, the centre-left ANO party of the former prime minister, Andrej Babiš, underwent a significant transformation of its attitude to Russia. After taking a clear anti-Russian position and openly supporting the government’s moves after the invasion, the party stepped back somewhat, adopting what we could call a “soft pro-Ukrainian” stance. During his candidacy for the president of the Czech Republic (the election took place in January 2023), Babiš adopted a more Russian posture, stressing the need for peace talks (in a similar way as Okamura). Before the run-off, he also accused his opponent, Petr Pavel, a former general, of warmongering to appeal to the anti-Ukrainian part of the electorate. Pavel based his campaign on anti-populism, describing Babiš’s incompetence and graft as his primary motivation to run, contrasting “chaos and personal gain” with order, calmness, dignity, and civility, the central values of his candidacy. In the second round, Pavel won a landslide victory, taking 58.3% of the vote.

The mainstream parties also used war-related narratives in their communications. In the lead up to the 2021 general election, the two electoral coalitions, the right-wing SPOLU and the centrist Pirates and Mayors and Independents (which eventually formed the government), based their electoral campaign on an anti-populist appeal. This strategy constructed two opposing identities: the populist and extremist camp (consisting of ANO, the SPD, and the communist party on the one side) and the anti-populist democratic camp on the other. One of the defining features of their discursive anti-populism was the construction of a frame in which a pro-Western (and pro-democratic) group was holding the line against an implicitly anti-West and pro-Russian extremist one (Havlík & Kluknavská, 2022). Notably, the anti-populists (predominantly SPOLU) used war-related narratives in their communications before the local election in the autumn of 2022 and anti-populist messages mainly targeted the ANO party. SPOLU built on Babiš’s past record of collaboration with the communist secret police, compared him to Putin, and blamed the former prime minister for the Czech Republic’s dependence on Russian gas (Koalice SPOLU, 2022).

At the time of writing (February 2023), the end of the war seems nowhere in sight. The populist Radical Right SPD has successfully adapted its discourse to the new conditions and communicated a more or less implicit pro-Russian narrative while leveraging the economic challenges the Czech Republic is facing to appeal to disaffected voters. As the public grows steadily more disposed to the Russian position, space is opened for the populist Radical Right, already rising modestly in the polls, to mobilize voters. Still, an improvement in Czechia’s macroeconomic outlook or government assistance targeting the economically most vulnerable groups of the population may blunt the continuing rise of the SPD. It could also mean increasing trust in the democratic system as the SPD is more popular among the less educated and poorer voters, who are disenchanted with politics (Voda & Havlík, 2021). Also, given the change in the communication strategy of the populist ANO, we may witness a discursive (and electoral) competition between the two populist parties trying to take advantage of the war. Regardless of who wins this fight, in the absence of an effective mainstream political opposition, the Czech Republic will likely encounter further polarization between populist and anti-populist forces.

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(*) Vlastimil Havlík is associate professor at Masaryk University and the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI) (https://www.syri.institute/). His research focus includes populism and political parties in Central and Eastern Europe. He is also editor-in-chief of the Czech Journal of Political Science (politologickycasopis.cz). [ORCID: 0000-0003-3650-5783]

(**) Alena Kluknavská is assistant professor at Masaryk University and the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI) (https://www.syri.institute/). Her research focuses on political communication and public and political discourses on migration and minority issues. She is also interested in understanding the communication strategies and successes of the populist Radical Right parties and movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Recently, her work has focused on truth contestation and polarisation in political discourse, particularly on social media. [ORCID: 0000-0002-3679-3335]


This research was supported by the NPO “Systemic Risk Institute” project number LX22NPO5101, funded by the European Union–Next Generation EU (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, NPO: EXCELES).


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Tomio Okamura – SPD. (2022a, February 24). Vyjádření Tomio Okamury včetně komentáře poslance Jaroslava Bašty (SPD) k aktuální situaci na Ukrajině. Válka není řešení. Vláda ČR musí [Video]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=997970747819679.

Tomio Okamura – SPD. (2022b, April 20). Vláda Petra Fialy se musí starat v první řadě o naše slušné a pracující občany! Vážení přátelé, toto je aktuální [Status update] [Image attached] Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/hnutispd/photos/a.1040621019302076/5267135113317291/?type=3.

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Action to support Ukraine in Aalborg, Denmark, in June 2022. Photo: Viktor Osipenko.

The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on Right-Wing Populism in Europe. The case of Denmark

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At the referendum held in Denmark on June 1st, 2022 (Indenrigsministeriet, 2022), two-thirds of the electorate (66.9 %) voted for the removal of the Danish EU opt-out on Common Security and Defense Policy. This result was noteworthy, and it must be understood within the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the light of the situation of instability and insecurity sparked by an international crisis, that added up to the effects of the global health crisis. The populist right-wing parties in parliament were against the removal, arguing Denmark would renounce decisional power on key military and security areas. Instead, these parties advocate for the strengthening of the military within the NATO-alliance, starkly opposing further development at EU level. The impact of the Russia-Ukrainian war opens new opportunities for the populist right, whose electoral support has been waning over the past years. The newly established party, The Denmark Democrats can gain from the situation to strengthen and consolidate their position. The New Right and the crisis ridden Danish People’s Party can exploit the situation to gain voters’ support, playing on feelings of insecurity and international crisis. 

Keywords: right-wing populism; opt-outs; Danish People’s Party; foreign policy; NATO.



By Susi Meret* (Aalborg University)

Denmark’s interventionist agenda  

The Danish public opinion has been traditionally reluctant to concede on the Danish four opt-outs that were adopted in 1993. The opt-out regarding the defence also epitomizes a deep-seated and symbolically crucial matter, interpreted as a bulwark against yet more power to the EU, particularly on matters considered sovereign domain of the nation state. Already in the 1990s, reluctancy towards “more EU” was capitalized by the populist right, which rivalled with the Eurosceptic far-left and with single-issue movements against further EU integration. The populist right, and particularly The Danish People’s Party claims that “more EU” infers “less Denmark”, leading to more bureaucracy and the loss of Danish national sovereignty. This frame was reactivated also in relation to the 2022 referendum triggered by the developments in Ukraine. 

At the 2022 elections, defence, usually a peripheral issue in the electoral agenda, was covered in 11% of the media reports. The figure was only 1 %. at the previous elections (Kosiara-Pedersen 2023). The NATO alliance is generally viewed as a necessary and sufficient military deterrent. This opinion emerges quite manifestly also from recent public opinion surveys (Andersen et al. 2022), showing high levels of trust for the NATO alliance among the Danes. The trust in the NATO alliance is today higher than it has been and significantly higher than people’s trust in the EU, but also in the Danish government. In terms of trust, the NATO comes just after the judicial system and the police forces. Interestingly, this is the case also across party differences, which have become less polarized on this matter, showing a change in the attitudes of the Far Left (e.g., the Unity List, and the Socialist People’s Party). The Russian invasion has decreased the opposition towards higher public spending in the military, and in rearmament, both seen as an inevitable consequence of the armed conflict. Gender – rather than party vote, does in fact mark a more significant difference. Women are much less supportive than men towards rearmament and more prone to consider the use diplomatic ways as a better means to resolving the conflict. 

Denmark’s engagement on the Ukrainian side is almost unconditional (Henley 2022). Same goes for the support to the sanctions implemented against Russia by the EU, and for helping of Ukraine with weapons and military training. There is limited concern towards the recent plans of the German neighbour to rearm, which would otherwise have historical reason to occur. It is important to underline that this interventionist turn is no self-evident in a context like Denmark. Denmark has specific interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Russia. For one, the area of the Artic cooperation has in the past decade become more and more strategic; this would advise to keep military hostilities and diplomatic tensions at a minimum. It also shows that Denmark is not particularly influenced by the “little-country mentality”, which would advocate for neutrality, or at least for a less interventionist position. 

At the same time – and contrary to other EU countries, Denmark does not depend on Russian gas and import market (although the Nord Stream 1 pipeline also runs through Danish waters), neither is Denmark particularly affected by close geographical proximity to Russia as it is the case of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Historically the country has entertained relatively good and peaceful diplomatic relations with its Eastern neighbour. Also, in spite of the fact that Russians had in 1945 occupied (after the Nazis) the Danish Island of Bornholm, where they stayed until 1946, their settlement creating growing alarm. In the post-war era, Denmark was for many years a frontline NATO state in the Nordic region. 

Denmark’s foreign and security policy towards Russia became more activist (Mouritzen, 2022) after the Cold War, for instance, in supporting the NATO membership for the Baltic countries, with the purpose of securitizing the Eastern borders of Europe and also to build a stronger bulwark against future potential Russian aggressions. This background frame is essential to help explain today’s Danish unwavering pro-Ukraine support and the country’s backup to the NATO alliance and the sanctions. What in reality might set a threshold to the Danes’ interventionism and strong support to Ukraine, eventually also rekindling the electoral appeal for the populist Right, are two major and growing concerns: on the one side, the possibility that the conflict might degenerate into an atomic war; on the other side, the fear that an increase in energy prices (and in the overall inflation) might develop into yet another serious economic and financial crisis. 

Fear about economic insecurity has been exacerbated since the outburst of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Danes are generally rather optimistic about the future of their own and of the country’s economy. Yet the concern about how the economic situation will look in the near future is today greater than it was in the aftermath of the financial crisis more than a decade ago. Particularly high among the population aged 30-50, which are also the cohorts more exposed to the effects of the inflation, and in particular of the higher mortgage rents. Economic uncertainty adds up to an increase in socioeconomic inequality in the country and to grievances about income and decreasing welfare provisions. These perceptions could result into stronger support for populist right-wing parties and politics, which in the past years has been dwindling. Yet this would unlikely impact on the support for Ukraine and on the positions towards Russia, but rather on attitudes towards the EU, cooperation politics on migration policy and economy.            

New opportunities for a split populist right-wing in Denmark

EU has over the years adopted several important measures and initiatives to defend common democratic principles and values. Denmark has actively worked to support this value agenda. Things stand a little differently on issues concerning EU military cooperation and foreign policy. The fact that the 2022 referendum abolished a 30-year-old opt-out clause is remarkable. Yet the Eurosceptic populist Right strongly and consequently opposes what is seen as the effort to hand more power and sovereignty over to the EU. Both the Danish People’s Party and the New Right have rallied against “more EU,” and against the revoking of the opt-out. Instead, the two parties plea for stronger support to the NATO-alliance as the way to guarantee the country military security. 

This responds to Denmark’s strengthening the Atlantic dimension in Danish military and foreign policy. In 2018 and again in 2019, the Danish government was quick to approve the expansion of defence spending to meet the 2 %. of the GDP prompted by the American pressure to ensure the alliance’s military readiness. The line is maintained by the incumbent Danish bipartisan government coalition formed after the 2022 November elections, which includes the Social Democrats, the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the newly formed The Moderates. The new government certainly pursues an interventionist approach and after taking office it prompted all the parties in the opposition to give their support to their proposal of fast-tracking the increase in public spending for defence, aiming at anticipating the goals from 2033 to 2030. Social Democrat PM Mette Frederiksen (Statsministeriet 2023) explained in her New Year’s speech to the nation: “Europe must stay stronger. And Denmark must pay more to NATO. […] This entails we all need to contribute some more. Thus, the government suggests we scrap a public holiday. I feel not everybody agrees with this, but hand on heart, and we cannot possibly overcome a war in Europe, the climate crisis and our domestic challenges, if each and every one, does not contribute some more.”     

This move happened to be very unpopular. It triggered strong criticism from the trade unions, from the parties at the opposition and from different categories of workers. Pivotal is considered the way the government makes use of the of the war frame to hasten the scraping of a public holiday. This without consulting the other parties and the labour market parts, as it is tradition for in the country. What the opposition and the labour market parts question is in fact whether the additional spending on defence, explained as the need to sacrifice a little to meet the costs of the war and of rearmament cannot be financed through other measures than those currently on the agenda.  

These recent developments have contributed to amplify a set of dilemmas in the country, but in particular among the populist right-wing parties, which are the most vocal supporters of the NATO-alliance and have always pledged for higher public spending in the military and defense. Their dilemma reverts on how to take advantage from the political opportunities opened by the conflict and to achieve these goals, without charging their electorate with additional costs. 

The country’s right-wing populism topography 

In an update posted on his Facebook profile on February 23, 2022, Morten Messerschmidt, the leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF) since the start of 2022, articulated the party position on the Russia-Ukraine war using these words: “Russia is threatening Europe’s freedom – NATO is the answer”. He further elaborated, arguing that: “If someone ever doubted where the Danish People’s Party stands on Russia and on Putin, let me put it boldly here: We stand with the Western defence NATO-alliance to protect and secure the Western freedom values and ideals [including] in all countries’ right to go their own way and make their alliances,” (Messerschmidt, 2022).

For Messerschmidt and the Danish People’s Party only a “strong NATO alliance with the backup of the US” can provide “a convincing answer to the Russian aggression”. The party is against any attempt to create an independent EU defence, with own structure of command. This would only contribute “to strengthen the US isolationist politics and could be fatal for the EU” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Forsøg på at skabe et europæisk forsvar med egen kommandostruktur vil uundgåeligt styrke isolationistiske kræfter i USA, hvilket kan blive skæbnesvangert for Europa. Dette er vi kommet et skridt nærmere med afskaffelsen af forsvarsforbeholdet i kølvandet på krigen i Ukraine

Conditions for the financing of the defence should be responsible and take place without deficit on the yearly state budget. This entails that the Danish military participation should only serve Denmark’s interest and security and should not act as “the world’s police officer” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Intervention in other countries and regions deemed as strategically nonrelevant should be avoided. The party was, for instance, against the presence of Danish soldiers in Mali joining European special forces.   

The party’s position on foreign and security policy above is not new. In the early 2000s, the party working program read (Dansk Folkeparti Arbejdsprogram, 2001): “Denmark should as a sovereign and free nation be part of a strong NATO-alliance”, whereas the party declared itself being “against any EU involvement in the military and defence”, contending this field must only be managed at national level (arguing thus for an increase in military and defence spending), and internationally coordinated by the NATO alliance. Morten Messerschmidt reiterated the party standing against Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thus responding to the twofold purpose of distancing from politically harmful pro-Russian views within its party, and among his European allies, with whom the Danish People’s Party had tried to forge a stronger far-right alliance under the 2019 European Parliament elections. Uncomfortable, albeit restricted, are the pro-Russian and pro-Putin standpoints publicly uttered by outstanding party MPs, such as by Søren Espersen, and Marie Krarup. The latter was certainly the most problematic case the party had to deal with, since she consistently stood on her pro-Russian positions (Kristensen, 2022), also after the invasion and despite going against the party line. Krarup eventually exited the party at the end of February 2022, also because of her disapproval of the new party leadership. 

The Danish People’s Party internal disputes had begun time before the conflict in Ukraine, triggered by the remarkable drop in voters’ support at the 2019 and again at 2021 elections. These electoral losses provoked a mounting dissatisfaction with Kristan Thulesen Dahl’s leadership, ending with his resignation in 2021. The electorate blamed him for not having taken government responsibilities after the party triumph at the 2015 elections (Meret, 2021). In this sense, the Russia-Ukraine conflict posed just another challenging issue on the agenda to the already internally troubled and split Danish People’s Party. Besides, the relations with some of the parties in the Identity and Democracy European Parliament group, holding ambiguous positions with Putin and Russia (e.g., Lega, the Front National and the Alternative for Germany) contributed to aggravate the picture. From the outside, the Danish People’s Party has since 2019 been in competition with the New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) which coopted stricter positions on asylum and immigration and by the turn towards the right of the Social Democrats on immigration (Meret, 2020).   

The Danish People’s Party leadership shift, with Morten Messerschmidt taking the lead amid internal party disagreement and criticism, took place only a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Danish People’s Party activated a “reputational shield” to respond to the new crisis, drawing from the party long-standing support to the NATO-alliance and by its opposition to the EU military and defence cooperation. A third leg on foreign policy is constituted by the party emphasis on the value approach, centered upon the importance to preserve liberal democratic values, principles of sovereignty and Europe’s Christian heritage as strategic configurations to attack Putin’s regime and to regain the voters’ support. The party is also relatively more open towards the need to take in war refugees from Ukraine, bluntly upholding that besides being Ukraine a geographically near region, “there is clearly a huge difference if it is Christian Ukrainians who come into Denmark, rather than say [refugees] from Somalia or all other possible good people from a Muslim country.” (Volsing 2022)       

The NB is another populist right-wing party at the political opposition in Denmark, having a shorter life history (it was formed in 2015) than the Danish People’s Party. Apart from the strongly neoliberal agenda, the New Right subscribes to similar (yet not the same) positions as the Danish People’s Party on other issues. On the Russia-Ukraine war, NB holds perhaps an even tougher tone in terms of a stronger interventionist conviction and an anti-European policy that still urges Denmark’s exit from the EU. In a blog published on the party website on the day of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, today former party leader Pernille Vermund criticized both centre-left and centre-right governments for having “neglected Danish military and defence” over the years, thus preventing the country from meeting the 2% of GDP target pledged to the NATO-alliance and, endangering Denmark’s national security and ability to react. The New Right’s opinion about Russia is straightforward: Russia has developed into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Artic regions, and ultimately Denmark. Only option for the country is to strengthen its position within the NATO-alliance.

The newly launched party the Denmark Democrats (DD), former in June 2022 by integration minister Inger Støjberg does not yet have a clear program on matters of foreign policy, military and defence are still unwritten (Krog, 2022). Støjberg is a former Liberal MP, known as a hardliner on immigration and integration politics, who was impeached and later convicted for unlawfully ordering the separation of young asylum-seeking spouses. Her party, the Denmark Democrats gained a solid 8 %. at the 2022 elections and it is believed to be the spare for the voters who are discontent and frustrated with the status quo, amongst them also several former Danish People’s Party supporters and former MPs. Støjberg has also expressed her preference for helping Christian Ukrainian rather than Muslim refugees.    

Voting intentions for right-wing populist parties in Denmark (2022)

Source: Compiled by the author based on data from Voxmeter (https://voxmeter.dk/meningsmalinger/)

Despite being among the most interventionist parties, also the Danish People’s Party, the New Right and the Denmark Democrats oppose the government’s recent proposal to economically fund the increase in military spending by removing the Great Prayers’ Day (Storbededag) from the Danes’ holiday calendar. The decision is sensitive, and while most parties in the opposition do agree with the purpose (more money to the military), the means to achieve have become contentious. For instance, the approval has been made as a condition to access the future financial negotiation for the military and the defence. Furthermore, the proposal comes just before the 2024 labour market collective agreement negotiations, making it particularly ostracized among trade unions and workers who see charges primarily taken by the working class. But the abolition of one of the Christian public holidays directly speaks to the populist right wing parties, which flagships the lack of interest for Denmark’s Christian legacies and cultural heritage. This allows to take on board right-wing populist fears about a threatened nation from within (by a detached political elite and a growing Muslim problem) and outside (by EU integration, Russian expansionist politics and an increasingly insecure world governance). As Morten Messerschmidt articulated on his Twitter account (Messerschmidt [@Messerschmidt] December 14, 2022): “To remove the Great Prayers’ Day is pure madness. We ought not change our traditions and holidays in the name of rationalism. And yes, it is a holy-day (!) which substituted all former catholic holidays. Fingers away from the Danish traditions.”                    


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered long term consequences on Danish domestic politics by encouraging more interventionist positions, and by creating the conditions for the future increase of the public spending and the reform of the Danish military. This however at the cost of welfare standards and levels of trust. The conflict contributed strengthening the country support in the NATO-alliance, drawing Denmark even closer to the US and its allies. Denmark is member of both NATO and the EU, yet on military and defence matters it has always felt much closer and loyal to the first. The result of the 2022 referendum preludes to some changes on this pattern, likely in the longer-term span. But the war in Ukraine speaks also to the right-wing populist voters, to their growing economic and societal concerns and grievances. Primarily it can represent the return to narrower understandings of the nation state, of safety and to the call to bring forces together to defend the country borders, security and welfare. It also contributes to creating new threats, sparking to Russophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, legitimated by the fear of what the future might bring in terms of economic, societal and cultural crises. It is issues that the populist right-wing knows already how to mobilize and capitalize upon. In this sense the European answer will be fundamental to prevent the return of nationalist and protectionist movements.

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(*) Susi Meret is associate professor at the Department of Politics and Society in the University of Aalborg, Denmark. Her main research interest is with populist radical right-wing parties in Europe, populism, political extremisms and civil society reactions. She has conducted studies on right-wing populism in Denmark (and beyond), also considering party leadership charisma, the mainstream parties’ counter-strategies, the role of Islam and, more broadly, the civil society responses to growing anti-immigration and ethno-nationalism. For more info: https://vbn.aau.dk/en/persons/100658/publications/


Andersen, Jacob, Goul Andersen Jørgen, Hede, Anders (2022). Danskerne og Krigen i Ukraine. Tryghedsmåling, TrygFonden.  

Dansk Folkeparti, Forsvarpolitik, https://danskfolkeparti.dk/politik/forsvar/

Dansk Folkeparti, (2001). Faelles vaerdier -– Faelles ansvar. Arbejdsprogram for Dansk Folkeparti. København.

Henley, John (2022) “Westerners in no mood for concessions to Russia in Ukraine, poll finds”, The Guardian, October 14, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/14/westerners-in-no-mood-for-concessions-to-russia-in-ukraine-poll-finds 

Indenrigsministeriet (2022). ”Folkeafstemning om afskaffelse af forsvarsforbeholdet 2022”, https://valg.im.dk/valgmyndigheder/folkeafstemning-om-afskaffelse-af-forsvarsforbeholdet-2022

Kosiara-Pedersen, K. (2023). New (types of) parties and government: The Danish general election 2022. West European Politics, Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2023.217474220

Kristensen, I. (2022, April 5). Marie Krarup vil fjerne sanktioner mod Rusland. Radio4. https://www.radio4.dk/nyheder/marie-krarup-vil-fjerne-sanktioner-mod-rusland/ 

Krog, A. (2022, October 27). Danmarksdemokraterne har ingen forsvarspolitik – og får det heller ikke lige foreløbig. Altinget.https://www.altinget.dk/forsvar/artikel/danmarksdemokraterne-har-ingen-forsvarspolitik-og-faar-det-heller-ikke-lige-foreloebig

Meret, S. (2021). Duties first, rights next! The Danish Social Democrats’ right turn on migration politics. In N. Brandal, Ø. Bratberg, & D. E. Thorsen (Eds.), Yearbook on Social Democracy in the 21st Century. (pp. 223-244) Emerald Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0195-631020210000035010

Meret, S. (2021). Denmark. In D. Albertazzi, & D. Vampa (Eds.), Populism and new patterns Of political competition in Western Europe. Routledge.

Messerschmidt, M. (2022, February 22). Rusland truer Europas Frihed – NATO er svaret, [Status update]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/MortenMesserschmidt/posts/

Messerschmidt, Morten [@Messerschmidt] (2022, December 14). At afskaffe store bededag, er simpelthen det rene vanvid, https://twitter.com/MrMesserschmidt/status/1602961303311683585 

Mouritzen, H. (2022). Wide fluctuations in Danish–Russian relations. In M. Kaeding, J. Pollak, & P. Schmidt (Eds.), Russia and the future of Europe (pp. 27-29). Springer. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-95648-6_7

Statsministeriet (2023). ”Statsminister Mette Frederiksens nytårstale 1. januar 2023” , January 1, 2023. https://www.stm.dk/statsministeren/nytaarstaler-siden-1940/mette-frederiksens-nytaarstale-1-januar-2023/ 

Volsing; Katrine (2022). “Morten Messerschmidt: ”Når der sker noget i vores egen baghave, så skal vi selvfølgelig springet til””. March 3, 2022.  https://www.radio4.dk/nyheder/morten-messerschmidt-naar-der-sker-noget-i-vores-egen-baghave-saa-skal-vi-selvfoelgelig-springe-til/ 

Demonstration at Freedom Square in NATO state Estonia in support of Ukraine and against the Russian aggression while Ewert Sundja was singing at Freedom Square, Tallinn, Estonia on February 26, 2022. Photo: Margus Vilbas.

The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Estonia

Jakobson, Mari-Liis & Kasekamp, Andres. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Estonia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0017


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For years, Estonia was an outlier in the European populist Radical Right scene, with no party being elected to parliament. This changed with the electoral breakthrough of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) in 2015. Currently, EKRE is the second-most popular party in Estonia, with roughly 20% support and is expected to achieve a record result in the general election in March 2023. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created opportunities and challenges for EKRE to increase its support. The war has offered EKRE fresh opportunities on several fronts. First, it has amped up its nativist agenda with claims that “mass immigration” of Ukrainian refugees will make ethnic Estonians a minority in their own land. Second, it has found fertile soil for populist messaging, given voters’ economic insecurities, accusing the establishment of incompetence in managing the high inflation and energy prices. EKRE is in the paradoxical situation of being an Estonian nationalist party attempting to appeal to Estonia’s sizeable Russian minority, which shares its “traditional family values”, Euroscepticism, anti-establishment grievances, and resentment of Ukrainian refugees. Several factors could explain the party’s current positioning, including EKRE’s interest in blaming the war’s economic effects on the government’s incompetence, the party’s anti-establishment inclination in a context of a broad foreign policy consensus, and its interest in courting Russian-speaking voters.

Keywords: Estonia; populism; Far Right; Ukraine; Russian minority.


By Mari-Liis Jakobson* & Andres Kasekamp**


Estonia lacked a genuine and electorally competitive populist Radical Right party until 2015, mainly because mainstream right-wing parties had already captured the nationalist segment of the ideological spectrum (Auers & Kasekamp, 2009). However, this began to change in 2012 when the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE) was founded. Shortly before the 2015 general election, the party began to attract attention for its opposition to measures expanding rights for same-sex couples passed by the Estonian parliament. After the election and in view of the unfolding EU “refugee crisis” in the summer of that year, the party’s support spiked again. In the 2019 elections, EKRE came in third and, to the surprise of many, joined a governing coalition with the centre-left Centre Party and the conservative Isamaa party that managed to stay in office until early 2021. A month before the 2023 general elections, polls suggest that EKRE’s support will make it the second-largest party in the next parliament.

EKRE checks all the ideological boxes that Mudde (2007) specified for a typical Radical Right populist party, including 1) nativism (xenophobia, racism, anti-globalism, Euroscepticism, welfare chauvinism), 2) authoritarianism (strong leadership, tough on crime, emphasis on traditional family values and cultural identity, toxic masculinity), and 3) populism (anti-elitism, distrust of experts, unfulfillable promises, belief in deep state conspiracies). EKRE has also clearly aligned itself with other populist Radical Right actors, being a member of the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament and echoing narratives from the right-wing online media space, such as Breitbart News.

In most Eastern European countries, pro-Russian stances have historically been linked with the Left, especially the successors of the former communist parties. While Estonia has no communist party successor to speak of, the centre-left Centre Party has long been seen as pro-Russian, especially under Edgar Savisaar, its populist leader from 1991 to 2016. The party signed a cooperation memorandum with Russia’s ruling United Russia party in 2004 (formally terminating it only in March 2022) and has long enjoyed overwhelming support among Estonia’s sizeable Russian-speaking minority (reaching more than 75% at its peak). Although support from Russian-speaking voters has been falling since 2016, it remains the most popular party among this group.

The ‘supply side’ of right-wing populism

EKRE began as an ultra-nationalist party whose discursive core was Eurosceptic and anti-Russian (Kasekamp et al., 2019). In the European Parliament, EKRE is in the anti-Russian wing of the Identity and Democracy group (along with the Finns Party and Poland’s ruling party, PiS). The party has generally been pro-NATO, although the party’s former chairman Mart Helme has repeatedly expressed scepticism about the alliance’s fitness for purpose. For example, in 2019, Helme declared NATO “in crisis”, echoing similar observations by Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron; he has also argued that Estonia should act primarily on its national interests rather than relying on NATO’s common security framework (Voog, 2019).

Unlike many of its Western European counterparts, EKRE has never been an explicitly pro-Russian party. However, in the context of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the party’s messaging has become more ambivalent. While EKRE has called for greater defence spending to meet the Russian threat, it has also been parroting some of Russia’s propaganda narrative.

Meanwhile, in the past few years, EKRE has consciously sought to woo the sizeable Russian-speaking minority to grow its electoral base; as a result, it has become more ambiguous in its positions on some issues (Braghiroli & Makarychev, 2022). Despite being an Estonian nationalist party, EKRE has much in common with the worldview of Russian speakers, who, on average, hold more traditional values, are economically less successful than ethnic Estonians, and hold grievances against the establishment and distrust the elites. An example of how EKRE can gain support from ethnic Russians is the traditional energy sector, where many Russian speakers in the northeast of the country are employed and whose future is most clearly affected by the EU’s climate agenda.

The desire to appeal to Russian minority voters has probably also influenced the party’s foreign policy narrative, which has moderated from outright hostility to calls for Estonia to work towards good neighbourly relations. For example, EKRE was once highly critical of the Estonian-Russian border agreement, which recognizes Russian sovereignty over territory that was part of Estonia before Soviet rule. However, criticism of the agreement is directed primarily at the Estonian political establishment, not at Russia. Rather than calling it an “enemy”, Mart Helme prefers to talk about Russia as a great civilization, emphasizing its global role and the fact that it is a neighbour.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, all Estonian parties, including EKRE, condemned the attack. In October 2022, the parliament, including EKRE, unanimously voted to declare Russia a terrorist state (Parliament of Estonia, 2022). Furthermore, when a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism came before the European Parliament, EKRE’s MEP Jaak Madison voted in favour. Estonia’s official position has been to support Ukraine until it is victorious and that peace should be negotiated once Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been restored. In this regard, EKRE has sent somewhat mixed messages. For instance, in an interview with a Russophone television programme, Mart Helme echoed some of the Kremlin’s talking points:

We find that the best solution would be a peace treaty, no matter how hard it would be for both sides – at least people would no longer have to die. We are not on Russia’s side, and we are not on Ukraine’s side; we are on the side of peace. (ERR, 2022c)

Later, the party’s leadership clarified EKRE’s support for Ukraine and excused Helme’s “unfortunate wording” while also reiterating the underlying claim, saying, “who wouldn’t be for peace?” (ERR, 2022d). The peace narrative is a subtle way of undermining support for Ukraine without appearing to be overtly pro-Russian. EKRE’s rhetoric has also been noted and praised by Russia’s state-controlled media (Lomp, 2022).

Another populist Radical Right figure, who has been speaking out for good neighbourly relations with Russia, is the leader of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK), Varro Vooglaid, who has a considerable following on his website Objektiiv (https://objektiiv.ee). Vooglaid is now a candidate for EKRE (although he has stopped short of actually becoming a member) and is almost certain to be elected to parliament. Vooglaid has also depicted Ukraine as an innocent casualty in a war between Russia and the West, provoked by the latter to bring Moscow into an open military conflict to drain its capabilities and weaken it (Vooglaid, 2022b).

EKRE (and Vooglaid) objected to the government-initiated bill banning the display of symbols under which international crimes, such as the infamous “Z” used by the Russian military, have been committed because the wording is imprecise and interferes with the freedom of speech (Vooglaid, 2022a). Nevertheless, it sided with the government in the heated debate over removing Red Army monuments in the spring and summer of 2022. As a result, many of EKRE’s ethnic Russian activists, who joined the party before the local elections in 2021, left the party (ERR, 2022a). In certain ways, the more liberal right-wing parties have begun to move into EKRE’s nationalist and authoritarian niche. For instance, the Reform Party and Isamaa have proposed revoking the right of permanent residents who are citizens of Russia to vote in local elections, initially suggested by EKRE in 2017 (ERR, 2022b).

While taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is awkward for EKRE, and it struggles to gain airtime with nationalist statements, the party has been vocal about the war’s adverse socioeconomic and cultural effects.

As of early February 2023, 123,000 Ukrainian refugees had crossed into Estonia. Roughly half have moved on to other countries, and 43,000 have applied for temporary protection status (Estonian Social Insurance Board, n.d.), making Estonia the largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees on a per capita basis in the world (Estonia’s population is 1.3 million). Trying to appeal to both Estonian and Russian-speaking audiences, EKRE has used a Janus-faced strategy. When communicating with their Russian-speaking audience, they play on their anti-Ukrainian sentiment, claiming that Ukrainian refugees threaten local Russians’ job prospects. But when addressing their Estonian audience, they appeal to anti-Russian sentiment and frame the events as a mass influx of Russian-speaking immigrants and a danger to the survival of the Estonian nation, as the share of ethnic Estonians in the population has been falling. EKRE also claims that integrating Ukrainian children into the Estonian school system will result in the russification of Estonian schools and prevents Ukrainians from returning to Ukraine and the Ukrainian school system (Hindre, 2022). Furthermore, EKRE members are fuelling conspiracy theories about the government hiding the actual number and intention of refugees, claiming that Estonia is giving refuge to Ukrainian men who are forbidden to leave Ukraine, thus weakening Ukraine’s position in the war (Uued Uudised, 2022). In a speech to the parliament on 13 March 2022, EKRE founder Mart Helme claimed that Ukrainian refugees are bringing communicable diseases like HIV and will engage in prostitution (Delfi, 2022).

While its anti-refugee rhetoric has lessened over time, EKRE remains highly vocal about the economic consequences of the war. For instance, EKRE organized a widely-publicized rally on October 16, 2022, against high energy prices. However, EKRE did not blame the soaring prices on Russia or the war but on the ineptitude of the government and the European Green Deal proposed by Brussels.

Estonia goes to the polls again on March 5, 2023, and the main issues in the election campaign are defence policy and the cost of living. In defence debates, EKRE mainly aims to appear as an expert on which investments must be made to build specific military capacities. It merges these recommendations with its earlier criticism of NATO, claiming that Estonia must build independent defence capabilities (Uued Uudised, 2023). However, the campaign’s primary focus is on combating inflation. In a promotional video from December 2022, EKRE promised generous tax cuts and welfare benefits, especially for families, claiming that this would help revive the economy (Birnbaum, 2022). Furthermore, EKRE positions itself as protecting Estonia’s national interests while claiming other parties are prioritizing Ukrainian welfare (Karell, 2023)

Other parties are keen to accuse EKRE of ambivalence on the war but, aside from the rhetorical inconsistencies mentioned above, do not have much to pin on them. For instance, EKRE’s opposition to the bill criminalizing the display of symbols of international crimes against humanity was interpreted as an attempt to safeguard the right of their activists to flaunt Nazi symbols.

The “demand side” of right-wing populism

EKRE surpassed the Centre Party to become the second-most popular party for the first time in 2021. Before the war started, EKRE had steadily been closing the gap with the Reform Party, Estonia’s largest by vote share. When Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February 2022 (Estonia’s Independence Day), both the public and political reaction was unanimous in condemning Russia’s action and showing solidarity with Ukraine.

Due to the active role of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and the rally-round-the-flag effect that benefits incumbent parties during crises, both the government as an institution as well as the Reform Party enjoyed a surge in support (see Figures 1 and 2). This suggests that the war has generally reduced the potential success of populist, anti-establishment messaging.

Figure 1. Public trust in state institutions in Estonia (January–December 2022)

Source: Public Opinion monitoring, Turu-Uuringute AS (2023, p. 5).

However, the main loser in the popularity ratings was not EKRE, but the Centre Party, which was in an awkward position as it was also condemning Russia’s actions, then being a government party (see Figure 2), which created ambivalent feelings, especially among the party’s numerous Russian-speaking supporters. EKRE’s ratings initially remained stable but began to grow again and, according to the popularity ratings by Norstat (n.d. a), reached an all-time high of 27% in October 2022 before declining to just under 20% in January 2023. EKRE’s ratings seem to have strongly correlated with the Centre Party’s popularity, which has recently begun to recover some of its earlier losses. The recent decline in EKRE’s relative support can also be explained by the declining share of “undecided” voters, who seem to be breaking for the other parties as the elections approach. While EKRE’s supporter base of staunch partisans remains more or less stable, the party seems unable to appeal beyond it, meaning other parties are pulling ahead.

Figure 2. Voting intentions in Estonia, January 2022 – January 2023

Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from TNS Emor (2023)

EKRE’s surge of support in the autumn of 2022 can be explained by its campaign efforts. The peak of its popularity coincided with the protest rallies against rising energy prices in October. After that, however, its rating went into evident decline in November after Mart Helme’s remarks about being “for peace”. Interestingly, the decrease in EKRE’s overall rating in November coincided with a surge in their popularity among voters from ethnicity other than Estonian (Norstat n.d. b). This suggests that Helme’s ambiguous statements (and their amplification in the media) did have some positive effect on the preferences of the Russian-speaking voters. Still, the ensuing clarifications made it temporary, and its effect on the ethnic Estonian voters was negative.

One reason why EKRE’s anti-refugee messaging did not improve its ratings, unlike during the European Migration Crisis in 2015–16, relates to the public’s much more accommodating attitude towards Ukrainian refugees. While in 2015, 43–54% of respondents agreed that Estonia should accept refugees (Jakobson et al., 2017); in 2022, 71–81% of respondents agreed that Estonia should accept refugees from Ukraine (Turu-Uuringute AS, 2023, p. 11).

Discussion and perspectives

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a manifold effect on the Estonian populist Radical Right and has created both challenges and opportunities for it. Initially, EKRE’s support plummeted as people rallied around the flag and behind the prime minister’s party. Opponents tried to claim that EKRE had been acting as a “useful idiot” for Putin. Furthermore, mainstream parties are beginning to co-opt some items on the nativist anti-Russian agenda. The war also hampered EKRE’s plans to expand its electoral base to include a greater share of the Russian-speaking population. However, the high inflation and economic difficulties occasioned by the war and sanctions provided the populists with new possibilities to gain support.

Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to negatively impact EKRE’s competitive position in the long run, as the party has solidly institutionalized (Saarts et al., 2021). Significantly, EKRE still retains its near monopoly on many salient issues, such as immigration, Euroscepticism, championing “traditional” values (with a focus on opposing LGBTQ rights), and opposition to the European Green Deal, which will remain on the political agenda for the foreseeable future.

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(*) Mari-Liis Jakobson is Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University, Estonia. Her expertise relates to populism and the politics of migration and citizenship. She has published articles on transnational migration and populism in top-ranked international journals, including Contemporary Politics, European Political Science and Comparative Migration Studies. In 2023, her co-edited volume, The Anxieties of Migration and Integration in Turbulent Times, was published with Springer. She is also the principal investigator of the project “Breaking into the Mainstream While Remaining Radical: Sidestreaming Strategies on the Populist Radical Right”, funded by the Estonian Research Council.

(**) Andres Kasekamp is the Chair of Estonian Studies and Professor of History at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was a Professor of Baltic Politics at the University of Tartu and has served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies. He obtained his PhD in modern history from University College London in 1996 and was the first researcher to publish and teach on the Radical Right in Estonia. His books include The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia (Macmillan, 2000) and A History of the Baltic States (Palgrave, 2010).


Auers, D., & Kasekamp, A. (2009). Explaining the electoral failure of extreme-right parties in Estonia and Latvia. Journal of Contemporary European Studies17(2), 241–254 https://doi.org/10.1080/14782800903108718

Birnbaum, A. (2022, December 6). EKRE: Päästame Eesti! [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZKOfIVtUhU

Braghiroli, S., & Makarychev, A. (2022). Conservative populism in Italy and Estonia: playing the multicultural card and engaging “domestic others”. East European Politics, 1–22 https://doi.org/10.1080/21599165.2022.2077725

Delfi (2022, April 13). Mart Helme seostas Ukraina sõjapõgenikke prostitutsiooni ja HI-viiruse tagasitulekuga. Ratas: õudne ja tülgastav! https://www.delfi.ee/artikkel/96407309/mart-helme-seostas-ukraina-sojapogenikke-prostitutsiooni-ja-hi-viiruse-tagasitulekuga-ratas-oudne-ja-tulgastav

ERR (2022a, April 20). EKRE Narva osakonna juhid lahkusid erakonnast. https://www.err.ee/1608570919/ekre-narva-osakonna-juhid-lahkusid-erakonnast

ERR (2022b, June 8). Vene kodanikelt valimisõiguse võtmist pooldavad Isamaa ja EKRE. https://www.err.ee/1608623083/vene-kodanikelt-valimisoiguse-votmist-pooldavad-isamaa-ja-ekre

ERR (2022c, October 27). Politicians criticize Mart Helme for “pro-peace in Ukraine” comments. https://news.err.ee/1608767248/politicians-criticize-mart-helme-for-pro-peace-in-ukraine-comments

ERR (2022d, October 27) Jaak Madison, Martin Helme: EKRE pro-peace, but also pro-Ukraine. https://news.err.ee/1608767626/jaak-madison-martin-helme-ekre-pro-peace-but-also-pro-ukraine

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Jussi Halla-aho, president of perussuomalaiset political party speaking in Oulu on November 2018. Photo: Petri Saarela.

The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Finland

Lahti, Yannick & Palonen, Emilia. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Finland.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0018


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As Finland’s neighbour, Russia, attacked its neighbour, Ukraine, the response across the political spectrum in Finland was universal. All the parties underscored the importance of patriotism and sovereignty and messages of solidarity and support for Ukraine (alongside condemnation of Russia). Support for Putin or the war is basically non-existent in Finland. Still, the Finns Party (FP), which is part of the populist Radical Right milieu in Finland, polls extremely well. Moreover, groups combining anti-COVID-19 measures with pro-Putin leanings have registered as political parties in preparation for elections in spring 2023. Still, their combined support is in single digits. The concrete consequences of the war include a U-turn in foreign policy from long-standing neutrality to NATO membership, with all parties—including the FP—supporting the government’s pending application to join alongside neighbouring Sweden. Interestingly, as the conflict heated up in early 2022, “Niikkogate”—a scandal in which a parliamentary committee chair from the FP was replaced after tweeting pro-Kremlin sentiments—has indicated the degree of pro-Ukraine support across the political spectrum.

Keywords: Finns Party (FP); Finland; Russia–Ukraine war; populist Radical Right; digital counterpublics; disinformation.



By Yannick Lahti* & Emilia Palonen** (University of Helsinki)


It is inconceivable to study the effects in Finland of Russian aggression toward its neighbours as something that started in February 2022 with the current conflict. First, we must consider the historical impact of the Soviet Union’s hegemonic position, particularly on the origins of the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset, FP). This legacy of sovereignty implies that most FP supporters stand for Ukraine against Russia. What pro-Kremlin voices existed in the FP before February 2022 have been marginalized.

Second, Russian influence has worked in the margins of the Finnish media field, particularly since the Russian annexation of Crimea. As Bjola and Papadakis (2020) have found, sound macro-level “resilience” to digital disinformation in Finland is threatened by the potential for Russian influence campaigns in the largely unregulated micro-level, where “digital counterpublics” often flourish. Leaders of these “counterpublics” are linked with the marginal populist Radical Right movements and parties and appear on both the Finnish and Russian sides, generating a new hostile anti-government perspective of Finland in Russia that is transmitted digitally into Finland (ibid.). Third, Russian influence (particularly since 2014), the pandemic and the proximity to the national elections in April 2023 have contributed to the emergence of new Radical Right parties in Finland that, while small, often have distinct pro-Kremlin leanings (Hatakka, 2019; Fagerholm, 2022).

Mudde’s (2019) definition of the Far Right divides it into two subgroups: the Extreme Right, which is hostile to democracy and seeks to subvert it, and the Radical Right, which chooses to operate within the democratic system. The FP fits mainly the latter and is more or less populist in its outlook. Most of the existing populist Radical Right parties in Europe foster nationalism and nativism, and most of the leaders and key figures of these parties are—if not outright admirers of Putin—at least tend to look favourably at some of his conservative, nationalist policies and leadership characteristics. Thus, shared nativism, authoritarianism, and, increasingly, illiberal politics creates a natural bond between these parties and the Kremlin (Eatwell & Goodwin, 2018).

The FP has been a distinct outlier in this party family. Russia is Finland’s “unpredictable neighbour” (Nyberg, 2016) in the region and the FP, being committed to Finnish national interests, has never adopted pro-Putin or pro-Russia stances. Some members and MPs have pro-Kremlin leanings, but the majority in the party have openly opposed Putin and his regime and condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. We see the party’s robust defence of Ukraine as a logical continuum of their advocacy of nationalist values and national sovereignty. The Finnish people see an analogy between Ukraine’s current fight for independence and Finland’s struggle in the Winter War (1939–40), when the country’s small but highly motivated defence forces beat back the much larger Soviet Union against all odds. Additionally, while Ukrainian refugees have not (yet) provoked nativist sentiments, Moscow’s invasion has activated Finnish Russophobia.

Although we focus on Radical Right populist parties in Finland, another populist party, Liike Nyt (“Movement Now”), deserves mention. It is an emerging force that fashions itself after Italy’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which successfully won seats outside the capital in the Finnish regional elections in 2021 (Yle, 2021). While a disproportionate number of the current leading figures of the FP hail from the universities and the teaching professions (Saresma & Palonen, 2022), Liike Nyt’s leadership are business elites that have been tied to Russian oligarchs (Luukka, 2022), which they now publicly disavow (Nalbantoglu, 2023).

The full-scale war in Ukraine contributed to a new national consensus regarding the country’s potential membership in NATO. This was a significant shift in foreign policy, as Finland prided itself on its neutral status and non-alignment during the Cold War (and after). Popular views changed fast. In August 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, only 26% of Finns supported Finnish NATO membership, with 57% against (Elonen & Kinnunen, 2014). By early March 2022, the numbers had flipped, with 48% in favour and 26% against (Huhtanen, 2022), and by June 2022, 79% of Finns were in support of NATO membership, with just 10% opposed (Vanttinen, 2022). Finland applied for NATO membership with strong cross-party parliamentary support. Even grassroots supporters of the Left Alliance have backed NATO membership, compelling the stridently neutralist party elite to change tack somewhat. Crucially, the Finns Party was also strongly in favour, with the party council voting 61–3 in favour of NATO following an electronic membership ballot (Arter, 2022, p. 15).

The Finns Party: From stridently anti-Soviet to avowedly pro-Ukraine

The Radical Right in Finland has anti-elitist and rural roots. The Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue, SMP) emerged from the agrarian populist movement founded by Veikko Vennamo in the late 1950s and was against the “urban elites”, specifically President Urho Kekkonen, who held that office continually from 1956–1982. In contrast to its Scandinavian counterparts, the SMP was not an anti-taxation party calling for the retrenchment of the welfare state (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). Rather it was for welfare “without socialism” and was stridently anti-communist. The party lost support in the 1990s and, by 1995, was a spent force in Finnish politics.

A former party secretary and supporter of Vennamo, Timo Soini founded the FP (at first known as the “True Finns”) on the ruins of SMP in 1995 and would go on to chair the party for the next 20 years. In 1995, the FP had only one seat in the Parliament, but it grew steadily and scored three seats in the 2003 elections. An election financing crisis in the 2007 elections boosted the FP’s stocks. The party broke through in national elections in 2011, gaining 39 seats in Finland’s 200-seat Parliament (Arter, 2022; Palonen & Saresma, 2017). Under Soini’s leadership, the FP retained the SMP’s anti-elitism and combined it with opposition to supranationalism, which was convenient as Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995.

The FP has always had a more radical, right-wing, anti-immigration faction centred on Jussi Halla-aho, who led the party from 2017–2021. When Halla-aho was elected leader in 2017, a splinter group of 19 MPs (including five serving ministers) formed the Blue Reform movement (Sininen Tulevaisuus). It broke away in opposition to the “openly Far Right” values which the party had embraced by electing Halla-aho as leader. As a result, the FP line changed overnight as the party shed its softer anti-elitist, populist positioning and embraced mainstream Radical Right populist positions. The FP continued this tack to the right under Riikka Purra, the party leader since 2021 (Palonen, 2021). The party’s finances were unaffected by the split as legislation ensured they continued to receive party subsidies based on the original number of MPs. Such a sound financial footing is likely why the party has never been accused of financial links to the Kremlin, unlike other European Far Right parties, like Marine Le Pen’s Front National (Laruelle et al., 2015, p. 33).

The pro-Putin faction inside the FP became evident in early February 2022. On February 8, the chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Mika Niikko, a Finns Party MP, posted a (now-deleted) tweet calling on President Macron of France to “step up” and put the official kybosh on Ukraine joining NATO. Niikko believed that without intervention from a Western leader with a deep understanding of Russian intentions like Macron, negotiations to cool the simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine would fail. Niikko’s comments were widely seen as inappropriate across the political spectrum, especially because of the parliamentary committee he was chairing (Blencowe & Suikkanen, 2022). Even the FP’s notoriously radical youth wing condemned his rhetoric, and the ensuing firestorm saw Niikko resign the same day (Etelämäki, 2022). “Niikkogate”, as the scandal came to be known, saw Jussi Halla-aho return to the political centre ground and take over Niikko’s role as chair of the committee.

“Niikkogate” ultimately reflected political institutionalists’ desire to deal with the pro-Putin elements in the Finnish populist Radical Right at a moment when it was increasingly becoming clear that a Russian invasion was imminent. Intelligence reports of Russian troop movements were closely monitored in Finland, and tensions were apparent to the public already in 2021. For months, several seasoned MPs on the committee had been expressing concerns about Niikko’s (in)competence and personal ethics in such a sensitive position (Yle, 2022a). Unlike Niikko, most committee members considered it prudent to defer to long-serving civil servants and special advisers in making public statements about foreign policy. In any event, the committee was in safe hands due to the vice chairmanship of Erkki Tuomioja of the Social Democrats (SDP), a former minister of foreign affairs and a veteran institutionalist (Auvinen, 2022).

Important for understanding the FP position on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is Jussi Halla-aho’s background as a scholar of early Slavonic linguistics, in which he has a PhD. He was even on track to enter academia before becoming engaged in blogging and politics (Nurmi, 2018). His studies from the 1990s to 2006 introduced him to the history of Ukraine and its establishment as a modern nation-state after the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, Halla-aho was staunchly pro-Ukraine from the start of the war. Slightly more striking for a man now chairing a major parliamentary committee, Halla-aho was publicly effusive in his support for Kyiv, even getting ahead of Finnish policy. In early March, he went on record claiming that the “intervention of the West [in the war] will be inevitable” and that action against Russia sooner rather than later was critical: “Please, stop the Russian horde before we have a new Grozny and Aleppo in the middle of Europe! You have the means. You have the legal and moral right” (Yle, 2022b). Fellow committee members criticized Halla-aho for “pushing World War Three” (Yle, 2022c; Muhonen, 2022). In January 2023, Halla-aho posted on Facebook a picture of the signed artillery shell he purchased for Ukraine (Yle, 2023) with the text, “If killing Russian soldiers in this situation is right and necessary, then anything that promotes their killing is also right and necessary” (Pantzar, 2023).

In short, the FP has roots in strong anti-Soviet thinking and lacks the Russophilia of other Far Right parties in Europe (e.g., France’s Front National and Italy’s Lega). This is echoed in the current pro-Ukraine stance, which is also strengthened by the former party leader’s personal history. In this sense, their anti-Sovietism also turned them against Russia and for Ukraine. Finally, Halla-aho’s policy direct testifies to his emergence in the anti-immigration faction of his party (Vaarakallio, 2015). In the FP, anti-immigrant stances have hardened even further. The party’s current policy on immigration argues, for example, to end non-citizens’ welfare benefits.

New pro-Putin parties emerge at the margins

The Finnish party system is well over a century old, established when Finland was still an autonomous part (a Grand Duchy) of the Russian Empire, which had conquered it from Sweden in the early nineteenth century. For example, the parties in the current ruling coalition are long-standing, including the Social Democrat Party (founded in 1899) and the Centre Party and Swedish People’s Party of Finland (both founded in 1906).

After the country won its independence from Russia in 1917, the party system stabilized right through to the end of the Cold War. Since then, it has been in flux. Especially since the year 2000, a significant number (almost 20) of new parties have been founded to compete for seats in the Finnish Parliament. According to Mickelsson (2021), a remarkable proportion of these newcomers have “political party characteristics” that allow them to be classified as radical right-wing parties or Far Right extremists. Researching the ideological profiles of the new Far Right parties in Finland in the last two decades, Fagerholm (2022) identifies an existing dominant dividing line within the Finnish Far Right between traditionally populist elements of the Radical Right and ethnonationalist tendencies, with the Finns Party sharing both.

Five new populist Radical Right parties have emerged on the Finnish political scene since 2017 (Fagerholm, 2022). These include the aforementioned Blue Reform movement (now known as the Finnish Reform Movement) and Suomen Kansa Ensin (Finnish People First), which has its origins in the anti-immigration Rajat Kiinni! (“Close The Borders!”) movement. Two personal splinters are on a more general populist line: Valta Kuuluu Kansalle (Power Belongs to the People, VKK), formed around Ano Turtiainen, a former FP member of Parliament, in 2021. The VKK has networks among the leaders and influencers of Finland’s digital pro-Russian counterpublic. Vapauden Liitto (Freedom Alliance), a splinter of the VKK, was founded in 2022 by a former FP activist, Ossi Tiihonen, who also ran for party chair and has been vocal against Finland’s COVID-19 measures. Ideologically distinct is the proto-fascist, ethnonationalist Sinimusta Liike (Blue–Black Movement), also founded in 2022. Party formation has intensified, and three other populist Radical Right parties are waiting to be officially registered.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is not the only reason for the emergence of these new party actors. They are also a product of the pandemic and the moderation of the FP under Purra, which is hungry to return to government. Moreover, their rapid emergence is related to thriving online communities, which are driven by pro-Kremlin forces. What are these splinters likely to produce? Certainly, they can partly erode the power of the FP and split some of its votes. It is not a coincidence that they appeared at the end of the pandemic (Wondreys & Mudde, 2022) and before the April 2023 general elections.

What is the actual friction between these populist Radical Right parties, and what has the war in Ukraine to do with it? First, it sustains the VKK as a parliamentary opposition to FP, which has moved away from the position of “populist challenger party” into what they like to see as the populist nationalist mainstream. Despite historic EU criticism and suspicion of supranational institutions, they have not actively campaigned for a Finnish exit from the EU or the Eurozone and continue supporting NATO membership. However, in the election campaign in January 2023, Riikka Purra identified such a “Fixit” as the long-term goal of the party.


The Russian invasion in Ukraine has seen the idea of “defending the nation-state” return to the centre of political discourse in Europe (Fiott, 2022). National sovereignty or sovereignism, which is sometimes connected with populist language in which claims to recover authority are made on behalf of the “the people” against the political elite and international institutions, is at its core the idea of “taking back control” (Mazzoleni & Ivaldi, 2022). The element of “taking back control” is essential within the narrative set by populists as they aim to create a division by positioning “us” against some “frontier” in any given political context, whether the “us” or the “frontier” are real or imaginary (Vulović & Palonen, 2022). The “us” (who are virtuous) aims to “take back” something (in this case, control) from “them” (who are a threat). In Finland, the “mental frontier” against which the “us” is cast is quite concretely the Russian border and the threat of the Kremlin’s imperialism.

The Finns Party is polling at around 19% in the run-up to general elections in 2023 (and up to 30% among first-time voters), which puts it in second place to the ruling SDP of Prime Minister Sanna Marinin (Keski-Heikkilä, 2023) Overall support for the FP has not shifted significantly in any direction following the war in Ukraine as it has adopted a pro-Ukraine stance and reaffirmed its support for national sovereignty. Moreover, Niikko, a pro-Russian MP, was removed from a key parliamentary foreign policy role just before the war broke out.

Still, since shortly before the Russian attack in Ukraine, Finland has witnessed a surge of Far Right party registration and mobilizing online, with many advocating for a Finnish exit from the EU and against Finland joining NATO. These stances may cause tension between the mainstream FP, the only Radical Right party currently represented in the Finnish Parliament, and the more marginal Far Right parties outside and inside the Parliament. Nevertheless, if and when the more Radical Right parties seek to differentiate themselves markedly in the public consciousness, these themes of pandemic restrictions and military neutrality may be useful points of leverage to recruit new voters.

The fact that the FP is not actively running a Fixit campaign (however committed to it they are in the long term). It has endorsed Finnish NATO membership as a notable and remarkable difference between it and other populist Radical Right parties, which are emerging from the margins. The more radical margins may indirectly influence the FP and other parties’ discourse or legitimize FP as a more “respectable” actor in the field.

Historical experiences differ across the member states of the EU, which sets all countries apart as individual nation-states in supranational policymaking and cooperation. The Finnish case shows how factions within the populist Radical Right parties manage to leverage concerns about this in crises. Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine casts Far Right themes of national pride and sovereignty into sharp relief, translating into migration policy, even when unrelated to the war itself. Thus, a range of political actors with their own agendas can “leverage” the issue space for their own ends. The strength of the established Far Right in such debates can also foster more marginal voices from the Extreme Right.

Ultimately, this calls for political action—discursive and electoral—from the forces of the centre and the liberal Left. For when liberal values and principles are called into question in one form or another by the Far Right, deeper understanding and discussion of these values should be promoted by the opposing side. Responses could include adjustments to policy to enhance democracy rather than expecting existing structures and open forums to do this work as a natural consequence of a plural public sphere. After all, “resilience” to disinformation in the macro-level public sphere is undermined by influence campaigns at the micro-level of the internet, where “digital counterpublics” opposed to democracy can flourish unless checked.

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(*) Yannick D. O. Lahti is a political scientist and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Helsinki. Lahti obtained his PhD-degree in 2022 from the University of Bologna in Italy. In his research, he examined European populism, populist actors, and political communication during the last European Union elections of 2019 within the Hybrid Media system. In his work, Yannick Lahti departed from the consideration that as populism and populist rhetoric are challenging concepts to define – especially in relation to different media environments; they should be addressed and analyzed through the usage of a combination of methods and theoretical perspectives, namely Communication Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Political theory, Rhetoric and Corpus-Assisted Discourse Studies. Recently Lahti was involved with Whirl of Knowledge project and is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher conducting research for the transatlantic ENDURE-project funded by the Finnish Academy (Suomen Akatemia).

(**) Emilia Palonen is a senior University Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Helsinki. She is Programme Director in Datafication at the Helsinki Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities and Leader of the HEPPsinki research group. She is PI of the Academy of Finland project WhiKnow (2019-2022), Kone Foundation project Now-Time Us Space (2020-24), European Commission funded DRad project (2020-2023), and the Academy of Finland and other Trans-Atlantic Partnership project funders’ ENDURE exploring resilience in crisis (2022-2024). Emilia is an Executive Committee member and chair of the publications committee of the International Political Science Association (IPSA). She served between 2018-2022 as the Chair of the Finnish Political Science Association. She is a board member of the Finnish Federation of Learned Societies (2021-2023) and Treasurer of the Society of Scientists and Parliament Members, Tutkas ry. (2019-2023).


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The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on radical right-wing populism in France

Ivaldi, Gilles. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on radical right-wing populism in France.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0019


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This article examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the main actors of the populist radical right in France (i.e., Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête) as well as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise on the populist radical left. It looks, in particular, at the effects of the Ukraine crisis on the French presidential election in April 2022. After the outbreak of the war, French populists (of the left and the right) came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin. However, these parties revealed quite different responses in interpreting the Ukraine crisis. The analysis suggests that Marine Le Pen successfully evaded accusations of sympathy for Putin by toning down her nativism and emphasizing instead her social-populist agenda, which foregrounds egalitarian social protection and economic nationalism. This move allowed her to exploit war-related issues of energy and rising prices. Public opinion data suggest that such issues were paramount to voters in the 2022 election. Zemmour, on the other hand, largely ignored growing socioeconomic concerns while perpetuating a more ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Putin, which may have contributed to his failure to challenge Le Pen on the radical right. Overall, the article concludes that the impact of the Ukraine war in France has been heavily mediated by socioeconomic anxieties, fuelling support for populism at both ends of the political spectrum.

Keywords: Ukraine War, populism, France, Le Pen, Zemmour, presidential elections.



By Gilles Ivaldi* (CNRS-CEVIPOF-Sciences Po Paris)


The war in Ukraine has presented new challenges for Kremlin-backed radical right-wing populist parties in Europe, putting many under strain for their association with Russia and admiration of Putin’s regime and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.

This article examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the populist radical right in France, looking in particular at the effects of the crisis on the 2022 presidential election, which took place in April. The first section charts the topography of radical right-wing populism in France. The following section presents the international agenda of the populist radical right. The impact of the war—at both the party and voter levels—is subsequently analysed in the third section.

The topography of radical right-wing populism in France

Traditionally, the French Front National (FN) exhibited all the hallmarks of a populist radical right party (Mudde, 2007, p. 41), which forms part of the broader contemporary “far right” party family. The party has always combined three core features: nativism, authoritarianism and populism (Pirro, 2022). However, since her accession to the party leadership in 2011, Marine Le Pen’s strategy has essentially been to “detoxify” the party’s far right reputation, widely referred to as “de-demonization.” A significant step in this direction was taken in 2018 when the party rebadged itself as the Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN). Meanwhile, Le Pen has taken her party further to the economic left to address growing socioeconomic concerns in the French electorate (Ivaldi, 2022a). As a result, electorally, the FN/RN has grown its share of the vote in national elections to over 20%, even winning the plurality vote in both the 2014 European Parliament elections (24.9%) and 2015 French regional elections (27.1% in the second round).

The 2022 elections saw the rise of a new populist radical right party in France, led by Éric Zemmour. A well-known political commentator, columnist and author, Zemmour entered the 2022 campaign trail as the typical anti-immigration politician making nativism and anti-Muslim rhetoric a centrepiece of his presidential bid. Recent research suggests that the Zemmour phenomenon sits squarely within the broader framework of the West European far right, adopting its central ideological tenets of nativism and authoritarianism alongside populism (Ivaldi, 2021).

The international agenda of the populist radical right in France

This section surveys the international agenda of the populist radical right in France, especially changes that have occurred in the FN/RN’s vision of international politics since the mid-1980s. This vision rests on a constructed binary that opposes “patriotism” (virtuous) and “globalism” (threatening), reflecting the party’s nationalism and populism.

European integration

Euroscepticism has been a central feature of the FN/RN in France since the mid-1990s (Hainsworth et al., 2004). The party has traditionally advocated turning the EU into a looser association of free and independent nations. During the 2010s, the FN/RN adopted hard Eurosceptic policies, pledging to pull France out of the Eurozone and the Schengen Area while calling for a French referendum on leaving the EU.

However, the blame for Le Pen’s failure to win the presidential runoff in the 2017 elections was largely pinned on these policies, prompting the FN to moderate its positions and abandon its previous policy of “Frexit.” As a result, the 2022 election campaign saw the RN adopt an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis the EU and attempt to de-emphasize European issues to increase its appeal to moderate pro-EU voters without relinquishing its core Eurosceptic agenda (Padis, 2022).

Similarly, Éric Zemmour’s vision of international relations is dominated by national sovereignty claims and his vehement opposition to supranational institutions. Like Le Pen, Zemmour espoused the concept of establishing the precedence of national law over European treaties and international conventions, signalling his intention to curb the powers of the EU and to engage in the construction of a “Europe of independent nations,” thus adopting the FN’s traditional vision of European regional order.

Russia and NATO

Today, Russia occupies a prominent place in the French far right’s vision of a multipolar world order, which opposes NATO and what it sees as American imperialism. As will be discussed, such positions are also traditionally found in the populist radical left in France.

On the far right, such positions represent a notable departure from the past, however. Anti-communism was a core feature of the ideology of the far right in France during the Cold War. During the 1980s, the FN was generally pro-NATO, siding with the United States in the camp of the so-called “free world” against the USSR. This positioning changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Lebourg (2016) suggests, “the transition to a unipolar world allows members of the far right to impose their interpretation of a world in the process of unification under the leadership of ‘American-Zionist’ and/or globalist capitalism […] which is synonymous with ‘cosmopolitanism’” (p. 106).

In being opposed to explicit alignment with the United States, the current RN follows in the Gaullist tradition in France and opposes both NATO and the EU (Mielcarek, 2018). The party defends an alternative vision of the world, which postulates a complete break with the existing economic, political, institutional and geopolitical order, advocating, in particular, a new trilateral Paris–Berlin–Moscow alliance along with a pan-European association of sovereign states that would include Russia. During the 2022 election, Le Pen reaffirmed her intention to leave NATO’s integrated military command while reiterating the commitment to Article 5 on collective defence. She also confirmed that she would refuse to place French troops under the command of any future independent EU Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) while foreswearing French “subjection to an American protectorate” and calling for “closer ties between NATO and Russia” to forestall a Sino–Russian alliance (“Marine Le Pen déroule sa vision”, 2022).

The FN/RN’s pro-Russia ‘tropism’ is both ideological and societal (Camus, 2016). Russia is essentially seen as a bulwark against American economic, political and cultural influence and as the leader of a global patriotic insurrection against neoliberal globalization, supranational institutions and post-modernism (Lebourg, 2018). In her 2012 book, Le Pen wrote:

“Relying on Russia today means creating a true European space from the Atlantic to the Urals, a Europe of nations pursuing their national interests and associated in a community of civilization, far removed from the ultraliberal American cosmopolitan model towards which the European Union is leading us.” (p. 225).

The FN/RN has taken pro-Russian stances in the Ukraine crisis in 2014. During the war in Syria, the party called for restoring diplomatic links with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, thus following the lead of Vladimir Putin (“Marine Le Pen et les relations internationales”, 2017). Just before the Russian invasion, Le Pen was still blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict, asserting in an interview on the BBC programme “Hard Talk” in early February 2022 that:

“Today the United States is pushing Ukraine to join NATO with the aim of deploying armed forces on Russia’s border, so the Russians are retaliating, putting forces at their borders with Ukraine […]. But I do not believe at all that Russia wishes to invade Ukraine.” (Sackur, 2022)

We find similar strategic and civilizational views in Zemmour’s writings and statements. He has long professed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2018, Zemmour portrayed the Kremlin’s leader as “a true patriot” and “defender of European values”, publicly declaring that “he would dream of a French Putin” to stop France’s decline (“Eric Zemmour: ‘Je rêve d’un Poutine français’”, 2018). Such arguments were reiterated in the 2022 election campaign:

“Vladimir Putin is a Russian patriot. It is legitimate that he defends the interests of Russia […]. The Americans want to enslave Western Europe, which only asks for that; it is voluntary servitude […]. I think that the Americans have done a lot to provoke Putin.” (France Inter, 2022)

The FN/RN has also had direct financial links with Russia (Turchi, 2016), something Emmanuel Macron sought to use during the 2022 campaign to pin Le Pen to Putin (see below). In 2014, the FN obtained a loan of €9 million from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. The negotiations over the loan coincided with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, reflecting the connection between FN officials and senior politicians close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin (Turchi, 2014), and the pro-Russian stance adopted by the party.

The populist radical left

Finally, it is worth noting that the French far right is not alone in its strong orientation toward Russia. Such positions are also found in the populist radical left, which, in France, is primarily embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), and they are associated with Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views predicated on the concept of a “non-aligned” France.

LFI’s opposition to NATO and the party’s pro-Russian stance reflect the radical left’s traditional hostility toward the United States, neoliberalism and what is deemed American “imperialism.” Mélenchon’s call for national sovereignty and independence in France’s foreign policy is based on the concept of “non-alignment,” which means, in particular, that the country should leave NATO’s integrated military command.

As Mélenchon asserted in December 2021:

“The Russians are not adversaries […]. We lied to them. We told them that we would not advance the borders of our military alliance and we did. Why is all this happening in Ukraine right now? Because the United States intends to advance the borders of NATO to Ukraine” (“De ‘la menace n’existe pas’ à ‘la Russie agresse l’Ukraine’”, 2022).

During the 2022 election campaign, Mélenchon made several ambiguous statements regarding Russia. During a radio interview, he explained that “we have brought ten Eastern European countries into NATO, which Russia felt as a threat. We have a duty to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO so that the Russians do not feel threatened, particularly if we station anti-missile batteries in Poland.” (Demorand &Salamé, 2022)

The Ukraine war in the 2022 French presidential election

In this section, we turn to the repercussions of the Ukraine war to the April 2022 French presidential election both at the party and voter levels. Like other European countries, the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on France’s economy and society, as socioeconomic anxiety has grown from the energy crisis associated with the war and its effect on prices and the cost of living.

Far right strategies and counter-strategies of “performing” the war

After the outbreak of the war, French populists came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin, however showing different responses to their interpretation of the Ukraine crisis.

In a press release published on her campaign website on 24 February, Le Pen sought to put distance between herself and the Russian president, condemning the Russian invasion and accusing Putin of “breaking the equilibrium of peace in Europe.” Calling on France to spearhead a diplomatic intervention under UN auspices, she declared: “No reason can justify the launching by Russia of a military operation against Ukraine […]. It must be unambiguously condemned.” (Le Pen, 2022)

In line with other radical right-wing populists in Europe (Albertazzi et al., 2022), Le Pen strategically adopted a more open stance on welcoming Ukrainian refugees in France, demonstrating her ability to quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion. This also signalled a temporary change from the FN/RN’s traditional demonization of asylum seekers. Le Pen also criticized some of the sanctions imposed on Russia because such measures would disproportionately harm French businesses and workers, thus addressing the concerns of her core working class and petty-bourgeoisie constituency. Meanwhile, the RN binned campaign leaflets that included a photo of Le Pen shaking hands with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in 2017.

More importantly, Le Pen managed to somewhat steer attention away from her Russian links by focusing her campaign on domestic socioeconomic issues (Ivaldi, 2022c). Her campaign accentuated social-populist arguments, which foreground egalitarian social protection, economic nationalism, and the defence of “little people”, and she successfully exploited war-related issues of energy and rising prices. At the policy level, her presidential platform offered a generous redistributive package of lower value-added tax (VAT), higher wages and pensions, tax exemptions and free transport for young workers. Le Pen’s social-populist agenda clearly resonated with the many economic fears of the French, particularly amongst the lower social strata most severely hit by the economic repercussions of the war and faced with the rising cost of living, especially in rural areas (Perrineau, 2022).

Like Le Pen, Zemmour came under fire for his long-held admiration for Russia and Vladimir Putin, but he failed, however, to evade accusations of sympathy for Putin. In the weeks before the invasion, Zemmour reaffirmed his support for Russia while blaming NATO and the West. Such arguments were reiterated in a press release on 21 February 2022, where Zemmour made clear that the situation in Ukraine was also the result of “policies led by the West and NATO,” refraining from condemning Putin while pre-emptively advocating against sanctions and suggesting a new treaty to end what he deemed was NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe (Zemmour, 2022).

Zemmour’s ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Russia continued into the period after the invasion. On February 24, he conceded that he had “believed that Vladimir Putin would not cross this red line” and said: “I unreservedly condemn this use of force, and my first thoughts go to the people who are victims of this absurd and fratricidal conflict.” Still, Zemmour renewed his call for a new “treaty to put an end to the expansion of NATO” in response to “Russian demands” (Johannès, 2022). Meanwhile, the far right politician sparked further controversy when he cautioned against what he dubbed an “emotional response” to the war. He initially refused to welcome refugees from Ukraine before changing his position by clearly distinguishing between Ukrainians and those fleeing conflicts in Arab Muslim nations (“Eric Zemmour assume une difference”, 2022).

Finally, on the left of French politics, Mélenchon continued to show an ambiguous stance during the few weeks before the invasion, calling for ‘de-escalation’ while simultaneously pointing to the threat of NATO moving closer to Russia’s borders (“Zemmour, Le Pen, Mélenchon”, 2022). However, on February 6, he was still asserting that Vladimir Putin’s position was “understandable,” adding: “France must be non-aligned, which means that neither the Russians should enter Ukraine, nor the Americans annex Ukraine into NATO” (Mélenchon, 2022a).

Mélenchon dramatically shifted position immediately after the beginning of the war. The LFI leader denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a demonstration of “pure violence,” saying in a press release on 24 February: “Russia is attacking Ukraine. This is an initiative of pure violence manifesting a will of power without measure. An unbearable escalation is provoked” (Mélenchon, 2022b). Mélenchon called upon the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to lead international cooperation in the crisis, reiterating, in passing, his vision of a “non-aligned” France (Laïreche, 2022).

Voters and the Ukraine war

How did the Ukraine crisis play out in the 2022 French presidential election? Opinion polls taken in the run-up to the elections—specifically those of the CEVIPOF National Election Panel (ENEF)—suggest that the effect of the war was heterogeneous across different sectors of the electorate in France. In a poll conducted in early April 2022, 41% of French voters said that the positions taken on Ukraine by the different candidates would matter to their vote (ENEF wave #9). Such views were predominant among Macron’s voters (50%) but much less among populists, with 36% of Mélenchon, 31% of Le Pen, and only 22% of Zemmour’s voters saying that the war would be important to their decision.

If anything, support for populism rose during the period after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with both Le Pen and Mélenchon making substantial gains in voting intention polls, essentially reflecting growing war-related socioeconomic anxiety among the French (see Figure 1). In contrast, Zemmour appeared to be most affected by the consequences of the war, and he began to lose support in early March, which fell from an average of 13% to about 8% in the final days of the campaign. Meanwhile, polls reported high levels of support for Macron and his management of the Ukraine crisis.

Figure 1. Voting intentions for populist candidates in the first round of the 2022 French presidential election (% support)

Source: data collected from 167 public opinion polls published between January 4 and April 8, 2022, polynomial fit, calculations by the author

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine was becoming less salient politically as a majority of French essentially expressed their concerns about the economic consequences of the war rather than fears of a wider conflict or even of a nuclear strike by Russia (see Figure 2). While there had been a substantial spike in approval ratings and voter support for Macron at the beginning of the Ukraine war (Ivaldi, 2022c), the increase in his popularity quickly waned as economic fears loomed.

Figure 2. Concerns among French voters related to the Ukraine war (Feb–Apr 2022)

Source: ENEF Surveys (CEVIPOF)

The 2022 presidential election saw a surge in electoral support for populist parties across the political spectrum. Le Pen won 23.2% of the presidential vote, coming in second place behind incumbent centrist President Emmanuel Macron (at 27.9%). While failing to challenge Le Pen’s position on the far right, Zemmour made a significant breakthrough at 7% of the total votes cast in the first round. Finally, Mélenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote, taking the lead on the left from the once-dominant Socialist Party (PS).

In 2022, the electoral vitality of populism was fuelled primarily by economic instability, rising prices, and profound voter disaffection with Macron during most of his presidency (Perrineau, 2022). Economic fears clearly dominated the later stage of the campaign. According to the final wave of the CEVIPOF National Election Panel (ENEF) just a few days ahead of the first round, no fewer than 57% of French voters said that the cost of living and purchasing power would be important to their vote.

While first-round support for Le Pen appeared unaffected by the war, Macron nevertheless sought to leverage Russia’s invasion against her in the second-round runoff. During their TV debate, Macron accused Le Pen of being “dependent on Russian power,” telling her: “You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power […]. When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker.” (“Débat présidentiel: Macron attaque Le Pen”, 2022). A survey conducted immediately after the debate suggested that 59% of French voters had found Macron more convincing and that he “had won the debate” (Bulant, 2022). Meanwhile, voting intention polls showed a moderate rise in electoral support for the French president ahead of the second round (“Sondage présidentielle 2022”, 2022). As it turned out, while Macron handily beat her in the runoff, Le Pen captured 41.5% of the vote, a record for the RN in a presidential race. The result suggests that war-related concerns likely played only a limited role in voters’ decision-making.

Discussion and perspectives

Ukraine war-related socioeconomic anxiety has fuelled support for populism in the April 2022 French presidential election at both ends of the political spectrum. Legislative elections in June 2022 further attested to the electoral strength of populism after the RN won an unprecedented 89 seats in the National Assembly. On the left, Mélenchon led the newly formed NUPES coalition—which brought together LFI, the Socialists and the Greens—to a combined 149 seats, leaving the left-wing coalition just short of the majority needed to impose cohabitation on Macron.

As the energy crisis and rising prices have continued to top the political agenda, Le Pen has established herself as the main opposition leader against President Macron. Her popularity has been rising since last September, reflecting her efforts to detoxify her party and the increasing normalization of the RN. As for the left, Mélenchon’s LFI has been weakened by internal factionalism and accusations of physical abuse against Adrien Quatennens, a leading LFI parliamentarian (Carriat & Cassini, 2022). Meanwhile, Zemmour’s party, Reconquête, which failed to win a single seat in the 2022 elections, has faded into political irrelevance.

Overall, the 2022 elections have reflected the mainstreaming of the populist radical right, marking a new phase in the RN’s institutionalization and de-demonization. Together with the waning of the ‘Republican Front’ –consisting of ad hoc alliances of parties and/or voters across the spectrum whenever the RN is likely to win a decisive round– in the presidential runoff and the historical breakthrough of Le Pen’s party in the 2022 legislative elections, this suggests a new phase in the already long history of far right politics in France, possibly heralding a more significant reshaping of the party sub-system of the right in the future, with the RN as its predominant force.

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(*) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.


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To Russia with love? German populist actors’ positions vis-a-vis the Kremlin

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Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its many international and national repercussions have helped to revive the fortunes of Germany’s main radical right-wing populist party, the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). Worries about the threats posed to Germany’s traditional export-led industries by spiking energy prices, the country’s historical anxieties over becoming involved in armed conflict in Europe, and hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Germany seem to have contributed to a modest rise in the AfD’s poll numbers after a long period of stagnation. However, the situation is more complicated for the AfD than it would appear at first glance. While many party leaders and the rank-and-file have long held sympathies for Putin (and for Russia more generally), support for Ukraine among the German public remains strong, even if there is some disagreement about the appropriate means and the acceptable costs. At least some AfD voters are appalled by the levels of Russian violence against civilians. Like on many other issues, there is also a gap in opinion between Germany’s formerly communist federal states in the east and the western part of the country. The AfD’s leadership has responded by blaming the government and unspecified external actors for the economic crisis, calling for a “diplomatic solution,” and demanding a “return to normal.” While this policy has helped to keep the AfD’s base mobilized, the stated approach is scarcely feasible and has not led to a surge in support for the party among the general population.

Keywords: Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Pegida, energy security.



By Kai Arzheimer* (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz)

Background: Populism in Germany

The “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) is currently Germany’s most prominent and influential Far Right party. It is represented in the Bundestag, the European Parliament, and in fifteen of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments. Over the last ten years, it has effectively absorbed the fragmented support that existed for older Far Right parties, most prominently the right-wing extremist National Democrats (NPD). Only recently has the AfD faced some fresh competition from the Grassroots Democratic Party of Germany (“dieBasis”) and “Team Todenhöfer” (a personal party founded by former conservative politician and journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer), which were launched during the pandemic and target Germany’s so-called “Querdenken” (“lateral thinkers”), COVID-19-sceptics and conspiracy theorists. However, at the federal election in September 2021, these outfits groups won just 1.4 and 0.5 % of the votes, respectively.

Founded in 2013, the AfD started as a soft Eurosceptic outfit that positions itself on the centre-right (Arzheimer, 2015). However, immigration and the Muslim minority in Germany quickly became the AfD’s main issues, and by 2016, the party had transformed into a prototypical populist radical Right party. However, what sets the AfD apart from other European parties of this type is that it cultivates ties to openly right-wing extremist actors outside the party and tolerates extremist tendencies among its own members, which have become more pronounced and visible over time (Arzheimer, 2019).

Since 2014, the AfD has drawn up a series of increasingly comprehensive manifestos that aim to address all fields of public policy. As ardent supporters of Germany’s car industry and the internal combustion engine, they are sceptical of climate change and vehemently anti-“woke.” Their economic, fiscal, and welfare policies also place them on the Right, economically speaking. While welfare chauvinists on the one hand and market liberals on the other have long wrestled about the AfD’s pension policies, this conflict contributed little to the public perception of the party, which is framed almost entirely by the interlinked issues of immigration, asylum, and Islam.

The AfD won 10.3% of the list vote in the 2021 federal election, a modest decline compared to their 2017 result of 12.6%. More recently, the party has regained some support in national polls, but considerable regional variation remains. Almost from its foundation, the AfD has been disproportionately successful in Germany’s formerly communist eastern states, particularly in Thuringia and Saxony. In some districts within these states, the AfD has become the strongest political force, necessitating the formation of awkward coalitions across the political spectrum (e.g. the CDU/SPD/Greens coalition in Saxony or the Left/SPD/Greens minority government in Thuringia that has a confidence-and-supply agreement with the CDU).

While the AfD is the most important populist actor in Germany, it is worth pointing out that the Far Left Linkspartei, generally stylized as “die Linke” (“the Left”), is also considered populist, as noted by The Populist (https://popu-list.org/). As a self-professed pacifist party that is also the (indirect) successor of the socialist state party in the GDR, die Linke has long campaigned for the dissolution of NATO, frequently taken a pro-Russian stance and is highly suspicious of the United States, the EU, and Germany’s security apparatus. However, Russia’s atrocities against Ukrainian civilians have proven too much for most members of die Linke. Its parliamentary party condemns Russia’s attack as a violation of international law, portrays Ukraine as the victim of a power struggle between the West and Russia, and calls for Western countries to spearhead de-escalation (Die Linke, n.d.).

Die Linke’s most prominent and controversial member, Sahra Wagenknecht (who has a huge presence in both traditional and social media), takes a more clear-cut pro-Russian position. For years, Wagenknecht has toyed with the idea of forming her own breakaway party, but so far, she has failed to follow through. Nonetheless, Wagenknecht is the frequent object of speculation of her intention to spearhead a “Querfront,” namely, an issue-specific alliance of Far Left and Far Right actors.

German elite discourses on Russia

Before turning to populist demands for and supply of foreign policy, it is worthwhile briefly considering German elite discourse and positions on Russia. During the 1950s, when West Germany found itself at the front line of the Cold War, integration into NATO became a central plank of its political consensus and was deemed essential for West Germany’s political survival. However, even then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a staunch anti-communist, wanted a good working relationship with the Soviet Union and agreed to compromise over the resumption of diplomatic relations in order to free thousands of German POWs who were still detained in the USSR in the mid-1950s.

Not much later, the first scheme to supply Germany and Western Europe with natural gas from Siberia was drawn up. Due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, these plans were temporarily shelved but eventually led to a trade deal that supplied Germany with Siberian gas in exchange for West German steel pipes. Natural gas imports increased from the end of the 1970s. Although the United States put considerable pressure on its West European allies to limit commercial exchanges with the USSR, by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied about 50% of the natural gas consumed in Germany. After the end of the Cold War, Russia’s share of German natural gas imports fluctuated between 30 and 50% but began to rise steadily again after 2013 (Pleines, 2021, p. 2), exceeding 50% once more by 2017.

This increasing energy dependency, epitomized by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, was seen positively (or at least not as a security problem) by both the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), as it fit into the wider framework of Germany’s policy toward the former USSR after the Cold War. In their analysis of this policy (which was loosely linked to the détente of the 1970s), Meister and Jilge (2022, p. 18) identify several core principles:

In line with this general approach towards Russia, both the CDU/CSU and the SPD brushed aside the concerns voiced by the United States, Ukraine, and the eastern EU members over Nord Stream 2 as late as the 2021 federal election campaign. On the other hand, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens have taken a much more critical stance towards Russia in recent years. Still, the salience of foreign policy in general (and eastern policy in particular) has remained limited in German politics even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Ties between German right-wing populists and Russia

Although the Nazis justified their abhorrent crimes in the east with the supposedly inferior nature of the Slavic peoples, German right-wing extremists began to form networks with their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe soon after 1990 (Maegerle, 2009). Among the states of Eastern Europe, Russia has held a particular attraction for the German Far Right because it was seen as offering both a check on US hegemony and an alternative to Western liberal democracy, which is increasingly seen as corrosive to Western traditions. The German Far Right also had contacts with extreme right-wing actors in Ukraine, but with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia became the main focus. For example, after the annexation, the anti-Islam movement Pegida added a demand for “an end to anti-Russian warmongering” to its manifesto (Jennerjahn, 2016, p. 539).

Unusually among West European nations, Germany has also accepted about 2.5 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last three decades. While almost all of them hail from German-speaking communities within the former USSR (Russlanddeutsche), many are not well integrated into the wider German society and rely on Russian (state) media for political information (Sablina, 2021, p. 362). This group reacted particularly negatively to the influx of refugees in 2015 (Sablina, 2021) and was specifically canvassed by the AfD, which draws disproportionate support from Russlanddeutsche voters (Spies et al., 2023).

In 2014, the AfD’s website showed “an unusual degree of sympathy for Russia and distrust” in the United States (Arzheimer, 2015, p. 548). In the same year, one of the party’s most influential leaders, Alexander Gauland, compared a possible division of Ukraine to the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 (“AfD für Spaltung des Landes”, 2014). In its 2017 federal manifesto, the AfD demanded (albeit without mentioning Ukraine) “détente with Russia,” an end to the prevailing sanctions, a “deepening of the economic cooperation with Russia,” and even Russia’s integration into (an unspecified) regional “security structure.” The juxtaposition with Turkey is also telling. According to the AfD manifesto, Turkey, unlike Russia, is “not culturally a part of Europe” and should be expelled from NATO. Similar calls for ending sanctions against Russia were presented in various state-level manifestos, including in Baden-Württemberg (in 2016), Western Pomerania (in 2016), and Saxony (in 2019). The 2019 AfD manifesto in Thuringia even demands more electrical power generation from natural gas and specifically mentions “Russia, Norway, and the Netherlands” as “extremely reliable suppliers.”

In 2018, a group of German parliamentarians travelled to Crimea as “international observers” of the Russian presidential election. It later emerged that the Russian state paid at least partially for this trip (“AfD-Politiker”, 2020). One of the lawmakers, Markus Frohnmaier, is married to a Russian journalist and has repeatedly travelled to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In 2019, the BBC published documents purportedly showing Frohnmaier to be a Russian asset. Nonetheless, he was re-elected in 2021. Another AfD politician, Gunnar Lindemann, also regularly visited the parts of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia and even attended an “anti-Fascist” congress in Crimea, where he received an award. As late as September 2021, Lindemann and three other state-level deputies travelled to Russia to act as “observers” during the elections for Russia’s parliament, the Duma. As on previous occasions, they had no mandate from any international organization (Stöber, 2021).

In short, while pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian positions were not central to the AfD’s agenda, which remains focused on immigration, they were widely accepted within the party and were enshrined in the AfD’s manifestos. Moreover, the Kremlin made an effort to cultivate individual AfD politicians.

After February 2022, the party initially took a somewhat more nuanced position. Speaking on behalf of the parliamentary party during the first debate of the invasion in March, MP Matthias Moosdorf called the war a “tragedy” and demanded Russia return to the negotiation table. However, he also alleged that Russischstämmige (“ethnic Russians”) in Ukraine had been persecuted since 2014, painted a Russian victory as inevitable, and called for a negotiated compromise that would imply referenda in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Deutscher Bundestag, 2022, p. 1435). He also repudiated sanctions against Russia and military aid for Ukraine. Similarly, the parliamentary party published a position paper in June that condemned Russia’s aggression as a violation of international law and called for a ceasefire and the deployment of a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (“Der unmögliche Krieg”, 2022, p. 16). In the same statement, the party renewed its support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as it was essential for a “reliable, secure and cheap energy supply”  (AfD Bundestagsfraktion 2022). By that time, Russia had already reduced the throughput of Nord Stream 1 by 60%. Deliveries would cease entirely in September.

By the end of summer, the AfD reverted to a more hard-line stance and openly admitted that they hoped to capitalize on widespread worries about energy insecurity and economic instability. They did not, however, shift to the left on fiscal and economic policies but rather demanded the return to the “status quo ante,” which serves as the AfD master frame. Shortly before Russia held hastily organized sham referenda on the annexations in September 2022, another delegation of would-be “observers” travelled via Russia to the occupied parts of Ukraine. They only abandoned their trip after a massive public backlash and some criticism from within their own party (Joswig, 2022). In October, the AfD’s co-chair, Alice Weidel, claimed that the “main loser” of the conflict was “neither Russia nor Ukraine but Germany,” which she called the victim of an “economic war.” In the same interview, she denounced the West for “reflexively supporting Ukraine’s maximalist demands,” rejected any form of German involvement, and urged the government to focus on reinstating the supply of Russian natural gas to safeguard Germany’s economy: “what that means for Ukraine […] for a partition, that is not our concern” (Finthammer, 2022). Six weeks later, Wiedel’s co-chair, Tino Chrupalla, doubled down on that position in a rambling statement in which he stated that “American presidents were war criminals, too” while simultaneously refusing to call Putin a war criminal “because I am not in a position to judge his actions” (“Chrupalla bei Lanz über Putin”, 2022).

The demand side of right-wing populism

Insofar as Germans cared about foreign policy at all, the centre parties’ approach to Russia was widely seen as entirely reasonable. Against this backdrop, the positions and behaviour of the AfD outlined in the previous section were certainly radical but not completely outlandish.

The February 2022 invasion was, therefore, a shock to German public opinion. Overwhelming majorities expressed support for the opening of Germany’s borders to Ukrainian refugees (84%), new sanctions against Russia (85%), and even arms deliveries to Ukraine (67%), something that had been almost universally rejected just a couple of weeks before.[1] At the same time, the invasion triggered anxiety about the economy and energy supplies as well as fears about a broader Russian attack on Europe and even a global nuclear conflict.

Over the course of the year and particularly since the summer, support for Germany’s involvement in the war has slowly eroded, and worries about inflation and heating during the coming winter have come to the fore. The rally-around-the-flag effect quickly subsided, and although the new government managed to find new suppliers for natural gas in record time — imports from Russia effectively ended in August — its approval rates are very low. Once more, there is also a marked difference between Germany’s western and eastern states, with easterners being particularly reluctant, worried, and unhappy.

However, there have been no mass protests, and the AfD has not benefited from the dramatic developments as much as one could have assumed. In January 2022, the party hovered between 10 and 11% in national polls, which was very close to their result in the 2021 election. A year later, their support had increased by about four percentage points. Although the arrival of more than a million refugees from Ukraine, the steepest increase in the cost of living since the 1970s, and a major land war in Europe have created an almost perfect storm, the AfD so far remains below its peak of 17–18% public support recorded in 2018.[2]

This is not to say that (right-wing) populism has been sidelined or disarmed during the crisis. On the contrary, the AfD has performed surprisingly well in the western state of Lower Saxony and has become entrenched in many eastern regions. However, there seems to be a ceiling to the AfD’s support, and the party is already operating close to that limit. In November 2019, a polling outfit found that 80% of Germans said that extremist ideas had spread “far” or “very far” through the AfD (Forshungsgruppe Wahlen, 2019), and roughly the same number consistently states in opinion surveys that they would under no circumstances vote for the party. Since then, the AfD’s involvement with the anti-vaccination movement and various right-wing extremist groups, as well as its support for Russia, have further consolidated the party’s negative image. The invasion may have somewhat revived the AfD’s support, but not on account of any specific political innovation of the party. The party simply offers more of the same, packaged in an ever more radical fashion.

Discussion and perspective

So far, the invasion has had a minimal effect on right-wing populist politics in Germany. While the issue was quickly picked up by actors that had been active during the pandemic, there were very few pro-Russian or anti-war protests.

In terms of party politics, the country is currently forced to reconsider its largely failed eastern policy. Like in other areas of political life, the AfD is essentially campaigning for a radical version of what was once considered normal. However, the idea that Germany could somehow disentangle itself completely from the conflict, ignore the system of Western sanctions and simply go back to importing cheap natural gas from Russia must appear preposterous even to many of the party’s supporters. Therefore, the AfD’s leaders’ sometimes almost cartoonish statements are primarily designed to grab the public’s attention and further fire up their (limited) base. They are certainly not aimed at influencing public policy or redefining the AfD’s image.

Therefore, the most likely scenario is that the AfD will continue to focus on the economic crisis while stressing the importance of diplomacy and a peaceful, negotiated settlement, ideas that are generally popular and may even attract some disgruntled supporters of die Linke, which remains in disarray. However, there is no sign of a shift in economic or fiscal policy. The AfD, which is currently led by a former business consultant and the owner of a small building company, remains committed to low-tax, pro-(small)-business, and welfare chauvinist policies.

Were Sarah Wagenknecht ever to set up a (pro-welfare, anti-immigration, and anti-war) personal party, that might be a game changer, as she is currently more popular than any politicians of either die Linke or the AfD and could attract disaffected voters from these and other parties, at least in the short term. However, this would likely break die Linke and seriously weaken the AfD, so it is unclear what the net effect on populism in Germany would be.

Of course, this does not mean that mainstream actors should be complacent: during the pandemic, right-wing populist mobilization, while confined to pockets of society, was associated with lower rates of vaccination and mitigation and hence with worse policy outcomes (Leistner, 2021). On the contrary, politicians, journalists, and civil society actors should dispel misinformation and propaganda, using proven techniques to avoid accidentally reinforcing these messages.

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(*) Kai Arzheimer is Professor of German Politics and Political Sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He has published widely on voting behaviour and political attitudes and is particularly interested in Far Right parties and their voters.


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Spies, D.C., Mayer, S.J., Elis, J., & Goerres, A. (2023). Why do immigrants support an anti-immigrant party? Russian-Germans and the Alternative for Germany. West European Politics, 46(2), 275–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2022.2047544

Stöber, S. (2021, September 19). Wahlbeobachtung auf Bestellung. Tagesschau. https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/kontraste/russland-demokratie-wahlbeobachtung-101.html


[1] Support for arming Ukraine depends on the weapons in question but in February 2022, 74% were against delivering any weapons. See Forshungsgruppe Wahlen (2022a, 2022b).

[2] Somewhat surprisingly, support not just for the CDU/CSU (now the main opposition party) but also for the Greens, which are part of the governing coalition, has risen by four to five points over the same period.

Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister arrives to attend in an Informal meeting of Heads of State or Government in Prague, Czechia on October 7, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Politicizing war: Viktor Orbán’s right-wing authoritarian populist regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Ádám, Zoltán. (2023). “Politicizing war: Viktor Orbán’s right-wing authoritarian populist regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0021


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Soon after Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a strategic ally for Hungary. This was a somewhat surprising development for a country with a history of mass movements for political freedom crushed with the assistance of Russian troops. Yet, unlike virtually all his European allies on the radical and populist Right, Orbán has supported Putin even during his campaign against Ukraine. As this has not been without political and economic costs for Hungary, the question emerges as to why Orbán has been so loyal to Putin. The report presents three complementary explanations: (1) the traditional animosity Hungarian governments have shown toward Kyiv in the past three decades; (2) blaming the European Union and the pro-Ukraine Western alliance for economic hardship in Hungary; (3) endorsing Putin’s totalitarian turn in Russia to suggest that a similar course of political developments in Hungary is not excluded either. Worryingly, considerable institutional measures in the latter direction in the form of states of danger, continuously implemented since March 2020, have already been taken.

Keywords: Hungary, Ukraine, Viktor Orbán, authoritarian populism, autocratization, macroeconomic conditions.



By Zoltán Ádám* (Corvinus University of Budapest)


At the time of writing (Spring 2023), Hungary has been under populist rule for 13 years, the longest of any European Union (EU) country. Soon after Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party returned to power in 2010, Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a strategic ally for Hungary. Having played the sovereigntists card against Brussels and “the West” since the early 2010s, Orbán and his domestic allies have increasingly relied on China, Russia, and other autocratic regimes, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, as sources of alternative economic and political support. For Orbán and Fidesz, this has been a rational political strategy, at least to some extent. They have sought to increase their room for political and economic manoeuvre concerning the EU, the IMF and the global financial markets, on which Hungary has long been dependent.

This political project has been contentious from the start. After all, Hungary — particularly the Hungarian Right — have long viewed Russia as an oppressive regional power and positioned themselves in opposition to Moscow. In 1848–49, Russian troops helped the Austrians put down a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, ending hopes of an independent Magyar state. And while the Red Army liberated Hungary from the Far Right Arrow Cross regime under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the Soviets troops did not withdraw, backing a local communist dictatorship against the wishes of the majority. Then, in 1956, Soviet troops intervened again when Hungarians took to the streets to champion freedom and independence. This historical litany has reinforced the notion that Russia (or the Soviet Union) was an irredeemably imperialist power intent on suppressing freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. With this historical context in mind, Orbán’s sympathy for Putin’s increasingly autocratic and oppressive regime since 2010 has been a somewhat surprising development.

Having said that, Orbán and Fidesz are certainly not the only pro-Russian populist voices on the European continent. From Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States, a growing number of left- and right-wing populist leaders adopted pro-Russian views in the 2010s. Although the precise reasons for this are unclear (and may well include direct financial incentives), they most probably include admiration for power and the ability to rule without institutional constraints. In the Hungarian case, Fidesz has been joined by Jobbik, another Radical Right party established in 2003, in communicating positive sentiments towards Putin’s Russia. Jobbik was also probably financially supported by Moscow.[1]

When Orbán’s Fidesz was in opposition from 2002 to 2010, the party criticized Hungary’s succession of Socialist–Liberal governing coalitions for cultivating overly cordial relations with Moscow at the cost of Hungary’s Western orientation. In opposition, Fidesz was an active member of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament and cherished partnerships with right-wing parties abroad. Yet at the same time, Fidesz relentlessly played the sovereigntist card in domestic politics, something Orbán honed to a fine art, blaming Hungary’s government for “selling out” to Western interests before 2010. Fidesz also toyed with Eurosceptic rhetoric, and for some time, it was unclear whether or not Orbán genuinely backed Hungary’s EU accession in 2004.

Hence, by the time Fidesz and Orbán won a landslide victory in 2010 that handed them the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution, the ideological profile of Fidesz had become a mix of pro-EU Christian democratic, conservative, and Eurosceptic–sovereigntist views. After 2010, Orbán and his party moved progressively toward the European Radical Right, forging ties with Le Pen’s Front National, Salvini’s Lega and the Austrian Freedom Party. Today, Fidesz’s most important regional ally is PiS, the Polish governing party.

After a long, contentious, and drawn-out battle, Fidesz was finally expelled from EPP in 2021, and since then, Orbán has cemented his position as a senior Radical Right leader in the EU. And although none of his allies on the Radical Right—including Le Pen and Salvini—has been willing to openly support the Putin regime after February 2022, Orbán has doggedly maintained a pro-Russian stance. So the question arises as to what explains Orbán’s bold exceptionalism, which has inevitably alienated him (and his government) from his closest European allies, including, for example, PiS.

Authoritarian populism as political strategy

Orbán’s deviant geopolitical stance within the EU is undergirded by his rock-solid political base at home. This is not simply a result of his being exceptionally successful at preserving his power (Orbán is the longest-serving elected prime minister in Hungarian history, although two twentieth-century autocrats, Miklós Horthy and János Kádár, governed Hungary longer from other positions). Orbán can also rely on an exceptionally centralized, stable, and exclusionary system of political institutions partly inherited from the system established after Hungary’s transition to democracy in 1990 and partly developed by himself after 2010. This institutional architecture is organized around a government that the prime minister personally controls. The two-thirds majority Fidesz maintains in Hungary’s unicameral parliament has allowed it to pass constitutional amendments unconstrained and to stack the state institutions with party loyalists. The entire system of political institutions is vertically organized such that Orbán can orchestrate it in a top-down fashion. And Orbán has no viable competition either in Fidesz or in the opposition.

The opposition consists of a cluster of smaller, independent (and often ideologically opposed) parties, which unsuccessfully attempted to replace Fidesz in the 2022 elections by creating a joint electoral list and joint prime ministerial candidate. The extensive intra-party coordination that this required simply disintegrated after the failure to unseat Fidesz at the polls. It is unclear whether a similar joint opposition list and prime ministerial candidate will be created at the next elections. Currently, seven relatively small opposition parties are represented in parliament.[2] Most are politically ineffective and seen as increasingly redundant by the public.[3]

The difficulties of the opposition are exacerbated by the electoral system. Its underlying nature is majoritarian, as most parliamentary seats are gained in single-mandate constituencies (SMCs) through single-round, first-past-the-post elections. Winning a majority of these seats requires considerable financial and organizational resources at the national level that only large parties can hope to muster. However, smaller parties can enter parliament through party lists that provide proportional representation in a minority of parliamentary seats. Such an electoral system creates multiple equilibria for political parties: winning elections requires pooling large amounts of resources (high-level equilibrium), but having relatively few resources can also provide a viable entry into parliament without an effective chance of taking over the government (low-level equilibrium). As voters know this, they prefer to vote for parties seeking the high-level equilibrium, although few such parties are on offer on the opposition side.

This political-institutional architecture fits very well with authoritarian populism as a political strategy.[4] Reproducing the two-thirds parliamentary majority every four years through a customized electoral system, Orbán and his allies have gained popular legitimacy by using complete institutional control over Hungary’s political and economic resources to channel rewards in a clientelist manner. The wealthiest person in Hungary is a childhood friend of the prime minister, and all nationally important officeholders are his confidants. Actions of the governing coalition[5] are endorsed by a pliant mass media that is partly public and partly private. The bulk of this private media is controlled by government-friendly businesses, including the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), a syndicate into which Fidesz-friendly private media entrepreneurs “voluntarily” transferred their media outlets in 2018.

Authoritarian populism as a political strategy is characterized by contesting competitive but unfair elections under highly skewed conditions (Ádám, 2018; Weyland, 2021). Waging these electoral battles, authoritarian populists typically employ exclusionary ideologies often associated with nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia, as well as anti-elitism in one form or another. Where authoritarian populists have been in power for some time (as in Hungary and Poland), anti-elitism is often oriented against powerful external political or economic actors, such as the EU, the IMF, the United States, or the global financial industry and especially one of its most active representatives, the Hungarian-born George Soros. Anti-elite rhetoric against all these actors is a Fidesz mainstay as it exploits fierce ingroup-outgroup dynamics in Hungary, which the party itself has largely cultivated for this very purpose. In this context, any salient political cleavage the government can establish to distinguish Hungary’s friends from its enemies is a powerful political tool. Such cleavages perpetually restructure the political space, and as the sole actor controlling the restructuring process in the media, Fidesz is able to reinforce its institutionally unlimited power symbolically.[6]

However, waging an actual war is a qualitatively different political strategy than employing a strategy of perpetual cleavage creation in ideological space. War can be, of course, also conceptualized as a cleavage, but its human and political consequences reach much further. In war (or in a war-type situation such as “special operations”), governments request unconditional cooperation from citizens justified by the need to defend the interests of the entire national community. Hence, war serves as an effective handmaiden for introducing totalitarian rule. However, once government power has become totalitarian, authoritarian populism ceases to exist and is replaced by outright dictatorship. Such a process started in Russia with the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and culminated in the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. By maintaining its alliance with Russia, the Orbán regime has endorsed Russia’s totalitarian turn as a legitimate course of action. In addition, by introducing and maintaining a legal state of danger, the administration has created extraordinary government powers in response to the war in Ukraine and presented a strategy of introducing openly autocratic rule to replace authoritarian populism.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine: A new turning point for the Orbán regime?

The year 2022: Elections and other challenges for the regime

In early 2022, Orbán and his lieutenants were preparing for yet another electoral battle, this time with a unified (and thus potentially more effective) opposition challenge than before. Economic difficulties, partly related to the COVID-19 crisis and Hungary’s exclusion from post-pandemic European development financing, saw the government’s electoral position deteriorate. Half a year before the April 2022 parliamentary elections, the united opposition was on par with Fidesz in opinion polls. The regime responded to the challenge using its usual arsenal, but this time went even further than before in providing economic incentives for the pro-government vote: aggressive anti-opposition discourse in mass propaganda, broad-based tax reductions, and pension hikes (Ádám & Csaba, 2022). And then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine five weeks before Hungary’s April 3 elections.

The invasion fundamentally changed the political trajectory of the Orbán regime. Right from the beginning, the regime clearly sided with Russia and aligned its messaging with pro-Russian propaganda. Why did they do so? The reasons are not immediately clear, as a pro-Russian position carries substantial political costs for the regime. But the results are all too apparent. Orbán and his allies have found themselves increasingly isolated in the EU and, perhaps even more importantly, also within the group of Central and Eastern European member states. Hungary became a near pariah in the West after siding with the oppressor of the East, betraying all values – and interests – of humanity, freedom, and democracy.

Isolation and international humiliation have seen Hungary’s economic position deteriorate as well. A large part of Hungary’s EU development financing as part of the so-called Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) has been suspended and is now dependent on Hungary implementing anti-corruption measures (an unprecedented decision in EU history). At the same time, the Hungarian forint weakened on currency markets, inflation soared (and became the highest in the EU by the turn of 2022/23), the refinancing costs of Hungarian public debt increased, and Hungarian credit ratings were downgraded. Without firm EU backing, Hungary has become the member state most vulnerable to the global economic crisis, triggered by ultra-expansionary fiscal and monetary policies globally, the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and the effects of the current war.

As a communication strategy, the government has been trying to shift the blame for all economic difficulties to the EU, claiming that the sanctions against Russia are responsible for high inflation, volatile markets and weak output. Orbán has resorted to his go-to strategy of orchestrating a so-called “National Consultation” (essentially, a direct marketing campaign posted out to Hungarian households seeking their opinions on highly manipulative questions) backed by government-sponsored mass advertising campaigns claiming Brussels is “bombarding” peaceful countries. The government proudly reported that 97% of respondents (which, in the particular case, meant 1.4 million people in a country of about 8 million eligible voters) returned their postal surveys agreeing with the government’s position of criticising EU economic sanctions on Russia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also played a role in reinforcing Fidesz’s dominant political position in the electoral campaign. The Fidesz strategy portrayed the united democratic opposition as a pro-Ukraine camp that would drag Hungary into war with Russia. Of course, no opposition candidate suggested that Hungary should enter the war, but some of them, including the joint prime ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, voiced the view that Hungary should be part of the Western alliance supporting Ukraine. Yet, this was more than enough for the Fidesz propaganda machine to portray them as war hawks endangering the peace and integrity of Hungary. Public opinion data suggest that the government communication strategy was successful: the majority of the electorate, even most of those with pro-opposition and anti-Orbán views, internalized the government-stirred anxiety about the war and wanted to see Hungary remaining neutral and distancing itself from the conflict.

Although opinion polling on wars is notoriously unreliable because polling data itself becomes part of disinformation campaigns, it seems that Hungary has indeed become an outlier in terms of pro-Russian views and reservations about the rectitude and rationality of Western political and military support for Ukraine. In June-July 2022, the Prague-based Free Press for Eastern Europe surveyed internet users’ views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in six Central and East European (CEE) member states of the EU: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.[7] This was cited in the Hungarian press, including the leading Hungarian opposition website Telex, whose English-language edition observed, “46% of Hungarian internet users were moderately pro-Russian, 31% strongly pro-Russian, 8% completely pro-Russian and only 15% pro-Ukrainian” (Aradi & Horváth Kávai, 2022). In another online publication that covered the survey in November 2022, Átlátszó, it was revealed that according to 36% of Hungarian respondents, Ukraine should have surrendered to Russia, the highest ratio in the six countries surveyed. The corresponding ratios in the other five CEE countries were between 8% (Poland) and 32% (Bulgaria).

Meanwhile, 34% of Hungarian respondents said the EU should not intervene in the war. The corresponding ratios in the other five CEE countries were between 2% (Poland) and 28% (Bulgaria) (Pete, 2022). Although these figures look broadly reasonable, the survey was conducted online, and information on it is not available on the FPEE website. (Átlátszó presumably covered the survey in November because its coverage was linked to the November 15 conference of FPEE. According to the FPEE website, the conference took place, but little further information on its content is provided.)

Another relevant public opinion survey was conducted by the pro-government think-tank Századvég which published opinion data in October 2022. In this, Századvég proudly proclaims that “nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Hungarians believe that the United States of America and Joe Biden are more in favour of continuing the Russian-Ukraine way, which is likely related to the fact that the actions and statements of the US president do not contribute to the promotion of peace deal but to the further escalation of the conflict,” (Századvég, 2022).

Századvég, like most pro-government think tanks, pseudo-autonomous civil society organizations and media outlets, engages in notoriously one-sided political discussions to endorse government views. In this context, public opinion data serves explicit political interests. Yet, what they stress and how they formulate arguments provide accurate information on the structure of government propaganda in terms of which arguments are supposed to resonate most with the sentiments of the pro-government electorate.

An (un)easy alliance: Explanations for siding with the aggressor

Why do Orbán and his domestic followers side so resolutely with Putin? There appear to be three roughly equally important explanatory factors. First, Orbán and his friends believe that Hungary is not interested in taking sides in the war. They consider Russian dominance over an institutionally weak Ukraine to be better from a Hungarian point of view than a strategically reinforced, militarily strong Ukraine. In the past three decades, most Hungarian governments have had a degree of animosity towards Ukraine as most Kyiv governments were not particularly respectful of Hungarian minority rights in Transcarpatia. At an early stage of the invasion, some might have even assumed that Hungary had territorial claims against Ukraine when the Russian government was seen to be signalling potential support for such Hungarian ambitions. This was, however, unlikely to become actual Hungarian government policy unless Ukraine completely disintegrated as a consequence of the war.

Secondly, by siding with Putin and against the EU and the entire Western alliance, Orbán can tactically remain on the offensive, blaming EU sanctions and Western policies for sustaining Ukrainian self-defence in an armed conflict, ostensibly imposing economic costs on the entire region. This is particularly advantageous for Orbán at a time of increasing economic hardship on the home front. Blaming the EU and the Western alliance backing Ukraine can reorient some of the Hungarian population’s disenchantment toward “Brussels”. A recurring argument in this context, often endorsed by opinion leaders in the anti-capitalist Radical Left is that supporting Ukraine and extending the borders of NATO to the east serves Western economic and strategic interests and the ‘real stake’ of the war is not Ukrainian (or European) freedom but rather who dominates global capitalism: the United States and its Western allies, or China, Russia, and other emerging economies?

Such an “anti-war” or “pacifist” left-wing disposition is, of course, a usual stance internationally, often appearing at the fringes of the mainstream centre-left, primarily in Western Europe. One example in the Hungarian context is Antal (2023), who presents this disposition in the Hungarian case and criticizes both the “pro-war”, “militaristic” opposition that adopts the West’s pro-Ukraine views uncritically and the government position endorsing Russian imperialism. A meaningful left-wing political response to the war in Ukraine, Antal claims, should create political space between these “two extremes”, but he fails to explain how ”anti-war pacificism” should take on an actual war machine in operation in Ukraine. Hence, in effect, his argumentation reinforces the government’s allegedly “pro-peace” position to the war.

Thirdly and perhaps most worryingly, Orbán’s pro-Russian stance can be interpreted in a way that Orbán uses Putin’s regime as an implicit reference for totalitarian power, as a kind of proxy for his own potentially implemented outright autocracy. Putin decided to escalate the low-profile armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine that had started in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea into an open invasion against Kyiv in February 2022. Military experts agree that the Russians made several strategic mistakes at the beginning of the war, mainly by underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance. However, Putin’s most important aim might not have been overthrowing Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pro-EU government and making Ukraine a Russian vassal state but reinforcing his grip on power back home.

Before the war, Putin had a semi-institutionalized domestic opposition. He attempted to kill (and subsequently jailed) his strongest political opponent, Alexei Navalny, whose organization was able to mobilize tens of thousands of people across Russia in anti-regime demonstrations amidst a generally declining economic situation and growing isolation from the West that has increasingly alienated the middle classes from the regime.[8] However, the assault on Ukraine started a new chapter in Russian history. War means totalitarian rule. No institutionalized opposition operates during war. Everybody is subordinated to the government that rules in martial law-like conditions.

Putin, of course, has provided powerful economic incentives for like-minded political groups and regimes worldwide in the past two decades for being his allies, and the Orbán regime was no exception. Relatively cheap Russian oil and gas and the multi-billion-euro extension of the Paks nuclear power station were the most critical goods Orbán traded with Putin, which he used economically and politically. Putin became a regular guest in Budapest in the 2010s, and Orbán grew to be his most reliable ally in the EU, extending their friendship to the post-February 2022 period. However, the most important reason that Putin and his regime became popular among the worshippers of Orbán (just as he did among the worshippers of Trump in the United States) is not the economic benefits Russia had been able to provide for its allies until anti-Russian sanctions were switched into full gear by the EU. Instead, it is the cult of total power that Putin and his regime exercise.

There are important parallels in domestic political conditions for Orbán to those of Putin, albeit in a different international context and at a considerably higher level of democratization. Economic conditions have been deteriorating in past years (Ádám & Csaba, 2022), and Hungary faces a grim outlook with negligible (or outright negative) economic growth in 2023. Annual average inflation is forecast to stay above 15%, real wages to fall, and the rising refinancing costs of public debt are likely to force budgetary cuts.[9] Meanwhile, due to political radicalization and growing international isolation, important middle-class groups have started to distance themselves electorally from the government in past years. The Fidesz electorate has become increasingly rural and lower educated.

At the October 2019 municipal elections, most urban areas (cities of several tens of thousands of inhabitants and more, Budapest districts, and Budapest as a whole) were electorally dominated by candidates of the united opposition. At the April 2022 parliamentary elections, the united opposition won all but one of the 18 SMCs in Budapest. This was the first time since the foundation of parliamentary democracy in 1990 that the SMCs in the richest Buda parts of the city — the country’s most affluent and educated — were not carried by the dominant right-wing party. According to an April 2022 poll by Median, a leading independent public opinion polling agency, the level of education was the most important determinant of electoral choice: the lower educated were more inclined to vote for Fidesz across types of settlements. As better-educated voters typically inhabited more urbanized areas, they tended to vote less for Fidesz (Median, 2022).

Importantly, the mechanism the lower educated are typically affiliated to Fidesz is rather economic than ideological: having survived the 2008–10 economic crisis under center-left governance, a large part of the lower-middle and working classes learnt that they were better off under a right-wing administration (Róna et al., 2020). Hence, deteriorating economic conditions – the most serious economic challenge for the Orbán regime since its inception in 2010 – threatened the gradual alienation of relatively poorer, lesser-educated, rural parts of the electorate, on which Fidesz has become increasingly dependent in past years. This is the conundrum Orbán needs to solve, and one apparent political solution is growing autocratization.

Putin’s aggression, in fact, was not only ideologically approved by Orbán, but his regime has used it as an opportunity for further institutionalizing autocracy. Importantly, Hungary has been governed by special legal regimes called “states of danger” since March 2020, when the first was introduced due to COVID-19, enabling the government to overrule acts of parliament and replace them with government decrees. The state of danger has also constrained the economic powers of local municipalities and some of the citizens’ basic freedoms, including the freedom to assemble and free expression – back then as measures were taken against the pandemic (Ádám, 2020). In May 2022, the state of danger due to COVID-19 was terminated, but at the very same time, another state of danger due to an armed conflict in a neighbouring state was introduced.[10] Effectively, this implies that outright autocracy can be introduced whenever Orbán decides so.


This chapter tried to shed light on the dynamics of political exposure to the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the Orbán regime. First, I explained why it was a surprising political move by Orbán to side with Putin already well before the invasion, since the early 2010s. Secondly, I discussed authoritarian populism as a political strategy defining the Orbán regime and argued that it was incompatible with the totalitarian rule that autocratic governments exercise during open military conflict. In the first part of the third section, I presented the general conditions among which the regime operated in 2022, including the challenge of a united opposition at the April 2022 parliamentary elections and the deteriorating economic situation, exacerbated by the EU stance of withholding Hungarian development funding that the government could otherwise rely on as part of the RRF. These developments provide context for the situation in which the regime found itself during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The question is why Orbán has sided with Putin since the first moment of the war and has continued supporting the aggressor despite the considerable economic and political costs of international isolation.

My answer was threefold. First, I argued that Orbán and his allies believe that a Ukrainian victory in the war is no better for Hungary than reinforced Russian domination over Ukraine would be. Traditional animosity between Budapest and Kyiv and the particular logic of regional power games may have been instrumental in formulating this policy stance in Budapest. Secondly, and probably more importantly, by siding with Russia, Orbán could stay on the offensive, appreciating the relative, short-term value of his consent to European and NATO policies and blaming the EU and the pro-Ukraine Western alliance for domestic economic difficulties. Thirdly and most worryingly, supporting Putin in the conflict meant the approval of his totalitarian turn at home. By endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and blaming the EU and NATO for not letting Ukraine fall, Orbán politically suggests that he could take a similar totalitarian turn were authoritarian populism as a pseudo-democratic strategy for maintaining his rule to become untenable. He knows that what he claims about the distribution of responsibilities among Russia, Ukraine, and the West would not convince the majority of voters at fair elections and that pushing back against the EU at the cost of losing EU development funds and, potentially, access for other EU cooperation schemes[11] would not sell well politically. What Orbán does against these conditions is a bet on a disintegrating Western alliance behind Ukraine and a weakening EU that itself shifts to the Radical Right, giving room for further autocratization in Hungary, and the potential emergence of the EU’s first outright autocracy. The fact that Hungarians have been living under special legal regimes called “states of danger”, enabling practically unlimited government power since March 2020, underscores the feasibility of this alternative.

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(*) Zoltán Ádám is associate professor at the Institute of Economics at Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary, where he teaches courses in economics and political economy. He holds a PhD in economics from Debrecen University, an MPhil in Political Science from Central European University, and a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on the political economy of institutional change, referencing the post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe and the rise of authoritarian populism in CEE and elsewhere. Earlier, he was College Teacher in East European Economics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London and Visiting Scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Most recently, in February-March 2023, he worked as Visiting Scholar at the Department of Economics of Freie Universität Berlin’s Institute for East European Studies. Email: zoltan.adam@uni-corvinus.hu


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Sebők, M. & Simons, J. (2022). How Orbán won? Neoliberal disenchantment and the grand strategy of financial nationalism to reconstruct capitalism and regain autonomy. Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 1625-1651. doi: 10.1093/ser/mwab052 

Századvég. (2022, October 27). The majority of Hungarians are calling for a ceasefire and peace talks. https://szazadveg.hu/en/2022/10/27/the-majority-of-hungarians-are-calling-for-a-ceasefire-and-peace-talks~n3301

Seres, L. (2017, May 24). Német leleplezés: Orbán-párti orosz oligarcha pénzelte a Jobbikot?. hvg.hu. https://hvg.hu/itthon/20170524_Uzovszkij_orosz_oligarcha_finanszirozas_nacionalistak_Jobbik_Magyar_Garda

Weyland, K. (2001). Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics. Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, No. 1 (October), pp. 1-22

Weyland, K. (2021). Populism as a political strategy: An approach’s enduring — and increasing — advantages. Political Studies, 69(2), 185–189. https://doi.org/10.1177/


[1] See, for instance, Seres (2017).

[2] The largest opposition party, centre left Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), currently has 15 seats (7.5%) in the 199-member Parliament.

[3] For opinion polls on party preferences, see: https://kozvelemenykutatok.hu/ 

[4] Populism as a political strategy as opposed to political discourse or ideology is classically conceptualized by Weyland (2001, p. 14): “populism is best defined as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.”

[5] Formally, the two-third majority of parliament is held by a coalition of two parties: Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The latter, however, is a satellite party of the former: it does not have separate party lists at elections and nor does it represent any separate political alternative to Fidesz on its own right. However, in contrast to Fidesz, KDNP has remained a member party of EPP after Fidesz’ expulsion in 2021 and is still represented in the European Parliament’s EPP group by one MEP.

[6] For further discussions on the interplay between exercising symbolic and ’actual’ power – i.e., the way the effective power monopoly of Fidesz is symbolically reinforced –, see Bohle (2018), Kim (2018), and Sebők & Simons (2022).

[7] According to their website, “Free Press for Eastern Europe (FPEE) is a non-for-profit organisation registered in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2016. It is supported by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs Transition Promotion Program. Our mission is to support independent media and journalism in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond” (https://www.fpee.info/about).

[8] Putin’s approval rate in December 2021 according to the Moscow-based Levada Center (https://www.levada.ru/en/ratings/) was 65%, as high as in January 2014, a month before Russia’s annexation of Crimea (His disapproval rates were 34% in both periods). Starting an armed conflict saw his approval rates jump above 80% (and lowered his disapproval rate to under 20%).

[9] In its November 2022 economic outlook for Hungary, the European Commission forecast 0.1% economic growth and 15.7% average annual inflation for 2023 (https://economy-finance.ec.europa.eu/economic-surveillance-eu-economies/hungary/economic-forecast-hungary_en).

[10] In fact, the very same issue of the official bulletin Magyar Közlöny (85/2022) on May 24 contained government decrees repealing the state of danger due to COVID19 and introducing a new one in response to the armed conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. On the dubious constitutionality of the second state of danger as a special legal regime, see Mészáros (2022).

[11] In December 2022, the Council of the EU requested the exclusion of most Hungarian universities from the EU’s Erasmus student and lecturer exchange program as well as from HorizonEurope research cooperation schemes. The reason for the Council’s decision was the lack of academic autonomy at formerly state-owned Hungarian universities that had been taken over by newly created foundations, in which government officials and other regime confidants became government-appointed members of board of trustees with unlimited tenures.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during visit in the Bucha and Irpin, towns close to Kyiv, Ukraine on February 21, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Italy’s multiple populisms facing the Russo-Ukrainian war

Biancalana, Cecilia. (2023). “Italy’s multiple populisms facing the Russo-Ukrainian war.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0022


Download Report on Italy


Italy has been defined as a laboratory for populism and a “populist paradise.” Indeed, multiple forms of populism coexist in Italy, covering the entire political spectrum. From the “left-wing” Movimento 5 Stelle to the right-wing coalition composed of Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia and the Lega, we can be sure that populism is very popular in Italy. We can be equally sure that, over the last few years, all these parties have had links to the Putin regime. Suffice it to mention the decades-long friendship between Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin or the admiration Matteo Salvini, the head of the Lega, has demonstrated for the president of the Russian Federation. However, the Russian invasion and the extensive popular and institutional support evinced for Ukraine in its wake changed everything, leaving populist parties scrambling to review their positions and modify their discourse. In the report, I will examine the ties between the main Italian populist parties (Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia, Lega, Movimento 5 Stelle) and Russia and the shifts in their positions towards President Putin in the aftermath of the invasion. Against this backdrop, the September 2022 elections in Italy can be considered as a “test case” to measure the success of the populist parties’ strategies to negotiate the crisis and to shed light on the changing balance of power within the broad populist field.

Keywords: Italy; Fratelli d’Italia; Lega; Berlusconi; Movimento 5 Stelle.



By Cecilia Biancalana* (University of Turin)

Italy as a “populist paradise”

Italy has always been considered a Petrie dish for the study of populism, earning it the rubric of the “laboratory of populism” (Tarchi, 2015). A range of types and forms of populism coexist in Italy. The leading manifestations today are the Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy,” FdI), Lega (“the League”), Forza Italia (“Forward Italy,” FI), and the Movimento 5 Stelle (“Five Star Movement,” M5S). Together, these four populist parties garnered 59.2% of the vote in the September 2022 election, attesting to the electoral strength of populism in Italy today. During the election campaign—which took place after the collapse of a two-year grand coalition government that all the populist parties (except for FdI) participated in—the FdI, Lega, and FI campaigned jointly and stormed home to a decisive victory.

The FdI was founded in 2012 but follows the tradition of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by supporters of the former dictator Benito Mussolini. The FdI made its electoral breakthrough in the 2022 elections, where it obtained 26% and got to the government for the first time, under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni. The party promotes an extreme right-wing ideology based on the Fascist motto “Dio, Patria, Famiglia” (“God, Homeland, Family”). It defends a homogeneous people against everything considered different: e.g., LGBT people and immigrants (especially from Islamic countries). In the same way, it defends national sovereignty against supranational integration, even though its opposition to the European Union can be considered “soft.” It is worth noting that the FdI belongs to the more moderate ECR group in the European Parliament.

Lega, which before December 2017 was known as Lega Nord (the Northern League), was founded in 1991. During the first phase of its existence, it was a regionalist party (Bulli & Tronconi, 2011) that displayed intense ethno-chauvinism vis-à-vis the southern parts of Italy and sought to champion the interests of the north against central political institutions. Since the election of Matteo Salvini as party secretary in 2013, Lega’s hostility to immigration has moved to the foreground. Furthermore, Salvini has forged links with parties of the populist Right, such as France’s Rassemblement National (“National Rally,” RN), with which he shares a form of euro-scepticism and hostility towards the common European currency. 

Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia was founded in December 1993 after the Tangentopoli corruption scandals, in which judicial investigations revealed an extensive network of kickbacks for government contracts involving billions of dollars and thousands of officials, which rocked Italy’s political establishment. FI took part in the general elections of March 1994, garnering 21% of the vote and joining the first right-wing coalition in office in Italy since the Second World War. From that moment on, Berlusconi became a permanent fixture of Italian politics. Berlusconi is generally positioned as an example of “right-wing populism” (Fella & Ruzza, 2013). A billionaire media mogul, he entered politics as the consummate “outsider,” leveraging his television stations to address his appeals to “the people” in a mode that foreshadowed Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and Donald J Trump in the United States. In this telling, Berlusconi cast himself as the only true channel of the voice of ordinary Italians (the “common people”).

While there is broad agreement that M5S is a populist outfit, its classification as left-wing is contested (Ivaldi, Lanzone & Woods, 2017; Mosca & Tronconi, 2019). The M5S was founded in October 2009 by the former comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. The party made its electoral breakthrough in the 2013 general elections, winning 25% of the vote. Support for the M5S was fuelled by the economic crisis and the de-legitimization of the parties, which allowed Grillo’s party to dislodge the bipolar dynamic that had characterized the Italian Second Republic, winning voters across the whole political spectrum (Colloca & Marangoni, 2017). In the 2018 general election, the M5S won the plurality, taking 32.8 % of the vote. It joined the national government as part of a populist governing coalition with Salvini’s Lega. In power, the M5S experienced for the first time the constraints of holding office and the need to challenge some of the internal traits it had championed as a long-standing oppositional movement (Bordignon & Ceccarini, 2019). When the governing coalition collapsed, the M5S partnered with the leftist Partito Democratico (PD) to form a new government. From 2021 to 2022, the party also participated in the technocratic grand coalition government led by Mario Draghi.

Over the last few years, all these parties have had relationships, including formal links, with Putin’s regime. What are the populist parties’ relationships with Putin’s Russia? How did their positions change after the outbreak of the war? The remainder of the report is organized as follows. After sketching the historical background of the relationship between Italy and Russia, I will examine how the positions of the four main Italian populist parties towards Russia and President Putin shifted in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. In the last section, I will comment on the results of the national election in September 2022. The election can be considered a “test case” to measure the success of the populist parties’ strategies to negotiate the crisis and to shed light on the changing balance of power within the broad populist field.

Italy and Russia: Dangerous liaisons

Italian populists have long been attracted by Vladimir Putin’s sovereigntism (an ideology that foregrounds efforts to maintain a nation or political community’s sovereign independence). This, in part, reflects a historical ambivalence towards Italy’s post-Second World War security arrangements. Indeed, although for different reasons, parties across the political spectrum have been sceptical of Italy’s close ties with the United States and its membership in NATO. Pro-Russian feelings and hostility towards the United States persist on the Far Left. And even if vehement anti-communism saw the Italian Right oppose the USSR during the Cold War, this did not translate into enthusiastic support for the United States.

Nowadays, there are two main reasons that Italian populists admire Putin’s Russia. First, it is a matter of economic self-interest. Italy imports large quantities of Russian oil. Furthermore, companies in the country’s north, the historical stronghold of right-wing parties, have firm ties with Russia. Second, there is a cultural reason, a sort of elective affinity between the Russian leader and the populist parties. Populists see in Putin the figure of a powerful and authoritarian leader, able to decide and act quickly without the constraints of the checks and balances of liberal democracy. Moreover, while left-wing populist parties have cast their support for contemporary Russia as part of an anti-establishment stance, right-wing populist parties appreciate his defence of Christian values and his opposition to Islamism. Finally, they share criticism towards the European Union and other supranational bodies, which are said to weaken national sovereignty.

However, the Russian invasion and the extensive popular and institutional support evinced for Ukraine in its wake have compelled Italy’s populist parties to review their positions and modify their discourse.

The reactions of the four populist parties to the war

Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia: Instrumentalizing the war as electoral strategy

Historically, the Italian Far Right adopted a broadly Atlanticist posture, even though this coexisted with an impulse to promote a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, the second instinct has proved more prevalent, with Giorgia Meloni — the FdI leader and current prime minister of Italy— repeatedly praising Putin. For example, on the occasion of Putin’s re-election as president in 2018, Meloni wrote on Facebook that “the will of the people in Russian elections appears unequivocal” (Meloni 2018). FdI also condemned the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 as against the Italian national interest.

Nevertheless, of all the parties in the Italian party system, FdI is the least compromised in terms of links to Russia. Indeed, after the outbreak of the war, Meloni firmly condemned the invasion and backed moves to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Moreover, in the run-up to the 2022 elections, which her party was expected to win, Meloni tried to distance the FdI from the positions of its electoral partners (i.e., Lega and FI, see below). Meloni’s aim in this regard was to cast herself before a domestic and international audience as a credible future leader and institutional player. For instance, the party supported government initiatives in favour of Ukraine, including the supply of weapons, even when it was in opposition.

The controversial position of the Lega

Salvini has long admired Putin. In March 2015, he declared, “I believe that Russia is much more democratic than the European Union” (“Salvini, Russia molto più democratica dell’Ue”, 2015). That November, he appeared before the European Parliament wearing a t-shirt[1] bearing the face of Putin and declared: “I would exchange two of Mattarella [Italy’s then-president] for half a Putin!” (Salvini 2015). Then, in March 2018, he tweeted encouragement to Russian voters ahead of presidential elections to cast a ballot for Putin, whom he described as “one of the best politicians of our era” (Salvini 2018).

This admiration has three grounds, one cultural (the elective affinity between populists and Putin), one economic (defending Italian commercial interests, especially those of industrial firms in the Italian north with significant Russian business)[2] and one related to international partnerships. Moreover, Salvini’s connections to Marine Le Pen (they belong to the same populist, Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament) reflect a distinct network of Far Right ties to the Putin regime inside the EU.

Indeed, the relationship between Lega and Russia reflects not merely affinity and mutual appreciation but clear and formal institutional linkages. For instance, in March 2017, the Lega signed a confidential cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party. This was part of the Russian attempt to strengthen institutional links with European populist parties. There is also an ongoing investigation into alleged illegal party financing from Russia.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, Lega was in government as part of the technocratic administration led by Mario Draghi since 2021. Despite his former public statements in support of Putin, in the aftermath of the invasion, Salvini wrote that “The League firmly condemns any military aggression, the hope is an immediate stop to the violence. Support to Draghi for a common response of the allies” (“Ucraina: Salvini, Lega condanna ogni aggressione militare”, 2022). During an interview with Bloomberg in September 2022, Salvini declared: “My opinion about Putin has indeed changed amid the war, because when someone starts invading, bombing, sending tanks into another country, well, everything changes” (Lepido, Albanese, & Eberhart 2022). Moreover, the party voted for fresh sanctions against Russia and to send weapons to Ukraine, although party leaders expressed scepticism at sanctions arguing they would harm the Italian economy. As for his notorious hostility to people seeking asylum in Italy, Salvini squared the circle by defining Ukrainians as “genuine” refugees (Salvini, Ucraini sono veri profughi, non quelli col telefonino, 2022).

Berlusconi and Putin: The once and future friendship?

Silvio Berlusconi has a long friendship with Putin, which began during the media mogul’s second stint as prime minister from 2001–06. In 2003, Berlusconi excused Russia’s brutal crackdown in Chechnya as “an anti-terrorist operation” (“Berlusconi difende Putin e attacca la stampa”, 2003). The two first met at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. They met again in the following years, not only in their capacities as heads of government but on a personal basis, often appearing together in public and exchanging expensive gifts. In 2010, Berlusconi declared Putin “a gift from the Lord,” (Lombardozzi 2010) and in 2019, Putin returned the favour, describing Berlusconi as “a politician of world stature” (De Feo 2019) In 2015, after the annexation of Crimea, Berlusconi visited Sebastopol with Putin.

Apart from their friendship and a shared self-identity as “strongmen in command,” the relationship between the two is also a matter of economics and diplomacy. Concerning the former, in 2005, Berlusconi’s government prepared an agreement that would have allowed the Russian company Gazprom to resell Russian gas directly to Italian consumers. On the diplomatic front, Berlusconi helped to broker a set of agreements between Russia and NATO after a 2002 summit held in Rome, which created the now-defunct NATO-Russia Council and is considered the high point of relations between Russia and the West.

Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlusconi tried to say as little as possible about Putin and did not explicitly condemn the invasion. Only in April 2022 did he say that he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” (Berlusconi alla convention di Forza Italia: “Deluso da Putin. A Bucha crimini di guerra. Spetta a Mosca far tacere le armi”, 2022) by Putin’s behaviour. However, despite the words of criticism, his position remained at first ambiguous. In September 2022, in a TV interview, he said that Putin “was pushed to do this special operation in Ukraine” to “replace the Zelensky government with decent people” (Ucraina, Berlusconi: ‘Putin spinto a inventarsi l’operazione speciale’, 2022) In October, in a leaked audio, he said that he had “reconnected” with President Putin (Berlusconi: ‘Ho riallacciato i rapporti con Putin’. Poi smentisce. LaPresse pubblica audio, 2022). Finally, in February 2023, after a meeting between Meloni and Zelensky, Berlusconi attacked Zelensky, saying that he would have never met him, causing political embarrassment within the coalition (“Berlusconi: ‘Da premier non sarei mai andato da Zelensky’”, 2023).

The Movimento 5 Stelle: Peace, but not at any price

The M5S has its roots in Italy’s leftist social movements (Biancalana, 2020), which were drawn to Grillo’s unvarnished defence of democracy and human rights. Indeed, when Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, Grillo wrote that “Russia is a democracy based on exporting gas and oil. If they didn’t export that, they would go back to being the good old dictatorship of earlier times” (Kirchgaessner 2017). However, the positions of the M5S changed over time, and the party started expressing sympathies for Russia.

For the M5S, Russia appeared to exemplify a robust opposition to the United States and the EU, both of which have been perceived in the movement as harmful to Italy’s national interests. Mirroring the long-standing M5S slogan that it is “beyond Left and Right,” the M5S tried after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 to position itself “beyond Russia and the United States.” In September 2014, Grillo wrote in a blog post that “the M5S is not pro-Russian or pro-American; it is pro-Italian” (Movimento 5 stelle 2014). In reality, with the institutionalization of the party in government and following Russia’s attempt to create links with successful European populist parties, the positions of Grillo—and some of the party’s MPs—became increasingly pro-Putin. For example, M5S condemned the European sanctions imposed on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea. In an interview in 2017, Grillo stated that “Putin is the one who says the most reasonable things about foreign policy. The embargo against Russia costs us €7 billion a year. We are in favour of lifting the sanctions against Moscow” (Picardi 2017). The domestic economic effects of sanctions were likely driving Grillo’s rhetoric, which is clearly focused on the “national interest.” After the 2018 elections, the M5S formed a government with the Lega, which took a similar approach to the Italian national interest, especially concerning trade and economics.

Grillo made no public statement after the February 2022 invasion, although the new head of the party, Giuseppe Conte, condemned it. As part of the Draghi government, the M5S voted for sanctions and to send weapons (albeit expressing doubts about the efficacy and effect on Italy). Finally, in the summer of 2022, a split emerged in the party after an internal campaign to push for an end to Italian weapons supplies to Ukraine, which Conte backed. Luigi Di Maio, the more Atlanticist minister of foreign affairs at the time, left the party saying that “we are compelled to choose which side to take at this moment in history — with the victim Ukraine or the aggressor Russia,” (“Di Maio lascia i 5Stelle: ‘Bisogna scegliere da che parte stare della storia. Alcuni dirigenti hanno rischiato di indebolire l’Italia’”, 2022) and later blamed Conte for “falling for Putin’s propaganda” (Messa 2022). The M5S, currently in opposition to the Draghi government, now opposes sending weapons to Ukraine, a return to its traditional pacifist orientation, which it shares with the Far Left in Italy.

The September 2022 elections: A test case for Italian populist parties

In July 2022 Draghi’s technocratic coalition administration fell apart, triggering early elections in September 2022. Lega, the FdI and FI campaigned on a joint ticket and formed a coalition in government. The FdI topped the polls with 26% of the vote, while Lega and FI won 8.7% and 8.1%, respectively. As a result, an entirely new balance of power within the right-wing coalition has emerged. In the previous elections in 2018, Lega garnered 17.3% against 14% for FI and 4.3% for FdI. For its part, M5S’s share of the vote declined from 32.7% to 15.4%. We cannot say that the results depended exclusively on the parties’ positions on the war. However, the issue of Ukraine certainly played some role in voters’ minds.

Concerning public opinion, Italians generally blame Russia for the invasion and express support for Ukraine (80% of citizens say they favour welcoming Ukrainian refugees. See Freyrie, 2022). However, there are key differences within the electorate. In late 2022, researchers from the Political and Social Analysis Laboratory (LAPS) at the University of Siena asked voters to nominate who they considered primarily responsible for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some 59 and 54% of those saying they voted for centre-right parties and the M5S, respectively, answered “Russia” (in comparison, 75% of centre-left voters blame Russia for the invasion). Concerning the M5S, 20% of their voters said it was the United States, while 10% said NATO was to blame. From this view, it is the M5S electorate that is the most pro-Russian. Among centre-right voters, 16% said the United States is to blame, while 8% blame NATO. The report also shows that most Italians are sceptical of (or downright opposed to) military support for Ukraine. The most sceptical are M5S voters (60% against) and centre-right (57% against) (Freyrie, 2022).

In conclusion, we can say that populists adapted to the situation, leveraging the issue of the war for their respective ends. As regards the right-wing coalition, Meloni (the leader least compromised by Russian ties) used the war to gain credibility at the international level and to moderate her image to get to the government. Despite their well-established links with Putin and fearing they would cede consensus and international credibility, Salvini and Berlusconi voted in favour of sanctions and the sending of weapons as part of both the Draghi and Meloni administrations, although somewhat less enthusiastically than FdI. They expressed scepticism about these measures, but more in word than in deed, all the while careful not to explicitly support Putin and instead focusing on reasons linked to the economy and peacekeeping. Moreover, all the right-wing populist parties, which typically take a hard line against immigration, welcomed Ukrainian refugees. The M5S leader, Giuseppe Conte, maintained his position against sending weapons and favouring “peacekeeping.” The fluid and opportunistic nature of the M5S allowed it to simultaneously adopt positions in line with the Italian Left (anti-Americanism, pacifism) and the Right (defence of the national economic interest).

In sum, the circumstances surrounding the Ukraine war serve to once again demonstrate the ability of populism to adapt quickly to different contexts and to make use of “calculated ambivalence” (Wodak, 2015). This can explain how parties that previously supported Putin adapted quickly to the situation by condemning the invasion and welcoming refugees while simultaneously using peace and national economic interests as discursive reasons for opposing measures against Russia.

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(*) Cecilia Biancalana is a non-tenured assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Politics and Society at the University of Turin. Her research focuses on political ecology, party change, populism, and the relationship between the internet and politics.


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[1] After the outbreak of the war, Salvini was mocked by a Polish mayor because of that t-shirt (“‘See what your friend Putin has done’: Salvini mocked in Poland”, 2022).

[2] For this reason, Salvini regularly called for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.