Activists protest against the rise of fascism in Portugal in Coimbra in September 2020. Photo: Joao Ferreira Simoes.

CHEGA! A sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese parties’ disaggregation or a spectre of fascism?


Over the past four decades, Portuguese voters have imprinted a solid resistance to the emergence of far-right parties in the political setting. However, this time ended in the 2019 legislative elections when the CHEGA, a self-located party on the far-right spectrum, with a posture assumed as anti-system and unconcerned with the accusations of racism and hate exhilaration, elected André Ventura to the national parliament. Moreover, in the 2021 presidential elections, he got 497,746 votes, a scant point to be the second most-voted candidate. The 2022 legislative elections placed CHEGA as the third most-voted party, and the number of members in parliament has climbed to twelve. This article critically examines the political constraints and opportunities for the rise of the CHEGA party in the Portuguese political setting. It argues that CHEGA emerges from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties coupled with a ubiquitous traditional media landscape, which has proved favourable to the CHEGA propensity towards the Portuguese electorate and without scrutinise its narratives opposing the dominant ruling system. Beyond news media and cumulatively, social networks have also increased party exposure by recruiting affiliates and strengthening support bases.

By Carlos Morgado Braz

Throughout history, economic and social distress have stimulated antagonisms and political discontent with ordinary party politics. This thick reading explains why numerous radical far-right (RFR)[1] parties became well-established following the Cold War period. For Wodak and Krzyżanowski (2017), the return of these parties is one of the main threats to democracy. On the other hand, few others suggested it might positively affect contemporary democracy (Fraser, 2017). Nevertheless, whatever different argument these scholars use, they all agree that the RFR party’s success has been appropriating “claims” about the negative impact of social-cultural globalisation (e.g. ethnicity, religion) or the migration influx (e.g. class) involving a Manichean worldview, which divides social space into two opposing camps: the “true people” and the “corrupt establishment” (Urbinati, 2019).

To a great extent, as Goldberg (2020) found, this blurry puzzle has affected electoral behaviour, increasing the number of de-aligned and disillusioned voters who either do not participate or become open to new and more radical alternatives. However, in the existing literature, little attention has been paid to opportunities left open in the political setting by the dislocation of mainstream parties when they smooth over their foundational ideological matrixes to increase their chances of securing a winning majority. Instead, mainstream literature has mainly focused on voter turnout based on socio-economic variables or the dynamics behind RFR parties’ attitudes towards electoral campaigns. This article addresses this gap using the Portuguese CHEGA party’s emergence as a case selection.

One attempt to explain the RFR party’s electoral success could be Rydgren’s demand-side and supply-side conceptual approach[2]. According to Rydgren (2007), the demand-side approach reflects changes affecting citizens’ economic status and social-cultural identity – the base for RFR parties to go with criticism against those in power. In addition, the supply-side approach is twofold: the first focuses on the constraints and opportunities given by the political-institutional context that extend the prospect for their emergence; the second concentrates on parties themselves, e.g. the role of ideology and their organisational structures, including leadership. This article rests on the supply-side Rydgren’s approach. So, naturally, I question: Is Portugal dangerously returning to the fascist path, or is CHEGA a sceptre of the mainstream Portuguese political parties’ disaggregation?

To begin with is essential to remember that whatever ideological positioning a particular party uses, its manifestations will be contextual and dependent, among other things, on the country’s political, social and religious culture. The CHEGA is not an extremist party and is not, using a Wittgensteinian metaphor, an incarnation of our recent past. Instead, I argue it is a populist radical far-right party that emerged from the disintegration of centre-moderate right parties and the interruption of the emancipatory function of the leftist parties. Regarding its rise, the Portuguese traditional and social media platforms have facilitated André Ventura wide-reaching communication and intensified levels of connection with “the people” daily. However, given the spatial constraints of this article, this line of research is an obvious challenge that I will not address.

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Group of demonstrators on road, young people from different culture and race fight for climate change. Photo: Disobey Art.

What’s under green? Eco-populism and eco-fascism in the climate crisis


The ongoing environmental crisis has prompted various groups, organizations, and political parties to develop new strategies for addressing this global challenge. In this context, eco-populist actors, organizations, and parties are playing a key role in challenging the current exploitative capitalist system. However, it is important to note that eco-populist movements can differ significantly from one another. This article aims to distinguish between two contemporary but distinct movements: eco-populism and eco-fascism. To accomplish this, the terms “populism” and “eco-populism” will be conceptualized and analyzed, and the ideological deviations that eco-populism has undergone will be explained. The article will then provide brief case studies that showcase both eco-populist and eco-fascist events. By examining these examples, we will strive to identify the main similarities and differences between these two movements. Our conclusion will be that, despite sharing some features, eco-fascist movements tend to be more violent and nativist than eco-populist movements.

By Iván Escobar Fernández & Heidi Hart

Although some extremist Populist Radical Right Parties are still reluctant to acknowledge the evident effects of climate change and the urgent need to take necessary actions (see Spanish Populist Radical Right Party VOX), there is quite a consensus among climate researchers, environmental scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists on the causes that have driven us to this climate crisis. Among the main reasons that can explain climate change, there is no doubt that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and massive extraction and exploitation of natural resources have contributed the most to the ongoing crisis (see IPCC, 2022). However, the impacts of climate change differ from region to region, thus making individuals more vulnerable according to their nationality, social class, proximity and dependency on natural areas (see Thornton et al., 2014). Considering these factors, it can be concluded that Indigenous communities are among the most endangered groups due to climate change. This vulnerability has led to the emergence of popular movements that oppose extractive industries and their consequent exploitation of the resources found in natural areas, thus fueling violence and concern all over the globe (see Torres-Wong, 2019).

In the beginning, these movements were somehow marginal and unknown by the rest of the world and their demands were far from being considered by policymakers; however, as climate change impacts have become more tangible, these groups and movements have enjoyed more recognition, and their demands are currently being heard and considered, for example during the Alternative COP 26 in Glasgow and COP 27 in Egypt. Today, though the approaches and strategies may differ, it is difficult to find a political party that has not included climate change mitigation and adaptation in its agenda. However, although “green policies” have become an integral area of most political parties and social movements, different approaches and schools of eco-political thought have emerged in response to the current situation. These include Eco-Rousseauians, who believe that GHGs emissions must be curbed by the purchase of carbon credits from the underdeveloped world and call for the immediate and voluntary halt to the exploitation of natural resources and the protection of ecosystems of the world; Eco-Hobbesians, who defend that climate change can only be overcome by the imposition of global sanctions and mutual coercion mechanisms; Eco-Smithians, think that climate change will be solved by human inventiveness and see it as an opportunity for designing, producing, and selling new products that will boost private gain Eco-Calvinists, who opt for using resource-efficiency techniques to solve the climate crisis; Eco-Christians, who firmly believe that only a coalition with evangelicals would ensure God’s creation; and Eco-Populism, which is worth a more thorough explanation due to its complexity (Yanarella, 2015).

This article aims to analyze the rise of eco-populism across the world and to identify its main features, motivations and goals. Furthermore, this article will also aim to make a distinction between eco-populism and an appearance similar movement that has been coined under the name of eco-fascism. To do so, we will first conceptualize what we understand as populism and eco-populism and will point out some deviations the latter has undergone in recent years. The following section will showcase four different case studies that will aim at helping us identify some common and distinctive features between eco-populists and eco-fascists. Lastly, our findings will be discussed and contrasted with the existing literature.

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Photo: Blue Planet Studio.

The economics of pandemics and the future course of populism


The relevant literature shows that populists come to power through various rhetorics by exploiting the incumbent orders and the problems they have caused. However, failures and disappointments in fulfilling their promises push them to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions. By emphasizing the overall performance of populist governments during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, this article explores the future course of populist politics and governments after the pandemic. The paper concludes that although the pandemic has clearly shown the limits and capacity of many populist governments, the political and economic conjuncture in the post-pandemic era, coupled with the high tension of power transition, might bring new “opportunities” for the use of populists. With several defects and structural weaknesses of the existing liberal multilateral order, populism is here to stay with different implications for the multilateral liberal order and globalization.

By Ibrahim Ozturk


As a dangerous external shock to the global economic and political system, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a stage when the negative repercussions of the Global Recession (GR) had not fully subsided, exacerbating existing problems, such as unemployment, loss of income, and inequality, with further political and social repercussions. With the advent of other “horses of the apocalypse” – such as climate change, famine, migration, terrorism, and state failure – the current pandemic could emerge as an endemic part of life worldwide through new mutations.

This article strives to explore the effect of the pandemic on the performance of populists either in government or opposition in the post-pandemic era. Taken together, widespread uncertainties, confusions, fears, and stresses are the main push factors behind populism. Nevertheless, populist rhetoric offers untested (and sometimes) romantic promises to counter the actual social, political, and economic traumas and shocks, referring to an unknown, not yet born “alternative” system. Therefore, even if it is rather more straightforward for populists to come to power with the help of such political-economic conjunctures, they are more likely to experience difficulty fulfilling the expectations their populist rhetoric has caused. The real danger is that, despite failing to fulfil their promises, they tend to employ increasingly authoritarian measures to silence society so as to stay in power by gradually changing the system, manipulating citizens through controlling media, and undermining fundamental institutions.

This article strives to predict whether the global populist environment created by the GR will turn against populist governments during and after the Global Lockdown (GL) of the pandemic. However, the analysis of the performance of mainstream and populist parties during the COVID-19 pandemic is quite a challenging task as it is complicated by several other factors such as the ongoing global power shift and the accompanying national, regional and global geopolitical conflicts. In addition, countries’ overall political and economic situations just before the pandemic crisis have also been immensely influential on their performance. All these parameters have brought additional evaluation criteria other than their actual economic performance during the pandemic and ended up prolonging their lifespan.

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Turkish women took action on May 8, 2020 in Istanbul not to repeal the Istanbul Convention, which provides protection against domestic and male violence. Photo: Emre Orman.

Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats


Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 24, 2023.



In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates. Gender populism is a relatively new concept that refers to the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures, and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. It involves the manipulation of gender roles, stereotypes, and traditional values to appeal to the masses and create divisions between “the people” and “the others.” This paper looks at the case study of gender populism in Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. The AKP has used gender populism to redefine Turkish identity, promote conservative Islamism, and marginalize women and the LGBTQ+ community. The paper also discusses how gender populism has been used by the AKP to marginalize political opponents.


By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil


In minimal terms, populism is conceived as a unique set of ideas, one that understands politics as a Manichean struggle between a reified will and sovereignty of the morally pure people and a conspiring elite (Hawkins et al., 2018: 15). In addition to this vertical dimension, populism’s horizontal dimension posits the Manichean binary opposition betweeninsiders and outsiders,  whereby the outsiders, who may even be citizens, are regarded as foreigners,  if not internal enemies, based on their identities. In some cases, these demonized individuals and groups are seen as internal extensions, agents, puppets and pawns of foreign conspiring forces and institutions such as the European Union (EU), “the Jewish lobby,” and extremist Islam. All these are seen as threatening the people’s security, identity, and way of life. In these manifestations of populism, the binary is based on not just national differences but an imagined civilizational enmity (Brubaker, 2017). This type of populism has been dubbed as ‘civilizational populism’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; 2022b).

Populism is involved in interpretative processes that lead to intense emotions  (Salmela & von Scheve, 2017; 2018). It paints the events, in-groups, and out-groups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate sharp emotions in the audience (Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Emanating from structural (national and international) as well as affective foundations, populism has been effective in speaking to the deep emotions of the masses. It mobilizes people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger and hate (Morieson, 2017; DeHanas & Shterin, 2018; Yilmaz, 2018; 2021).

In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates.

What Is Gender Populism?

Much like the highly contested definitional parameters of populism, there is no singular definition of the term ‘gender populism.’ It is a rather new combination that has peaked the interests of academics since the mid-2010s. Gender populism is essentially the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. For instance, both left- and right-wing populist groups in many Western communities have expressed a need to “protect” their countries, specifically women, from the “illiberal” or “conservative” influences of migrant groups. They profile migrant men as a security threat or as “groomers” and some countries have taken issue with women’s choice to wear a headscarf (Hadj-Abdou, 2018). 

At the same time, it is not uncommon to see a huge wave of resistance from right-wing groups reading gender roles. These groups aim to “restore” traditional gender roles which leads them to marginalize feminist directives and disapprove of the LGBTQI+ movements (Agius et al., 2020; Roose, 2020; Gokariksel et al., 2019). 

This first stream of literature shows how gender populism helps in the creation of an ideal people or “the people” as opposed to “the others” based on what they consider deviance from their relative gender norms. This also intertwines with the idea of civilizational populism because it gives an image of a utopian dream society or urges people to revert to “the golden era” e.g., the promotion of traditional roles for women (Sledzinska-Simon, 2020). 

Gender populism also helps in creating the image of populist leaders in many cases (Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). The leader is not only pure from the corruption of conventional “elite” politicians, but he is also a strongman. The populist demagogue is constructed as a ‘strongman’ who can keep threats a bay and take ‘tough decisions’ (Roose, 2022; 2018). Zia (2022) notes that in Pakistan and India, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi present their ‘strongman’ images and vitality as part of their gender populism. Similarly, Eksi and Wood (2019) discuss how both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan through symbolic (language and body language) present themselves as a mixture of strongmen but at the same time fatherly figures to guide “the people.” 

Studies of female populist leaders show that gender plays a critical role in shaping the image of the leader in the eyes of “the people.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s gender populism constructs her as a mother saving the country from the cultural threats posed by ‘the others’ and her comparison to Jonah of Arc makes her the ‘brave hero’ who needs to act against threats such as migration (Geva, 2019; Sayan-Cengiz & Tekin, 2019).

Effeminization of the Elites and Dangerous Others by Populists 

The literature on gender populism also points out that gender populism is used to marginalize “the others” or “the elite.” One of the most common manifestations is the effeminization of ‘the elites’ and ‘the others’ by populist leaders (Agius et al., 2020; Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). 

By contrasting “feminine” political opposition, populist leaders contrast them with their “strong” image to gain credibility in the eyes of voters. For example, in the Philippines, the former President Rodrigo Duterte, is known for this ‘tough man’ acts and imagery while he uses terms such as “bitches,” “son of a bitch,” “chicken-hearted,” “sissy” and “idiots” to address all those who oppose him (UCA News, 2019; Bonnet, 2018; McKirdy, 2016). 

In short, gender populism manifests in various forms and is highly determined by contextual factors. It helps in the creation of “the people,” the populist leader/party, and “the others.” Simultaneously, it adds layers to the idea of an “ideal” society and is frequently used to marginalize both civilian and political opposition to populist forces. In a nutshell, it adds a layer to the divisiveness of populism using gender as the focus. 

Turkey’s AKP: A Case Study of Gender Populism         

Turkish women rallied in Istanbul to protest proposed anti-abortion laws by then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 18, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Sadık Güleç.

In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. These two decades have been marked by political as well as major social transitions. This has been a phase of reengineering Turkish citizens from a Kemalist identity to an Erdoganist one: an Islamist, militarist, civilizational populist, neo-Ottomanist citizen and a staunch follower of Erdogan’s personality cult (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). 

At the heart of this recreation of Turkish identity, people and homeland gender has taken center stage. This makes the case of Turkey quite important to understand gender populism.  Given the heated debates around the 2023 general elections, various hues of gender populism have emerged which this article will discuss along with the party’s past recorded use of the phenomenon.  

The first signs of AKP’s populism were via the means of gender populism in 2007 when the party was contesting to secure its second term. To maintain its support, AKP positioned itself directly in a clash with the Kemalist principles of modernization which had previously barred women from wearing headscarves in public offices and educational institutions (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). At that time, AKP predominantly represented Muslims and the future (possible) first lady wore a headscarf which was unprecedented in the republic’s history. AKP presented itself as a defender of women’s rights as it sought to reverse the headscarf ban. This led to a mass protest by the Kemalist elite especially on social media which was dubbed “a digital coup” and in-person rallies “Republican Rallies.”  

To counter this Kemalist resistance, AKP did not simply make this a matter of right of choice for women, but it constructed the issue as a Manichean binary between Islam and the West, Western ideals being imposed by the Kemalists (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). This overtly ‘human rights issue’ was, at its core, the beginning of the populist Islamist ideology of AKP. Erdogan in 2013 led the country to abolish this ban as he announced in the parliament, “We have now abolished an archaic provision which was against the spirit of the republic. It’s a step toward normalization.” 

But this “normalization” is towards Islamist ideas of gender roles. For instance, during the 2010s on several occasions, the then Prime Minster and now President Erdogan expressed gender conservatism. In 2014 during an international summit,he said, “You cannot make men and women equal,” […] That is against creation. Their natures are different. Their dispositions are different.” He also accused feminists of not understanding the idea of “motherhood.” He also openly said Muslim families should not use birth control, “I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants.” He added, “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great Prophet said, we will go this way. Over the years he has glorified the role of mothers and demonized the idea of a non-traditional women, for example, he said, “A woman above all else is a mother.” He has also called women “half workers” and labelled childfree women “deficient.” His exact quote for this instance reads, “A woman who rejects motherhood, who refrains from being around the house, however successful her working life is deficient, is incomplete.” 

In 2021, during a meeting with various officials from the EU, Erdogan ignored the head of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen, and left her standing while all the other men were seated on chairs. In a later comment, von der Leyen noted, “I am the first woman to be President of the European Commission. I am the President of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like a commission president, but I was not […] Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs, but then again, I did not see any women in these pictures either.” 

These are not just simple comments by an elected official, they have real-life consequences for women in the country. Since AKP’s ascend to power, the rights of women have greatly suffered in the country compared to its European counterparts e.g., an increase in violence against women. Due to the growing discontent in 2015, following the murder of a woman, a social media and in-person campaign featured men wearing skirts to show solidarity with women who were being brutally attacked for wearing “Western attire” or were increasingly being subjected to violence without any state efforts to curb them. 

A direct policy consequence of this growing disregard for women’s safety is the historical pull out of the country from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. The Convention was designed to ensure pathways of seeking safety in case of domestic abuse by providing not only legal support but ensured victims safe places to reside when feeling from violent partners. AKP and its ultra-conservative alliance argued that this convention was hurting family values or was a hurdle in traditional ways of family law even though the murder rate of Turkish women rose from 66 women being killed in 2002 to 953 in 2009 which is an increase of 1400 percent. Erdogan and his party scraped this crucial form of protection by simply saying, “We will not leave room for a handful of deviants who try to turn the debate into a tool of hostility to our values.”

In addition to Erdogan, over the years various AKP officials and allies have issued highly contested remarks about women and their rights. For instance, in 2014 former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly on national television advised women not to “laugh in public.” Arınç has also told Nursel Aydoğan, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to be quiet because she is a woman. He said, “Madam be quiet. You, as a woman, be quiet.” On a state-sponsored television program, Omer Tugrul Inancer an Islamist religious leader, said that it is a shame for pregnant women to be out in public. Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister, Nureddin Nebati, while discussing economic factors clearly stated that women should not or are not “suited” for “heavy work.” He defended his stance by saying, “Women are the crown of our heads, the medicine for our hearts. We do not care about some extremist and ideological discourses. Our values, this civilization and beliefs already order us to be sensitive about women. We just need to understand it. The enrolment rate in school for girls increased to 97 percent. The number of female MPs increased from 4.4 percent to 17.5 percent [under the AKP government]. The participation rate of women in the workforce has increased.” 

After over a decade of gender populism, women from within the party and from other opposition parties are open to sexist attacks within the parliament and also by citizens on online social media platforms. Arrest patterns since the 2016 mysterious coup attempt show that women along with dependent children and babies in thousands have been arbitrarily arrested because of their alleged involvement with what the government terms “terrorist” organizations. Women face a greater brunt of state-sponsored violence because they are harassed during “strip searches,” separated from their dependent children and infants, and at times are arrested because of the alleged crime of their husbands. 

Religious Turks was marching in an anti-LGBT demonstration in Şanlıurfa, Turkey in October 2022. Hundreds of people attended the protest with signs that read “Protect your family and your generation.” Photo: Hakan Yalçın.

Another gender dimension of AKP’s populism has been directed at the LGBTQI+ community. As early as 2013 the group has been repeatedly targeted by the party. In the country, there are no laws that criminalize or legalize the community but in recent years with the growth of Islamist views, state-led persecution and hate crime towards the community has escalated.

One of the most prominent waves of opposition to AKP took place in 2013 in the form of the Gezi Park protests. The protests began as a peaceful denunciation of AKP’s gentrification of public spaces in Istanbul and soon turned into a violent spectacle due to police brutality. After the death and injury of several peaceful protests and mass rioting, the Gezi Park protest fiasco was framed by the AKP as a ‘foreign’ attempt to curtail Turkey’s progress (Yilmaz, 2021).  

It was after the mass protests and their violent aftermath that AKP directly targeted the LGBTQI+ community by barring the Pride Parade under the guise of security. Since 2015, the state has actively tried to stop the parade but rather than security concerns the parade is framed as a ‘threat’ to Turkish culture and society as well as a foreign agenda to ‘mislead the youth.’ Nearly a decade after Erdogan has blamed ‘deviant’ youth for causing unrest and rioting over the years. In 2021 during a mass protest at a higher educational institute, the President Erdogan again blamed the group and said, “You are not the LGBT youth [to his followers], not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.” In 2022 he hinted at introducing legislation to criminalize LGBTQI+ communities in Turkey and he justified these actions by saying, “Can a strong family have anything to do with LGBT? No, it cannot. … We need a strong family. … Let’s protect our nation together against the onslaughts of deviant and perverted currents.” 

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu called the LGBTQI+ community a “propaganda of a terrorist organization” in 2022. He also added, “There is cultural terrorism. The propaganda of a terrorist organization tries to make people forget their values, their religion, unity, parental love, and family loyalty. It is exactly Europe’s policy, exactly America’s policy of divide and rule.” He added, “What will happen? They will bring LGBT to Turkey. Forgive me, men will marry men, women will marry women. It just suits (the main opposition CHP leader Kemal) Kilicdaroglu. What a shame. It lacks all values. They are trying to create a policy based on an understanding that will alter almost all our values so that they can win the hearts of the Europeans and the West.”

The 2023 elections have sadly become a showcase of homophobia by AKP. Various AKP electoral candidates along with Erdogan have weaponized gender populism. They have attacked and accused the opposition coalition as supporters of ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘Western agendas’ because they supported the LGBTQI+ community and at times AKP has attacked the opposition by labelling them as ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ to construct them as weak, alien and loyal to the West. 

In 2023, during a re-election campaign Erdogan said, “In this nation, the foundations of the family are stable. LGBT will not emerge in this country.” He went on to say, “Stand up straight, like a man: that is how our families are.” He contrasted this by publicly accusing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the alliance opposition leader, of being gay, as Erdogan at a rally said, “We know that Mr Kemal is an LGBT person.” 

During the period the LGBTQI+ community has been demonized as a threat to “family” and a ploy of the West, which according to AKP, represents “deviant structures” and stands as a symbol of a “virus of heresy.” At the same time, political opposition is not only targeted for its support for the community, but they are emasculated by being labelled as part of the community. 


While the 2023 presidential and general elections hold political significance for all those in Turkey, for women and the LGBTQI+ community these elections directly impact their future existence. This wave of Islamist reengineering of society, under the AKP regime, has changed the country’s social fabric. Women are increasingly left without state support when at their most vulnerable while top ministers and officials are openly issuing sexist comments and remarks. The Turkish idea of womanhood has undergone extensive change. Motherhood, virtue, and modesty are new parameters where those who oppose these traditional confines are constantly demonized, marginalized, or demonized. Similarly, the LGBTQI+ community, which enjoyed a relatively obscure existence, has become the front of a cultural battle. Their existence is seen as a direct existential threat positioned by the West to the Turkish ‘traditional’ values. 

These are not merely instances of the state being simply sexist or sexism being displayed by elected parliamentarians. It is rather a marriage between populism and gender conservatism which has fed AKP’s civilizational populism. It is a layer of populism that helps in the creation of “the others” and “the people” while remaining a useful tool to discredit the political opposition also called “the elite.” It also gives a threatening face to the ‘crises’ under the guise of being a threat to family and the way of life, making it quite simple and relatable for many. In essence, gender populism also feeds off the sentiments of the masses, it is not purely created by populists. 

The election results do matter, but what is worrying is the toll gender populism has taken on the Turkish social fabric. Its attempts to redefine gender roles have been met with opposition but at the same time have found a home in various quarters of society. This means a possible clash of narratives and further polarization in society which emanates gender-based hatred towards women and LBGTQI+ individuals might continue. 


Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.



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The Impact of Civilizational Populism on Foreign and Transnational Policies: The Turkish Case


Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2023). “The Impact of Civilizational Populism on Foreign and Transnational Policies: The Turkish Case.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 5, 2023.



The Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist and populist political party led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has increasingly incorporated what we term civilizational populism into its discourse. This article examines civilizational populism in AKP discourse, especially in the discourse of its leader Erdoğan, and finds it to be an important element of AKP discourse and ideology. The article also examines the impact of civilizational populism on Turkish domestic and foreign policy under AKP rule. The article finds that the AKP has increasingly, and especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, construe opposition between the Turkish ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms, and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other. Furthermore, the article finds that the AKP’s domestic and foreign policies reflect its civilizational populist division of Turkish society insofar as the party is attempting to raise a ‘pious generation’ that supports its Islamizing of Turkey society, and its neo-Ottoman imperialism in the Middle East. Finally, the paper discusses how the AKP’s civilizational populism has become a transnational phenomenon due to the party’s ability to produce successful televisions shows that reflect its anti-Western worldview and justify its neo-Ottoman imperialism in the Middle East. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson


Scholars observing the AKP transformation describe the party as increasingly defining Turkish identity not in a narrowly nationalist or ethnonationalist manner, but in religious and civilizational terms (Hazir, 2022; Uzer, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022). Language describing a clash between civilizations in AKP discourse is not difficult to find. Turkey, according to Erdoğan, is “heir” to Islamic civilization, and has called upon the people of his nation to rejuvenate Islamic culture, claiming that this duty not merely of government but also general “society, the business world, NGOs, universities, people of arts and culture” (Erdoğan, 2017). 

This paper argues that a civilizational turn in Turkish politics analogous to the civilizational turn in European and American populism identified by Brubaker (2017) Haynes (2017; 2020), Morieson (2023) and Yilmaz and Morieson (2022; 2023a) has taken place. Brubaker, for example, describes how right-wing populist parties in north-western Europe are increasingly constructing “the opposition between self and other not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker, 2017: 1191) (i.e. between the Western and Judeo-Christian ‘self’ and the Islamic ‘other’). Haynes (2017; 2020) finds that a similar present in populist discourses in the United States, particularly within the Trump Administration and its supporters. According to Yilmaz and Morieson (2022) “In the 21st century, across a variety of democratic political contexts, ‘civilizationism,’ a political discourse that uses a largely religious classification of peoples in order to define national identity, has become a significant component of populist political rhetoric.” Yilmaz and Morieson (2022), drawing on Mudde’s definition of populism (2004), argue that “civilizational populism” is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people. Is there, then, evidence of this ‘civilizational populism’ in Turkey, an in the form of the AKP led government? Moreover, what role does civilizationism play in AKP discourse? And is civilizationism evident in Turkish domestic and foreign policy?

Civilizational Populism in Turkish Domestic Politics 

What is civilizationism? Civilizationism, or the belief that the world can be divided into several civilizations, has been present in political discourse across the world for decades. For example, Samuel P. Huntington’s (2000) famously argued that post-Cold War politics is defined by civilizational identities, and that the nations of the world can be divided into several clashing civilizations, often possessing at their core a single dominant state (i.e. the United States is the ‘core state’ of Western civilization). This interpretation of post-Cold War politics arguably influenced American foreign policy throughout the 2000s. Populists in the West also adopted ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives. Across a number of European nations and in the United States, civilizationism entered populist discourse as a reaction to the rise of Islamist terrorism in the 2000s, “large-scale immigration from the non-West to the West resulting in rapid demographic change, the deindustrialization of much of Europe and North America” (Morieson, 2023), and the dominance of “a new cultural politics” that “emerged around difference and identity” and thrived within the neoliberal environment despite its origins on the political left (Robertson and Nestore, 2022).

A civilizational turn in populist discourse was first observed by sociologist Rogers Brubaker. Brubaker (2017: 1193) identified a number of right-wing populist parties in North-Western Europe who, he wrote, “reconceptualized in civilizational terms …the boundaries of belonging and the semantics of self and other.” The ultimate causes behind the civilizational turn, according to Brubaker (2017), is the growing presence of Islam in Europe and the perception among many Europeans that Muslims pose a threat to Europe’s Western and Christian identity. Other scholars have identified a similar civilizational turn occurring in populist political discourse in many other Western nations, including in the United States, Hungary, and Italy (Haynes, 2020), Germany, France, Greece (Kaya and Tecmen, 2019) and Poland (Morieson, 2023). Other scholars now find that civilizationism has entered populist discourse beyond the West (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Shukri, 2023; Gamage, 2023; Saleem, 2023) including in many Muslim majority democracies and hybrid regimes (Hadiz, 2018; Mietzner, 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2022). 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supporters listening to his speech in Balıkesir, Turkey on April 6,l 2017. Photo: Thomas Koch.


In the Muslim majority world, Turkey is home to an influential and powerful populist party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which incorporates civilizationism into their discourse in several important ways. In this section we first discuss the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s ideology – Erdoğanism – and its populist division of society into three groups: ‘the pure people,’ ‘corrupt elites’ and ‘dangerous others,’ and attempt at constructing a new desired citizen and ‘pious generation. Following this we describe the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s domestic politics, and the manner in which the AKP frame its repression and authoritarianism as a defense not merely of the Turkish nation, but of Islamic civilization and the ummah. Finally, we discuss the role of civilizationism in the AKP’s foreign policy discourse and discuss how the party justifies its military intervention in Syria and its attempts to increase cooperation between majority Sunni Muslim nations as part of its responsibility as the core state of Islamic civilization and heir to the Ottoman Empire.

Civilizationism is an important element of Erdoğanism, manifested in its glorification of the Ottoman Empire, and its claim that Turkey is “the legitimate inheritor of Ottoman legacies and power, the leader of the Islamic world, and the protector of Palestine (Hintz, 2018: 37, 113). Erdoğanism combines Turkish nationalism with Islamism and neo-Ottomanism, and the result is an eclectic ideology that asserts that majority Muslim nations ought to come together for mutual protection against an aggressive West and as a civilizational bloc led by Turkey. The belief that a ‘clash of civilizations’ is occurring between the West and Islam is a critical component in the AKP’s construction of ingroups and outgroups in Turkey. The AKP portrays itself as defending pious Turkish Sunni Muslims (or the ummah) from their enemies: morally corrupt secular ‘elites’ and dangerous non-Muslim ‘others’ alleged to be working with Western powers to dismember Turkey and destroy Islam. 

The AKP has attempted to create the distinction between ‘the people’ (ummah) and their enemies (non-ummah), and to portray themselves are protectors of ummah, in a number of ways. The mysterious coup attempt in 2016 provided the AKP with an opportunity to ‘prove’ that its opponents were dangerous enemies of the Turkish people and Islam. The Gülenists were subsequently branded terrorists by the government, which claimed that they were working with Western powers to destroy Turkish democracy (Taş, 2018). Shortly after the coup attempt Erdoğan remarked “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside …unfortunately the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters” (Reuters, 2016). Erdoğan furthermore claimed that the coup was a “gift from God” that allowed him to expose all of Islam’s and the Turkish people’s enemies within the country (Şik, 2016; Ak, 2022). Thus, the AKP portrayed the coup as part of a wider conflict between Islam and its enemies: Gülenists and other “perverters of Islam” within Turkey and the West. Furthermore, Erdoğan portrayed himself as acting in the name of God to protect the Turkish people from their enemies.

The AKP’s response to the coup included attempts to re-educate the Turkish people and to raise an Islamist ‘pious generation.’ This ‘pious generation’ is taught the key ideas of Erdoğanism, including the glorification of the Ottoman Empire and conservative Islamic values in Islamized schools and state-controlled mosques. Erdoğan and his party also encourages Turkish Sunni Muslims to perceive “non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Lazes, …and non-Muslims, such as Christians and Jews” as enemies (Yilmaz, 2021: 58). These minority groups are now part of the AKP’s ‘unwanted citizens,’ a group consisting of people involved in the Gülen movement, journalists critical of the government, human rights activists, and opposition political parties critical of AKP regime (Yilmaz, 2021; 2018). Furthermore, these groups and individuals are increasingly portrayed by the AKP as “traitors” who do the bidding of foreign “dark forces” trying to “destabilize Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2018). This categorization is intended to help Erdoğan both a sense of a common community in the ummah, but also fear and hatred of non-ummah, including Kemalist ‘elites’ who wish to return to the secular nationalism of the 20th century, and non-Sunni Muslim minorities, Gülenists, and non-ethnic Turks. 

Another important element in the AKP’s attempt to raise a ‘pious generation’ and revive Islamic civilization has been its use of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Under AKP rule, Diyanet has been transformed from a body created by Kemalists to encourage Turkish Muslims to accept, through a programme of social engineering involving control of the texts of Friday sermons, fatwas, and education, the new Turkish Republic and its secular constitution, to an instrument of the AKP itself. The AKP, throughout its period in power, increasingly staffed Diyanet with AKP supporters (Yilmaz, 2018; Aşlamacı & Kaymakcan, 2017). As this occurred, Diyanet used its authority to support the AKP’s political agenda and feed the growing cult around Erdoğan, who the body portrayed in sermons as a pious Muslim who was liberating Turkish Muslims from secular authoritarianism. 

The AKP installed two successive pro-AKP and staunchly Islamist Diyanet leaders, Ali Erbaş and Mehmet Görmez, who sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism and help the AKP construct a ‘pious generation.’ Görmez sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism and demonize the West by declaring that Muslims should not enjoin ‘Western’ traditions such as celebrating the New Year. According to Görmez, “No one can say it is right for the pagan culture and consumption culture, converging with hedonism, to create a corrupt culture over our children and teens, especially if all those are joined by things like Christmas, pine tree, gambling, drinking, lottery and such forth, that will move a human away from himself and his God to create a tradition that will corrupt the society” (Korkmaz, 2015). 

In making such statements Diyanet officials are not merely attempting to prevent Muslims from partaking in Christian rituals but attempting to frame both Christian religious rituals and entirely secular activities such as celebrating New Year’s Eve and playing the lottery as corrupt and inherently Western, and therefore as a foreign threat to the Turkish people. Erbaş, Görmez’s successor, in his inaugural address called for Turkish people to “work harder than ever to deliver the eternal and everlasting messages of the God and his Prophet to the humanity which flounder into the clamp of secularism and valuelessness” (Parlamento Haber, 2017). Later, during a sermon upon the converting of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, Erbaş held a sword and spoke from the minbar in imitation of an Ottoman Sultan, and in what was likely a calculated affront to Christians and Turkish secularists (Hurriyet, 2020). 

Friday sermons in Diyanet mosques are also used to perpetuate Erdoğanism, especially insofar as the sermons portray Turkish Sunni Muslims as part of a global ummah forever threatened by non-Muslim enemies, and by Gülenists and others false Muslims who pervert the religion, and whose corrupt activities are ultimately the product of the West attempting to create conflict among Muslims. These efforts have become increasingly pronounced since the 2016 attempted coup (Yilmaz et al., 2021). These sermons, which name no specific enemy, imply that the West is attacking the Muslim ummah, and attempting to destroy Turkey “the flagbearer of the Muslim Ummah” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Even when Muslims attack other Muslims Diyanet – reflecting AKP ideology – frames the conflict as the result of Western attempts to divide the ummah. For example, a Friday sermon delivered on October 4, 2014, claimed that “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e. the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence and hostility” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Each of these sermons re-enforce Erdoğanism insofar as they portray the world as riven by clashing civilizations in which the Muslim ummah is forever threatened by the West, and in which Turkey –the core state within Islamic civilization and heir to the Ottoman Empire – is the particular target of Western attacks. Equally, the sermons portray conflicts between Muslims as the product of Western attempts to weaken Islam, rather than the result of political, economic, and cultural differences between Muslims themselves. 

Erdoğan has also attempted to portray the damage caused his party’s unorthodox economic strategies, which have brought the nation close to economic ruin in the 2020s, as part of an economic war waged on Turkey by the West, which he claimed was attempting to bring “Turkey and its people to their knees” (Voice of America, 2018). Contrasting the pious Muslim values supposedly shared by his followers with Western consumerism, and in an effort to rally support for his economic policies following the dramatic decline of the value of the Turkish lira, Erdoğan told the Turkish people to remember that “if they [the West] have their dollars, we have our people, our God” (CNBC, 2018). 

Civilizational Populism in Turkish Foreign Policy Discourse

Ethnic Uighurs are seen during a protest against China near the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on December 15, 2019. Photo: Shutterstock.


The civilizational turn in Turkish populism is present in AKP rhetoric on Turkey’s foreign relations, where it has two purposes. First, the AKP often presents foreign conflicts to their domestic audience as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West, in which Turkey is targeted by Western powers because it is the leading nation within Islamic civilization. However, the AKP is also driven by a mixture of Erdoğanism and national self-interest, and its foreign policy is the product of the intertwining of Turkey’s new identity as their heir to the Ottoman Empire are protector of the ummah, and the government’s desire to increase Turkey’s power. 

As a result of the Islamist belief in the decline of American power “the AKP had desired to pursue a more ‘independent’ foreign policy as a regional hegemonic power and demoted its foreign policy with the West to transactionalism” (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020). Thus, since its rule was threatened by the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the 2016 failed coup, the AKP has attempted to maintain transactional relationships with Western countries while also using a discourse in which the West is portrayed “as the ‘other’ of Turkey” (Kaliber & Kaliber, 2019). 

By “invoking the glories of the Ottoman period, the AKP has engaged in a (neo)imperial project” (Taş, 2022a) which has caused Turkey to become deeply invested in Middle East geopolitics. Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East is “unmatched” in the Republic’s history, and “along with the country’s drift away from its Western orientation in the 2010s” demonstrates how the AKP’s ideological divergence from Kemalism has altered both its domestic and international politics” (Taş, 2022a). Following the Arab Spring, and in an attempt to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire and reinvigorate “Pax Ottomana,” Turkey “pursued a maximalist, regional-hegemony-seeking” foreign policy in the Middle East, calculating “that the authoritarian regimes in the region would sooner or later crumble through the Arab uprisings, paving the way for the rise of Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood) offshoots across the region (Taş, 2022b). Yet when the Muslim Brotherhood and its associated political parties were banned or marginalized following the failure of democracy across the much of the Middle East and the re-establishing of secular authoritarianism, the AKP continued its neo-Ottoman foreign policy with an even “more hawkish tone after the siege of Kobani in 2015 and, more pronouncedly, the 2016 abortive coup” (Taş, 2022b).

Erdoğan’s ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric is echoed in Diyanet’s Friday sermons. For example, a sermon delivered on December 9, 2016, argued “Because of the ambitions and power struggles of the hegemonic powers in our region, the Islamic lands are falling into ruins” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). A Friday sermon delivered in January 2018 asked listeners the rhetorical question: “Isn’t the greed of global powers the cause of the bloodshed and suffering in our geography?” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another argued that “What happened in the Islamic geography today clearly shows the point reached by those who try to destroy our women, children, lives, values, history, culture, and civilization. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, the unity of the ummah, the honor of the nation, the respect of the country has been trampled” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). Although the foreign nations attacking Muslims are not mentioned, these remarks suggest that Western powers are conspiring to divide Muslims and destroy their civilization, and in this way they echo anti-Western remarks by Erdoğan and other AKP officials. Diyanet sermons have also encouraged the faithful to believe that Turkey is the defender of all people who suffer oppression. On October 11, 2019, for example, a sermon told argued that “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who has nobody by their side and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (Yilmaz et al., 2021). 

Civilizationism within the AKP’s Transnational Populism

Turkish TV series Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV).

Yilmaz and Demir (2022) suggest the AKP is attempting to win support from and perpetuate Erdoğanism within the 3.1 million strong Turkish diaspora and the wider and far larger European Muslim population. Like early secular nationalist Turkish governments, they argue, the AKP “have also tried to use the Turkish diaspora to foster a positive image of Turkey while trying to prevent undesired ideologies spreading among them and thus influencing Turkey’s domestic politics” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). However, rather than promoting secular nationalism within the diaspora, the AKP has “reengineered the position of ideologically proximate conservative-nationalist diaspora Turks, as loyal allies that would help Turkey extend its legitimacy and soft power beyond its borders and to produce a new state-centric identity” (Arkilic, 2021: 591). Furthermore, the party “has tried to mobilize its loyal diaspora against the dissidents abroad. It has also invested heavily in its diaspora policies and has created new institutions to reach out to the transnational diasporic spaces occupied by Turkish-speaking communities, especially in the West, and to proactively engage with the Turkish diaspora” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022).

Yilmaz and Demir (2022) contend that “This policy shift has also been reflected in the state’s diaspora definition,” in which “YTB (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı – Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities), in its Strategic Plan 2019–2023, included members of non-Turkish Muslim communities who are not from Turkey in its diaspora definition as ‘related communities’” (YTB, 2019: 7). Yenigun and Adar (2019) argue that the AKP is using a variety of institutional tools, including Diyanet and Turkish media, to ‘validate Turkey [as the] leader of the Muslim world and patron of the Muslim masses worldwide.’ These include “formal institutions such as the Diyanet’s overseas organization (DITIB, Diyanet İşleri Türk İslam Birliği – The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs) and its mosques,” but also Turkish embassies and consulates and other “state institutions that work with Turks abroad and related communities (YTB, Yunus Emre Enstitusu, Maarif, and others).”

The AKP also operates or funds “country-specific organizations operating in Western Europe” including the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) and the Turken Foundation which “was established jointly by the pro-AKP TÜRGEV (Türkiye Gençlik ve Eğitime Hizmet Vakfı – the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation),” and also the “Ensar Foundation in the US and the UK operate for the purpose of transnational populism” (Yimaz and Demir, 2022). Diyanet plays a vital role transnationally in reproducing the AKP’s ideology. An analysis of Diyanet Friday sermons delivered under AKP rule concludes that “the interests of Turkey are weaved in by using identity-creating elements” (Carol and Hofheinz, 2022: 18), suggesting that promoting Sunni Muslim unity under Turkish leadership is a key element of Diyanet’s messaging. Indeed, in order to spread the message of Sunni Muslim unity under Turkish leadership, “Diyanet has organized conferences and visits and sent out delegations to disseminate the Islamist civilizational populist narrative of the AKP regime” including “the Diyanet organized the First World Muslim Minorities’ Summit in Istanbul” in April 2018 (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). 

Finally, the AKP has also sought to perpetuate Erdoğanism, and especially the notions that Islam is under attack by the West, and that globally Muslims must unite under Turkish leadership on the grounds that Turkey is the heir to the glorious Ottoman Empire, to a worldwide audience of Muslims via television. (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). Pan-Islamism and the glorification of the Ottoman Empire have become important elements in popular Turkish television programs during AKP rule over Turkey (Özçetin, 2019a: 247). According to Çetin (2014: 2477), the AKP politicizes television dramas by using as a means of: “(1) dealing with contemporary political issues, (2) settling accounts with the past, (3) neo-Ottomanism, and (4) piety and the Islamic worldview.” Turkish dramas, then, “disseminate the AKP’s narrative of historical and contemporary in-groups and out-groups” both within Turkey across the Muslim world (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022; Çevik, 2020: 177). For example, Dirilis (Resurrection) and Payitaht (Abdulhamid, the Last Sultan are historical dramas that attempt, at times, to find parallels between the Ottoman past, in which the Ottoman Empire came into conflict with the Christian West and other non-Muslim civilizations, and Turkey’s present (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). 

Within these dramas, Muslims are portrayed as threatened by “Crusaders, the Templars, the Mongols, Byzantium and their contemporary successors such as the EU, the US and the Jewish lobby” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). At the same time, the dramas frequently present opponents of Islamism and the AKP within Turkey as “collaborators and pawns of these external enemies” (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022; Özçetin, 2019b: 947). Throughout these series Muslims who act as guardians of Islamic lands from Christians and Jews – and against false Muslims who secretly collaborate with Muslims’ enemies – are portrayed as heroes (Yilmaz and Demir, 2022). Within these television dramas, as in Diyanet sermons to a domestic and transnational audience, the AKP – to borrow a phrase from Brubaker (2017) – construes opposition between ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms, and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other.


The AKP’s civilizational populism impacts Turkish domestic and foreign policy in a variety of ways. Domestically, the AKP have attempted to perpetuate their rule by raising a ‘pious generation’ who glorify the Ottoman Empire and wish to rejuvenate Islamic civilization within Turkey. As part of this project, the AKP has not only altered the school and university curriculum to reflect their ideology, but has greatly enlarged the budget, scope, and direction of Diyanet to encourage Turkish Sunni Muslims to believe that the AKP is protecting them from internal and external enemies who hate Islam and wish to destroy Turkey. The AKP and Diyanet portray Western culture and Christianity as corrupting influences on Turkish Muslims and admonish believers to cease celebrating so-called Christian holidays including New Year’s Eve. Equally, the AKP has sought to encourage Turkish Muslims to think of themselves as part of a great Islamic civilization through their opening of a museum glorifying Islamic civilizations and through his call for everyone in Turkey to “make efforts to build and revive the civilization while thinking over the culture” (Erdoğan, 2017).

The AKP’s civilizational populist turn has also impacted Turkish foreign policy. Erdoğanism, as an ideology, defines Turkey’s role in the world as leader of the ummah and successor to the Ottoman Empire, and possessing many of its responsibilities to the ummah. As a result, AKP ruled Turkey plays an especially active role in Middle East geopolitics. After the Arab Spring, the Turkey began to attempt to achieve the AKP’s goal of “reinvigorating Pax Ottomana” and “pursued a maximalist, regional-hegemony-seeking” foreign policy, believing that American power was growing weak and that the secular authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were at an end. However, Turkish foreign policy is also constrained by the region’s other powers, and by the world’s sole superpower, the United States. Thus, rather than acting to consistently protect the ummah from non-Muslim aggression, Turkey has instead sought alliances with European nations such as Hungary, remained in NATO despite Turkey being the only non-Western, non-Christian member of the alliance, and re-established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Equally, Erdoğan has remained quiet on China’s abuse of Muslims in Xinjiang, despite evidence of Muslim Uighurs being interned by the hundreds of thousands in concentration camps where they face secular ‘re-education.’ This suggests that the AKP and Erdoğan remain pragmatic actors and will not act rashly to protect Muslims’ interests when the result might be contrary to Turkey’s national interest. Finally, the AKP is spreading its ideology within both the Turkish diaspora and the wider European Muslim population via a variety of organizations and through popular television series. In this way, the party attempts to move its ideology beyond Turkey’s borders, in an effort to convince diaspora Turks and Sunni Muslims in Europe to perceive themselves to be part of an aggrieved ummah facing constant attacks from the West, and Erdoğan and the AKP as the leaders of the ummah. 

The AKP has increasingly, and especially in reaction to the Gezi Park protests and 2016 attempted coup, construed opposition between ‘self’ and the ‘other’ not in primarily nationalist terms, but in civilizational terms and as a conflict between the Ottoman-Islamic ‘self’ and ‘Western’ other. Furthermore, the party has achieved repeated electoral success by portraying its opponents as anti-Muslim and therefore illegitimate and morally bad and portraying the party’s mistakes as the result of foreign anti-Muslim forces intervening in Turkish politics and attempting to destroy Turkey’s economy and society. Finally, despite the AKP’s success in framing Turkey’s economic and social problems as the result of Western attempts to oppress Muslims globally and prevent Turkey from flourishing, Turkey’s increasingly poor economic performance has caused the party to lose support. The May 14, 2023, general elections will therefore test the AKP’s ability to perpetuate its rule via an anti-Western populist narrative.

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.



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COMTOG Report on “The Light in the Darkness”

Tusor, Anita.(2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘The Light in the Darkness’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 12, 2023.


Video games can be used to counter extremist ideologies by highlighting the dangers of hate speech and promoting tolerance and understanding. This can be done through educational games and by incorporating messages of inclusivity and diversity into the gameplay and storyline. Holocaust education through video games make people to learn about the events of the Holocaust more interactively and engagingly. It allows players to experience the stories of individuals who lived through the Holocaust, better understand its impact on the world and make connections to present-day political events, and understand what democracy is and why it is crucial to protect it.

By Anita Tusor*


Luc Bernard’s The Light in the Darkness is a narrative-driven, educational game about the Holocaust written by a survivor of the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. It tells the story of a working-class immigrant family of Polish Jews in Vichy France during World War II from before the occupation up until the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. The game conveys the painful, tragic, real-life stories of Jews in vivid detail and helps to keep them alive in the hearts and minds of generations to come by teaching their stories in ways that will help others learn and help humanity avoid repeating its worst mistakes. Directed by Bernard, The Light in the Darkness can not only educate future generations but also inspire game developers to create video games about one of the darkest periods in human history.

The player experiences every step the government took to oppress Jews in France from different characters’ points of view and sees how NPCs (side characters) react differently towards the player before and during the occupation. The gameplay is a mix of adventure games without any choices affecting the story. This artistic decision is to simulate the lack of control that Jews experienced during the Holocaust and to remain faithful to the truth. 

Although this free-to-play game is still in early access, and an educational mode will be only available at full launch for use in classrooms, if someone would prefer to watch the story instead of playing it, Luc Bernard has provided a full playthrough on his Youtube channel.

With the recent rise in antisemitism and people forgetting that the Holocaust was not that long ago, the game highlights the importance of collective historical memory of mass tragedies and shows what hate can lead to. Since our Never Again Initiative’s goal is to establish a dialogue between past and present by investing in tools that raise our collective historical consciousness, the present report discusses video games as well as other tools like the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s projects and Dr Alexis Lerner’s Jews by the Number course and her work with Liberation75.

This report aims to demonstrate how video games such as The Light in the Darkness can effectively raise awareness of historical events and promote the preservation of historical memory. The semi-structured interviews conducted for this purpose had the following key themes: (1) youth radicalisation and its platforms, (2) contemporary antisemitism, (3) online hate and gaming, (4) historical memory of the Holocaust; and asked crucial questions as (1) how we can learn from the dynamics of past conflicts which are casting light on threats to democracy today, and (2) what tools do we have to educate the youth about the Holocaust and to counter online hate.

As part of the The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) Project’s goal to bring together different but complementary voices of the field, four individuals were interviewed about the game, The Light in the Darkness and its adjacent subject matters. Luc Bernard is the Co-Founder & Executive Director for Voices of the Forgotten and the director, creative and art director of the game, The Light in the Darkness. Étienne Quintal and Daniel Collen are researchers from the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, who are responsible for the Online Hate Research and Education Project (OHREP) and Hatepedia project of the Centre. Finally, Dr Alexis M. Lerner is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy who has surveyed North American youth about the Holocaust and antisemitism.

Gaming and the Holocaust

Over 15 years, Luc Bernard has developed an original idea to create a video game that would teach the history of the Holocaust to a new generation who cannot listen to the testimonies of a decreasing number of survivors. Knowing the story of his maternal grandmother, who looked after a kindertransport child, he had detailed knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust. He also had a growing concern that the impact of the Holocaust was being progressively minimised and education about it increasingly ignored. Therefore the objective of his video game is to get the audience curious to learn about the Holocaust again and to remember those who are forever lost. The Light in the Darkness can be considered an educational and remembrance project targeting mainly teenagers and anyone who would like to play it. 

WWII games are often criticised for being solely created for entertainment purposes and not being accurate. The representation of war and the way most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games, is commonly criticised and has been mentioned by all four interviewees. Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies that came from historical conflict. In this way, these games contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period. 

Bernard’s game does not shy away from the subject matter and shows the player all the steps leading up to the deportation of French Jews. It starts with the failed Évian Conference, which addressed the problem of the high number of Jewish refugees who wished to flee the Third Reich and ends with the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, when the ‘unwanted’ refugees of France (foreign Jewish families) were mass arrested and later deported by the French police in a joint operation between German and collaborating French administrators. Not many know today that it was not the Nazis who rounded up the Jews (including 4000 children) in Paris but the French Vichy-government.

Regarding the artistic direction of the game, the director elaborates that animated film is viewed as the best format to tell stories and has a worldwide appeal, as studios like Pixar have proved it. Bernard has decided to go with the French comic book style since France has already published comic books on the Holocaust, confirming that animation/comics are able to transfer serious subjects. “If it were too realistic, it would discourage certain audiences, but animation has a more general allure and can convey emotions very well.” At the same time, the game shows real-life footage, photos and survivor’s testimonies to bring back some of the ‘realisticness’ of the subject, making it all the more powerful.

Accuracy and realism were key for this game. One interesting choice made by Bernard is that the game intentionally does not contain choice-based mechanics to simulate a “lack of control” feeling to emulate the powerless experience during the Holocaust. Instead, the game is more about the story and witnessing these dark times through the eyes of the family to humanise the victims and show the kind and heroic actions of those around them. In the game, you play as multiple characters, and you get to experience hatred and antisemitism (even as a child); you are fully immersed. There are a couple of choices, but the story won’t change “as everything was a bit of luck,” as explained by Bernard.

The music adapts well to the mood of the game and follows its narrative but carefully retains overly emotional tones to make the right impact. At the round-up scene, we can hear a dark-toned version of the French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’ which represents how the government has betrayed its own citizens by deporting them and sending them to their death; a small detail which can make a great impact on the audience.

In the interview, Bernard states, “In a way, every country is responsible for the Holocaust who refused to help and accept refugees, including the United States” (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.). The European population went along with the Holocaust. “This is left out of history; you don’t see it in movies or games. In the US and France, people think they did well during WWII.” Although the French government has apologised, and French cinema, in general, tackled the subject with respect, the far-right still does not admit the responsibility of Vichy France in the Holocaust (Sayer, 2018; Mcdonell, 2017). This affects Holocaust survivors on a financial level, too, as they cannot claim compensation and live in poor socioeconomic conditions. Furthermore, there is a danger that Holocaust education might change if the far-right comes to power in France.

“When you study the Holocaust, you cannot be anti-refugees.”

The project’s intention has changed over time as rising antisemitism and white supremacy in the US has gained public attention. Educating people about the damage hatred can do becomes one of the focus points. Luc Bernard was determined to show where racism can lead us. 

He warns that (1) Holocaust distortion is more dangerous than denial as it’s more accepted, even amplified through the use of digital tools, and (2) when there are no more survivors left, it’s likely going to be a turning point in the rise of Holocaust denial – something which we are already experiencing. In fact, in the US, Holocaust denial is “constitutionally protected free speech” because of the First Amendment, and there is no law against it or criminalisation of the promotion of Nazi ideology or any form of hate speech (Germain, 2022). Therefore recent years’ statistics showing a growing number of young people having distorted or deficient views of the Holocaust is not surprising (Claims Conference, 2020;Pew Research Center, 2020). To address this problem, Bernard proposes to be at more cultural and social places (Twitter, TikTok) to reach wider audiences as many first encounters the Holocaust because of pop cultures like movies or social platforms like TikTok. 

In addition, most people in the world are not living close to Holocaust museums or archives, so getting them curious about the topic in the first place is the main goal of the game. People living in underprivileged areas from lower socio-economic strata can benefit the most from projects like The Light in the Darkness. In rural or urban classrooms, the game can be easily introduced as it is quite short (1-1.5h of playtime) and/or students can play it on their own as well as it has minimal requirements to run. This is reflected in Dr Lerner’s experience as well. The Assistant Professor believes that video games can address tragic events like the Holocaust; and games with historical settings and ethical considerations strictly taken into account can function as effective educational tools. 

All four of Lerner’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors; learning about the Shoah at home was natural for her, and many Jewish people acquire their knowledge about it through their family members first, as well as later in schools. “However, in Canada and in the majority of US states, genocide education is not yet a curricular requirement. While some teachers introduce Holocaust education through history or literature, many students first encounter the Holocaust and other state-sanctioned and systematic mass murders through non-traditional sources, such as comic books, social media accounts, video games, and television shows,” (Lerner, 2021: 9). Her research with Liberation75, a Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism found that 40 percent of students learnt about the Holocaust outside of the classroom on social media and  11percent of these students reported to have met with the Holocaust through video games. It is important to highlight that the age of responders was, on average, between 11 and 14 because one of the issues is that those video game players, the target demographic, are usually looking for entertainment, violence and aggression, so using video games to teach about tolerance can be complicated. Further questions we must ask are: In these games, are you saving a group of people, and if you do so, what does it imply? Are students seeking these games out on their own or is it part of the curriculum?

Lerner used video games in the classroom in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which was found to be effective for college students who thoroughly enjoyed it. In the world of Holocaust education, new learning modalities are essential and opening for newer, more robust approaches -including video games- around the topic is much needed. 

Both Daniel Collen and Étienne Quintal, researchers of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, had positive views on Luc Bernard’s game: “I am excited for The Light in the Darkness most importantly because it does not just address the setting in a very meaningful way, not just as an atmosphere but as a main theme. And focuses on story over action and knowledge over entertainment, making it a much more accessible game to recommend. A game which is free and runs on school laptops is the best choice since top-end hardware and the latest generation of consoles are not widely available.”

The development of the game, The Light in the Darkness, relied on extensive background research, including consulting survivors and double and triple-checking every detail. Although big Holocaust organisations were careful to support projects like this given the sensitivity of the subject and some museums remained hard to approach, the Shoah Foundation (which helps similar projects) allowed access to its archives along with Yad Vashem, which provided extensive support for the game’s creator. “We had access to things on Yad Vashem’s website, and also on the US Holocaust website, but no official help. However, people at the US Holocaust Museum have given me advice not officially,” Bernard said. 

Just the development of the story took one year. To balance between personal stories and larger history, multiple survivors’ stories were melted into one story. Bernard has chosen to depict a Polish immigrant family who had integrated well into French society by the end of the 1930s, a profile describing the majority of Jewish families who were rounded up in 1942. Despite their integration effort, they were never entirely accepted; they remained the ‘others’ and the first to be deported. This experience of ‘otherness’ connects the history of the Holocaust with contemporary populism, which has achieved electoral success in the last decade in Europe while running on a platform of exclusionary policies. Actors like Orban in Hungary, National Rally in France, and Fratelli d’Italia in Italy utilise divisionary rhetoric, and their intolerant ideologies have been successful in inciting conflict between different cleavages in society while the memory of Europe’s authoritarian history remain fairly distant and passive as we forget the efforts required to keep authoritarianism and fascism at bay.

Stories like The Light in the Darkness are important because, as Bernard reminds us: 

“We never talk about the lives of Jews during WWII; we only talk about their death. We need to humanise them.”

Video games are an excellent platform for this. It has a multi-generational appeal; it can change the world as these games can reach anyone. They are interactive, live on longer and are more timeless and immersive than television. On the other hand, the gaming industry has a huge responsibility as the biggest media industry of our times. Yet subject matters like the Holocaust are being ignored, and “this ignorance is the worst on the field,” according to Luc Bernard, who believes one possible explanation behind this is the fact that in the United States, Jews are not considered traditional minorities, the Holocaust is viewed as a white on white crime and the American audience does not understand racism, particularly European racism the same way as the European one.

Collen and Quintal also see the educational potential of serious games but highlight that movies and books are more commonly understood to be useful for preserving collective historical memory. Video games are less reliable platforms as they require a computer and internet connection which is not available for everyone. Moreover, some video games do not have cutscenes, and sometimes players skip these cinematic scenes, which makes the experience much more specific for the individual than watching a movie and can affect the level of immersion. Nevertheless, as time goes on, video games are likely to be adopted for historical memory projects due to their uncovered potential and broad appeal. All together, serious historical games might be more attractive for students than traditional classroom materials. 

The Neuberger Centre has also studied the depiction of concentration camps in video games, especially in the Wolfenstein: The New Order game. Although WWII games, in general, rarely address the Holocaust, as an anti-fascist game, Wolfenstein at least tried to touch on the subject by including a segment inside a forced labour camp. According to Collen, “depictions of labour camps are not achievable for video games in a way it is really resonating with people emotionally and teaches them historically.” However, indie games (games created by independent developers) are on the rise and with these games comes a new market. As teachers and parents realise that there is a gap in knowledge and awareness about Holocaust education, and many of them have not caught up with new technologies, the need for games boosting society’s collective historical memory is on the rise.

Online Hate, Radicalization and Modern Antisemitism

Gaming has many positive economic, health, social, and psychological benefits that are often overlooked (ADL, 2019;Schrier, 2019). For adults, video games can provide a unique medium familiar and engaging to them and “can be used to deliver [empathy] training at scale” (Kral et al., 2018: 1). While for younger demographics, prosocial and interpersonal video game play was related to greater social satisfaction, peer support, and prosocial behaviour, which led to increased well-being, whereas violent video game play was related to increased school bullying, and lower social satisfaction and prosociality. Secure attachment was related to increased empathic concerns and higher levels of prosocial and interpersonal interactions in video game use (Shosani et al., 2021). Online gaming has also been particularly beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic when people have had to endure prolonged periods of social isolation. Players have reported positive experiences such as forming new friendships, feeling a sense of belonging to various communities, discovering new interests, and gaining insights about themselves (ADL, 2019). Nevertheless, new challenges continue to arise as technology advances, and associated risks must be considered. These include online hate, radicalisation and contemporary antisemitism.

The intersection between gaming and violent extremism has become a growing concern in recent years. As stated in the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report by Europol (2021: 90), there has been a growing trend of using video games, gaming platforms and forums, as well as gamer channels to disseminate right-wing extremist propaganda and to spread their ideologies (Suraj, 2021). One of the most notorious examples is using online gaming platforms to recruit young people into far-right extremist groups. In these instances, individuals are drawn into gaming groups that espouse extremist views and then gradually radicalised through exposure to hate speech, propaganda, and violent imagery. 

Another concern is the use of video games by extremist groups to train their members in combat and tactical skills. Some far-right groups have created custom-built games that simulate real-life combat situations, which are then used to train members in tactics and weapons handling, while certain radical groups created exclusively antisemitic games. Luc Bernard pointed out that some of the white supremacist terrorist attacks in the US and New Zealand are examples of successful radicalisation through the latter tactic, while other commercially successful games themselves have been criticised for promoting extremist views or perpetuating harmful stereotypes. For example, games that allow players to assume the roles of terrorists or play out scenarios involving extremist violence can be seen as normalising these behaviours and beliefs. 

Lastly, gaming adjacent online platforms are also utilised by violent far-right extremists and white nationalist movements. This is why Luc Bernard has refused to release his game on Steam, where white supremacists could openly express their ideology, call for violence and deny the Holocaust for a long time with little repercussions (see in detail Vaux et el.,2021). Daniel Collen explained, “Steam has a problem (see in detail ADL, 2020), and it is a quite difficult problem to address as in gaming history Steam – up until recently – was ‘too big to fail.’ Gamers might have a bit more influence to protect themselves from hate speech over newer platforms like Epic. But we will see how it develops over the next 5-10 years because, sadly, improvements are happening slowly, especially on large platforms.”

In addition, gaming adjacent places (like Steam, Twitch or Discord) are not only used by hate movements but “a lot of their propaganda, a lot of their memes are even discussing or referencing games.” Therefore we see that video games are important to these groups and play a significant function in how these movements operate. Gaming and memes are considered mediums of ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ compared to traditional propaganda, and they offer a low threshold to interact with extremist ideas (Fielitz & Ahmed, 2021). Quintal and Collen have studied internet memes in detail and created a Guide to Online Hate, which helps to identify the symbols, terms, characters, and themes that often appear in the expression of hatred, online and off.

Hateful memes are found on all major social media platforms. Quintal talked about the Hatepedia project and its importance in detail: “Memes are considered the form of modern political pamphlets. People might not understand its political aspect and function, just find it funny.” They have conducted on and offline research since there are a lot of cross-references between both. The Neuberger Centre also organised public workshops to promote critical thought and teach people about digital literacy, the features of social media, and how memes can promote online hate. “We also point out how to differentiate between what we see and what it truly means. Hateful memes use a veil of humour to hide their intention and meaning,” stressed Quintal.

Regarding misinformation and hateful propaganda, one side is dedicated to protecting the truth; the other does not. We need to be able to learn about the tactics of hate movements. Recognise how they use humour to cover up their wrongful and harmful messages. Humour can have a political function, and the other side has a vested interest in you not being aware of their intentions in order to convince you of ‘their truth.’

The gaming community is vulnerable. It’s a ‘home’ for far-right radicals; they effectively mobilised for a long time, relying on online communities more than offline ones. Collen explained the evolution of this persuasive strategy in detail: “Since the beginning of developing video games, these games were mainly promoted for young men. So when the modern men’s movement formed its identity along with different hate activists, video games were a natural choice to rally around. Young male gamers were given the narrative that women players were taking away the identity which was theirs, and it worked. For example, Pac-Man was designed to increase the market size for video games by appealing to women in particular, drawing them into the game rooms that had in some ways seemed forbidding to female players or to opposite sex couples. Misogyny was at the root of a lot of things they believed in, and it acted as a catalyst for other types of hate.”

Regarding harassment, what we see on gaming platforms, there is a bullying aspect behind it to keep those spaces exclusive to men. Hate groups tend to attack subcultural spaces to grow their ranks. “That is true for a number of different communities we have studied,” reveals Quintal. Gaming spaces tend to be majority male, but the issue goes beyond identity; hate movements and hate-promoting individuals are not only focusing on gaming places but adjacent, surrounding places as well. 

They understand the rituals of gamers. For instance, gamers like to listen to music or stream videos while they are playing and many of the very popular -if not the most popular- hate speakers are using streaming platforms or are making music videos to get into the ears of players who are vulnerable as they are focusing on entertainment more than critical thought. As the Online Hate Research & Education Project manager, Quintal, explains: “People will be listening to this information not realising the political nature of the speeches, just internalising it in a way that completely disarms you to the message and its intent.”

Fighting Hate Effectively

In response to these concerns, some gaming companies have taken steps to combat extremism on their platforms. Theseinclude measures such as banning users who engage in hate speech or promoting positive values such as diversity and inclusivity within their games. Nonetheless, the intersection between extremism and gaming remains a complex issue that requires continued attention and vigilance.

Both Collen and Quintal emphasised the importance of culturally appropriate solutions since hate groups know how to reach out to the youth; they understand their “social bubbles and language.” At the same time, there exists a disconnection in language and culture between teachers, parents and children which helps far-right hate groups to reach younger gamers. This generates a cultural need to create educational video games that are attractive to younger generations. 

Overlap between gaming communities and hate movements is targeting the former’s demographic. They are increasingly successful at reaching younger and younger audiences. Quintal talked with teachers who brought up the issue during workshops. But “we have hard evidence/data in the Canadian context as well; young people are disproportionately represented in hate crime statistics. This is very concerning. We need to reach young people in real life and in virtual places they inhabit. And instead of listening to racist hate speeches on Twitch or DLive, we should make sure that players are listening to something more healthy, appropriate, enriching, and fun. Games should also be not only enjoyable to play but accurate and informational,” stresses the researcher of the Centre. 

Among the solutions, both Dr Lerner and the Neuberger Centre’s researchers agreed that there are new lesson plans and simply listening to the feedback of teachers and students. The Canadian Holocaust Centre’s first Evergreen presentation addressed the relationship between TikTok and the Holocaust and how content creators discuss and educate about the Holocaust – whether they are accurate or aim to misinform. This included hate propaganda and videos made for youth which tried to normalise holocaust denial as part of a radicalisation process and misinformation which was made for other reasons. TikTok was chosen because of requests from teachers and parents received by the Centre. They had fears and anxieties about how their students and children navigate on the platform. Moreover, teachers were also asking about video games and platforms like Roblox, which allows users to create their own games, making gaming and social media the two most burning concerns for online hate, radicalisation and modern antisemitism.

Quintal also mentioned that “Fighting hate in the context of video games is not necessarily a classroom task, but, when it comes to gaming culture and anti-racism in general, I think these are things we should not just react to. We should not only teach children how to fight hate, fascism and racism, but we should teach about fighting hate as a thing we should all be doing. What hate movements did quite well, unfortunately, is to treat games like Roblox and Minecraft, which are not necessarily racist or hateful, as their playground where they ‘can live their fascist fantasies’ and create alternative societies where holocaust denial is accepted.” The researcher stresses that the opposite should be done as well. “We should encourage children to be anti-fascist in the classroom but outside of it as well in the online space. The values thought should be displayed outside of the classroom.” This gamification in the classroom, however, is challenging as a lot of the games are not appropriate for educational purposes. “We have to be anti-hate even when hate is not in front of us because that is how we build a society which is better for everyone in the long run.”

Dr Lerner talked about the relationship between holocaust education and intolerance. Due to her work with Liberation75, she helped to develop a survey to monitor holocaust education and examine what students knew ahead of a two-day virtual conference called Education Days, organised by Liberation75, based on their secondary school curricula and after this training. Her other course, Jews by the Numbers, enabled students from all fields to utilise data science in Jewish Studies. Students learned to build datasets from archival material from the USC Visual History Archive and form their own arguments based on data. “Historical archives were traditionally used to help people make sense of what happened to the Jews. Today it is not necessarily the archives we rely on as there was a major turning point: now we think more in numbers, using data science.” Dr Lerner paid special attention to the ethics of doing research. “Jews were reduced to numbers, dressed off their humanity. We must avoid making this mistake.” This problem at the crossroads of data science, statistics and Jewish studies was also addressed in her paper, which helps develop statistics courses for students in non-quantitative fields (Lerner & Gelman, 2022).

The emergence of antisemitism stems from the continuous reinforcement of prejudiced beliefs, unfounded speculations, and inaccurate knowledge regarding both conventional and contemporary forms of hostility. It is of utmost importance to distinguish between the diverse expressions of antisemitism and adapt the strategy to address each one appropriately (Bjola & Manor, 2020). In the media, there are lots of catchy headlines; Lerner mentions Unz’s (2012) allegations that Jews are overrepresented at Ivy League universities in The American Conservative, but when we look into the numbers behind these headlines examining its legitimacy using data science and accurate statistics, the titles turn out to be a harmful clickbaits which are designed to provoke an emotional response from the reader, such as fear, outrage, anxiety or prejudice, often at the expense of accuracy or truthfulness.

People react to emotional experiences, and this is why until now, survivor’s testimonies have been effective. But as survivors are passing away and no longer alive, it is a major question of how we continue to build that emotional connection and reaction to the subject. One of the resolutions is what the Shoah Foundation did through their iWitness program, “which is kind of a version of a video game” since you can interact with it and ask questions. Dr Lerner suggested that this program could be developed into a video game integrating the Holocaust. Another idea is to discuss the topic in depth: it cannot be just a one-off classroom discussion. “We need to see the connection between the Holocaust and the rally-around-the-flag effect and decaying democracy, heightened polarisation and how regimes like the Third Reich come about. It has to be integrated into the curriculum and used as a teaching tool to educate about other subjects, e.g. what it means to be a democracy.”


With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. The discussions in the interviews of the present report have demonstrated how serious educational games such as The Light in the Darkness can be relevant in the context of Collective Historical Memory, promote it and stimulate empathetic emotions and interest in players. Moreover, the report connected issues such as online youth radicalisation, contemporary antisemitism, online hate groups, memes and gaming to the historical memory of the Holocaust, showcasing how relevant the Shoah is for the upcoming generations.

Holocaust education through video games allows people to learn about the events of the Holocaust more interactively and engagingly. It allows players to experience the stories of individuals who lived through the Holocaust, better understand its impact on the world and make connections to present-day political events, and understand what democracy is and why it is crucial to protect it. Arguments about why using video games as an educational tool for the Holocaust can be controversial were addressed during the interviews, as mainstream games may trivialise the events that took place. However, when designed and executed properly, like The Light in the Darkness, these games can be an effective way to educate people about the Holocaust and its impact on society. 

Video games can be used to counter extremist ideologies by highlighting the dangers of hate speech and promoting tolerance and understanding. This can be done through educational games and by incorporating messages of inclusivity and diversity into the gameplay and storyline. Overall, video games can be a powerful tool in the fight against antisemitism when designed with an educative purpose, well-researched, and ethics are considered. Video games can help create a more empathic, progressive and compassionate society by promoting education, representation, inclusivity, and community engagement.

ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.


(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.



— (n.d.) “How Many Jewish Refugees Came to the United States from 1933-1945?” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

— (2019). “Free to Play? Hate, Harassment and Positive Social Experiences in Online Games.”Anti-Defamation League(ADL). July 18, 2019. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

— (2020). “This is Not a Game: How Steam Harbors Extremists.” Anti-Defamation League (ADL). April 29, 2020. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

— (2020). “What Americans Know About the Holocaust.” Pew Research Center. January 22. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

— (2020). First-Ever 50-State Survey On Holocaust Knowledge Of American Millennials And Gen Z Reveals Shocking Results. Claims Conference. September 16, 2020. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

— (2021). “European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2021 (TESAT).” Europol. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Bjola, Corneliu & Manor, Ilan. ( 92020. “Combating Online Hate Speech and Anti-Semitism.” DigDiploROx Working Paper No 4.

Fielitz, Maik & Ahmed, Reem. (2021). “It’s not funny anymore. Far-right extremists’ use of humour.” Radicalisation Awareness Network. on April 7, 2023).

Germain, Ellen. (2022). “Why Confronting Holocaust Distortion and Denial Matters.” U.S. Department of State. January 31, 2022. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Kral, Tammi R.A.; Stodola, Diane E.; Birn, Rasmus M. et al. (2008). “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial.” NPJ Science Learn 3 (13): 1-10.

Lerner, Alexis M. (2021). “2021 Survey of North American Teens on the Holocaust and Antisemitism.” Liberation 75. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Lerner, Alexis M. & Galeman, Andrew (2022). “Build Your Own Statistics Course for Students in a Non-Quantitative Field.” Journal of Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Mcdonell, Hugh. (2017). “The ‘grey zone’ of Vichy France: Understanding Marine Le Pen’s latest comments on the Second World War.” LSE blog. April 12, 2017. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Mulhall, Joe. (eds.) (2021). “Antisemitism in the Digital Age: Online antisemitic hate, Holocaust denial, Conspiracy ideologies and Terrorism in Europe.” Amadeu Antonio Foundation

Sayer, Zach. (2018). “Court upholds fine against Jean-Marie Le Pen for Holocaust remark.” Politico. March 27, 2018. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Shoshani, Anat; Braverman, Shahar & Meirow, Galya. (2021). “Video Games and Close Relations: Attachment and Empathy as Predictors of Children’s and Adolescents’ Video Game Social Play and Socio-Emotional Functioning.” Computers in Human Behavior 114 (January): 106578.

Schrier, Karen. (2019). “Designing Ourselves: Identity, Bias, Empathy, and Game Design.” AntiDefamation League. June 18, 2019. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Suraj, Lakhani. (2021). “Video games and (Violent) Extremism: An exploration of the current landscape, trends, and threats.” Radicalisation Awereness Network. (accessed on April 7, 2023).

Unz, Ron. (2012). “The myth of American meritocracy.” The American Conservative, 28.

Vaux, Pierre; Gallagher, Aoife; O’Connor, Ciaran; Thomas, Elise & Davey, Jacob. (2021). “The Extreme Right on Discord.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue. (accessed on April 7, 2023).


COMTOG Report on ‘Bury Me My Love’

Galland, Martin. (2023). “COMTOG Report on ‘Bury Me My Love’.” Never Again Initiative. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 3, 2023.


Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015.

By Martin Galland*


Bury Me My Love is a game about distance. It is a game which places front and center relationships between humans, how they interact, and what drives people to take a leap into the unknown and risk their lives in the hope of reaching safety. The eponymous phrase, ‘Bury Me My Love,’ is an Arabic expression to take care roughly meant to signify, “don’t think about dying before I do.” The game is inspired by but does not tell, the real-life story of Dana, a Syrian woman having left her country in September 2015. Both the journalist who wrote the article on Dana’s story and Dana herself working as part of the game’s editorial team (Le Monde, 2015).

Developed by The Pixel Hunt in 2015, Bury Me My Love is a branching text-based narrative based around the story of people on the move during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Its main characters are Nour and Majd, a young couple from Homs, Syria. The player takes on the role of Majd, having stayed behind in Syria to take care of his mother and grandfather, while his partner, Nour, goes on to attempt the journey to Germany in order to receive refugee status there. Much of the game is based on three core mechanics which impact the outcomes of choices made throughout Nour’s journey: Time; the itinerary; and finally, Nour’s own variables of morale, budget, her relationship with Majd, and what she has or does not have on her person in key moments. With this expansive and branching narrative, there are 50 different locations to go through and nineteen possible endings for Nour’s journey, with widely divergent outcomes. 

As part of the COMTOG project’s goal to bring together different but complementary voices of the field, three individuals were interviewed about the game Bury Me My Love and its subject matter. These included Florent Maurin, President of The Pixel Hunt and one of the game’s lead developers; Dr Angus Mol, a Games Studies scholar from Leiden University; and Tigs Louis-Puttick, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator for Samos Volunteers, a non-profit organisation supporting refugees and asylum-seekers on Samos. Keeping in mind the intent of the project – which was to “showcase the educational and social potential of video games relaying the realities of conflict” – I first formalised my approach towards Bury Me My Love and the interviews I conducted around two main themes. The first and most important which informed most of my questions as the interviews were conducted was the difference between authenticity and accuracy of the experience of people on the move. The second was the necessary emphasis on empathy towards people on the move and their experiences and the engagement of players in those narratives.

The discussion around authenticity is the one that is most discussed academically and theoretically in Games Studies. In this burgeoning field, scholars note that creative designers (big studios, indie developers, social media influencers) “design their versions of the past, purely or mostly, as entertainment products, where the focus is on making money through designing fun.” This becomes a three-fold issue when such actors “(1) have not traditionally been and are frequently still not taken seriously in their role in shaping our collective understanding of the past, (2) are not primarily (or at all) concerned with teaching about the past and (3), more and more, the connection many people have with the past is partly or even primarily shaped by video games, including how they learn or teach others about it” (Boom et al., 2020: 28-29). These challenges highlight the importance of bridging the gap between stakeholders beyond those in the video game-making sphere and including activists on the ground and researchers alike.

Authenticity vs Accuracy

In the interview with Dr Mol, an important theme which emerged from the conversation was the difference between authenticity and accuracy when it comes to portraying the experience of people on the move. For Dr Mol, what really interests players is this notion of an ‘authentic past’ more so than focusing on the accuracy of the past portrayed. Bury Me My Love strongly engages with the player’s sense of empathy, providing an experience that emulates the challenges, thoughts, and problems people face on the move. Of course, this experience can only go so far in accurately visualising these very issues which thousands of people faced and still face today. Part of the game’s intention, as explained by Maurin, was to replicate this sense of anxiety and distance through the text-message thread between Nour and Majd, with the player often left with information streaming in progressively, missing context until it is later explained, and no answers from Nour until a given time when she can respond back.  

In order to best showcase the sort of journey people on the move can undertake, the game developers went through numerous documentations on the subject: including testimonies, articles, news reports, and documentaries, and themselves interviewed people in refugee camps in France. Maurin comments that the first four months of production of the game were solely dedicated to documenting, reading, and watching different sources. This was in order to get a firmer idea of the game and story they wished to tell and to account for the different paths people on the move take to get to Europe. For Dr Mol, this sort of emphasis on research and fact-checking is something that has become more prevalent and noticeable in the industry in the past ten or so years. It also reflects a shift in academia with regard to video games. As Dr Mol attests, the ways to study video games and the medium, in general, have greatly advanced and evolved in recent years, and while there is still some level of disconnect between developers and academics, there is an increasing number of projects which try to bring both sides together in the research and development of games. 

One crucially important aspect brought up by Louis-Puttick is the game’s inability to truly replicate the sense of time that people on the move go experience. It is true that comparatively speaking, Nour’s (and Dana’s) journey is very short compared to the length of time now spent by people on the move in camps – where months and years go by with little to no change in their status. While the game does include both a path which discusses this major issue in the refugee camp, and an ending which does see Nour stuck in a camp indefinitely, the player does not experience these in real-time, and so this crucial part of the experience of people on the move cannot be passed on. However, the game does not shy away from portraying some of the intense hardships faced by people on the move during their journeys. Whether it is the cold realisation that death is always a possibility, or being antagonised, chased, and beaten up by a neo-Nazi group in Greece, or the lack of care shown by European authorities as they either condemn people to a camp or deport them back to Syria. 

Ultimately, what is missing the most from this report with regard to the authenticity of Bury Me My Love is a voice from people on the move and their testimony, and whether they feel as though the game reflects enough of their experience. While the game was inspired by and involved the editorial input of a person on the move, this project would have benefited far more from involving someone with the direct experience of travelling to Europe under difficult conditions. 

Empathy and Engagement

When it comes to a subject matter such as the one on the experiences of people on the move, it is difficult to discuss Bury Me My Love in terms of ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment.’ Few would describe the journey undertaken by people on the move, even vicariously, as being ‘fun,’ and it was not at all in the intention of the developers to portray it as such. For Maurin, it was difficult to balance the stark tone that the game takes with the way people would cope with this experience through levity and humour. With several thousand lines of dialogue, much of the game’s focus was on the story and the characters and the ways in which they interact with the world around them as events unfold. From personal experience with the game, both main characters were truly well-fleshed-out and felt real in their emotions, thoughts, and worries for one another. Those who meet Nour along her journey also reflect a multitude of people and how they would act towards her plight.

It is difficult to assume how different players will engage with Bury Me My Love, as the game’s several endings make it so gameplay experience can wildly vary from person to person. Criticism of the game can be found on the game’s Steam (an online game distribution platform) page, where one particular comment lists that they found the game far too upbeat and treated with too much levity with regard to the subject material. When addressing feedback of that nature, Maurin comments that, while the commenter appears to be hyperbolising, it is entirely possible that they experienced the trek replicating Dana’s journey, which was comparatively easier and with fewer issues than other possible paths – which is an outlier. Dr Mol comments on this notion of making a game engaging enough for players to want to play it while respecting the subject matter enough to consider and internalise the message. In my experience with Bury Me My Love, the game is ‘entertaining’ in the sense that it does engage you with the challenges presented in front of Nour; it is also equally heart-breaking in the lowest lows of the story and does leave one with more awareness of the life of people on the move. 

Ultimately, the game is not one meant to be entertaining in the literal sense of the term. It provides a story, a human story, one that is anchored in reality, and pushes the player to learn about the hardships faced by people on the move. News cycles and mass information have been noted to desensitise individuals of distant (and not so distant) occurrences and Bury Me My Love works to try to fight that antipathy by providing a deeply empathetic experience about the Syrian Refugee Crisis and inspiring the player to do something with the feelings they feel and receive after having played the game.


In closing the interview, all three interviewees were asked whether or not they felt video games could contribute to helping address common memory of certain conflict-centric events, such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Maurin puts it best that the game and its themes of adversity, displacement, struggle, and distance, are still very much relevant today. There are still important migrant flows of people fleeing conflict and disaster, and as such, the game Bury Me My Love remains, unfortunately, relevant and contemporary. This sentiment is echoed by Dr Mol and Louis-Puttick, who both see potential in video games, though with addendums on the intent and the goals set out by the developers in making such charged games. 

This set of COMTOG interviews was designed to bring together different stakeholders and actors who have only to gain by interacting with each other. This project also placed front and center the importance of discussing and grasping the notion of ‘authenticity’ and how games can provide empathetic perspectives on still ongoing challenges for countless people. Maurin addresses it by humorously commenting on the ‘God-complex’ of developers and that their total control over the world in which the game is placed is misleading. If there was an attempt by developers to portray a very pointed perspective (in terms of values, convictions, etc.), it would feel very forced and could be spotted immediately by players. What developers like Maurin try to do is portray a collection of stories which are sourced from documentation; they do not provide a moral or a lesson but the tools for the players to internalise the experiences they have vicariously lived through and hopefully do something about it. 

ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.


(*) Martin Galland is a Master’s graduate in both European Policy and History, from the University of Amsterdam and KU Leuven, after having done a Bachelor in International Studies at Leiden University. His most recent thesis analysed the presence of (banal) nationalistic discourses present in a historical theme park in France, and how a specific vision of a French identity emerges from the theme park’s various shows. His research interests lie in the banal nationalism of contemporary populist movements, and the strengthening of right-wing populist discourse in interpretations of the past and history.



— (2015). “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp.” Le Monde. December 18, 2015. (accessed on March 2, 2023).

Boom, K. H. J.; Ariese, C. E.; van den Hout, B.; Mol, A. A. A. and Politopoulos, A. (2020). “Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past.” In: Hageneuer, S. (ed.) Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology (12–13 October 2018). Pp. 27–44. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: License: CC-BY 4.0.

Politopoulos, A.; Mol, A. A. A.; Boom, K. H. J. & Ariese, C. E. (2019). “History is our playground”: action and authenticity in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Advances In Archaeological Practice, 7(3), 317-323. doi:10.1017/aap.2019.30.  


ECPS Report: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-Wing Populism in Europe

Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia (Eds). (2023). The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels.



Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets, and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused nearly eight million Ukrainian civilians to flee the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. Thus, the war in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world.

Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe. The economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics. It has also affected public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.

This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime, and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.

In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context and the impact it may have had on them. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.

By looking first at the “supply side” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, the report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. The report has also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.

Meanwhile, turning to the “demand side” of populism, the report’s country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The report has also sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.

While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and the Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.

In sum, by looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across 23 European countries, this cross-national analysis provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defense).




Please see the report as divided into 23 country chapters below.



By Gilles Ivaldi & Emilia Zankina


The case of the Austrian Radical Right and Russia during the war in Ukraine

By Reinhard Heinisch & Diana Hofmann


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

By Teun Pauwels


Pro-Russia or anti-Russia: political dilemmas and dynamics in Bulgaria in the context of the war in Ukraine

By Emilia Zankina


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

By Vassilis Petsinis


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

By Vlastimil Havlík & Alena Kluknavská


The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe: The case of Denmark

By Susi Meret


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

By Mari-Liis Jakobson & Andres Kasekamp


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

By Yannick Lahti & Emilia Palonen


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

By Gilles Ivaldi


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

By Kai Arzheimer


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

By Zoltán Ádám


Italy’s multiple populisms facing the Russo-Ukrainian war

By Cecilia Biancalana


The Russia-Ukraine War and right-wing populism in Latvia

By Daunis Auers


The populist Far Right in Lithuania during Russia’s war against Ukraine

By Jogilė Ulinskaitė & Rosita Garškaitė-Antonowicz


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

By Liv Sunnercrantz


The Russia-Ukraine War and the Far Right in Portugal: Minimal impacts on the rising populist Chega party

By Afonso Biscaia & Susana Salgado


Romanian populism and transnational political mobilization

By Sorina Soare


Balancing on a pin: Serbian populists, the European Union and Russia

By Dušan Spasojević


The Russia–Ukraine War and the radicalization of political discourse in Slovakia

By Peter Učeň


The Spanish Radical Right under the shadow of the invasion of Ukraine

By Hugo Marcos-Marne


The repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the populist Radical Right in Sweden

By Niklas Bolin


Disagreement among populists in the Netherlands: The diverging rhetorical and policy positions of Dutch populist Radical Right parties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

By Chris Nijhuis, Bertjan Verbeek & Andrej Zaslove


A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey

By Emre Erdoğan



By Gilles Ivaldi & Emilia Zankina



Members and supporters of nationalist organizations participate in Lukovmarch procession - a march in commemoration of general Hristo Lukov in Sofia, Bulgaria on February 16, 2019.

Pro-Russia or anti-Russia: Political dilemmas and dynamics in Bulgaria in the context of the war in Ukraine

Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Pro-Russia or anti-Russia: Political dilemmas and dynamics in Bulgaria in the context of the war in 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.


Download Report on Bulgaria


The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. Bulgaria shares historically strong ties with Russia, and at least a third, if not half, of Bulgarians harbour deeply rooted pro-Russian sentiments. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, sent humanitarian and military aid to Kyiv, and accepted Ukrainian refugees, key political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed such decisions. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, Bulgaria’s incumbent president, and at least one populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war. In the process, Revival and its leaders have managed to capitalize on the nationalist vote and pro-Russian attitudes in the country, almost entirely wiping out voter support for the more established Far Right parties.

Keywords: populism; Radical Right; Russia–Ukraine war; Bulgarian politics; pro-Russian attitudes; Revival.



By Emilia Zankina* Temple University


The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. In the past two years, the country has struggled with political uncertainty and turmoil, having undergone four parliamentary elections (a fifth is scheduled for April 2023) and having been governed for the most part by caretaker governments.

Against the backdrop of domestic political instability, the war in Ukraine has required Bulgarian politicians and the public to address several complex questions at once, including whether Bulgaria should join the EU sanctions and whether it ought to send aid to Ukraine, and if so, what type: humanitarian, financial or military? Bulgarians have also had to decide whether or not to accept Ukrainian refugees and, if so, what type of support it should provide and for how long. In addition, the issue of energy security—and specifically whether the country ought to continue to count predominantly on Gazprom deliveries or diversify its supply of gas—has been front and centre. Finally, the government has had to grapple with the issue of Russian propaganda and intelligence activity in the country.

Such questions pose serious dilemmas in a country where 58% of the population reported positive attitudes towards Russia and Putin before the start of the war (see table 4). Given such public attitudes and the country’s seemingly endemic political instability, it is hardly surprising that public opinion and government policy on the war has been inconsistent and frequently changing or that political parties have been quick to exploit public sentiment to gain electoral advantage. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, dispatched humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, and accepted Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, prominent political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed these decisions and sought to leverage them for political gain. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, which ruled the country from 1946 until 1989, Rumen Radev, Bulgaria’s president, and the country’s newest populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war (Lavchiev, 2022).

The remainder of the report proceeds as follows. Next, I offer a brief outline of the political context in which the current debate on Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the war in Ukraine has taken place in Bulgaria. I then detail the constellation of populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria and their various reactions to the war. Finally, I detail public attitudes towards the conflict and how such attitudes appear to have shifted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The Russian “brothers” and their defenders

Bulgaria has a long history of close ties with Russia, and Russians are generally seen and referred to as “brothers” and “liberators”. Following five centuries of Ottoman rule, in the late nineteenth century, a period of national renewal started, which led to a series of national uprisings against the Ottomans, culminating in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. This paved the way to Bulgarian independence, which was finally achieved in 1908. During the war of 1877–78, Bulgarian and Russian soldiers fought side by side, and to this day, Bulgarians commemorate the Russian soldiers who fell as “liberators” in that conflict. In addition to Russia’s role in Bulgaria’s independence, ethnic Bulgarians and Russians share a common cultural heritage, including a Slavic language and origin and Orthodox Christian religion.

Following the war, a provisional administration was instituted under Russian control, whose aim was to assist Bulgaria in establishing state structures and institutions. While most Bulgarians saw Russia as a liberating force, not all political circles were happy with Russian control over the provisional administration. Consequently, ever since independence, a division has remained in Bulgarian society and among political elites between Russophiles and Russophobes. The latter have sought to distance Bulgaria from the Russian sphere of influence and orient the country toward Western Europe, including by soliciting two kings from European noble families to rule the country. In contrast, Russophiles have sought to nurture and preserve Bulgaria’s ties with Russia and defend Russian interests in the country.

The end of the Second World War brought a Soviet-imposed communist regime. In a few short years, Bulgaria instituted a Soviet-type regime of one-party rule, a fusion of party and state, a centrally planned economy, nationalization of property, collectivization of agriculture, control over cultural and social life, and repression (Zankina, 2022). Throughout nearly five decades of communist rule during the Cold War, Bulgaria was the most trusted Soviet ally. In fact, the country’s communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, twice requested that Bulgaria be admitted as the sixteenth republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Crampton, 2007). Communist rule and Zhivkov’s doctrine of “total integration” with the Soviet Union (Kolrova & Dimitrov, 1996, p. 179) ensured that anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments in the country were uprooted through whatever means necessary.

With the collapse of communism, Bulgaria once again faced the question of relations with Russia and whether it should remain close to Moscow or seek integration with the West. Although today Bulgaria is a member of both NATO and the European Union, such a trajectory was by no means assured when looking at political dynamics in the 1990s. As the successor of the vehemently pro-Soviet communist party, the BSP remained a bulwark of Russian interests in the country, strongly opposing a pro-Western geostrategic orientation and arguing for a dual foreign policy that would preserve close ties with Russia while also developing relations with the West. Leading four coalition governments since 1990 and being a junior coalition partner in one, the BSP has always sought to protect Russian interests in Bulgaria.

Although the BSP’s support has significantly decreased in the past two years (see table 1), for a long time, the BSP attracted at least a third of the votes, representing many of those pro-Russian voters. While today the BSP has embraced EU and NATO membership, it opposes every decision that might hurt Russian interests in the country, from advocating Russian technology for a controversial nuclear power plant and opposing the purchase of American weapons to protesting the NATO bases in the country and protecting reliance on Russian gas. As part of the short-lived coalition government of Kiril Petkov (December 2021–August 2022), the BSP did not support the government’s position and the vote in Parliament on joining the EU sanctions against Russia. It also refused to join the condemnation of the referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk and their illegal incorporation into the Russian Federation, and it has avidly opposed sending military aid to Ukraine. Instead, the BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova has been advocating for an end to the sanctions against Russia, as in her view, they hurt primarily Bulgarian and European households, and reinstating Gazprom gas deliveries (Veleva, 2022b).

In addition to the BSP, the Bulgarian president Roumen Radev – an independent candidate, general and former military pilot who was first elected to the post in 2016 with the BSP’s backing – has frequently taken a pro-Russian position, including declaring that Crimea is legitimately a Russian territory (Lavchiev, 2022). Within the context of the war in Ukraine, Radev has vehemently argued that sending military aid to Ukraine would effectively involve Bulgaria in the war. He has sided with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán in arguing that more weapons would only prolong the conflict and that what is needed instead is negotiation and diplomacy. In the absence of a stable government for most of the past two years, Radev has already appointed several caretaker governments, thus exercising a lot more power than envisioned in the Bulgarian constitution and having significant influence and opportunity to push his pro-Russian views. BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova, President Radev, and the leader of the populist Radical Right party, Revival, Kostadin Kostadinov, have been the most vehement pro-Russian voices in Bulgaria and strong opposition to any actions against Russia (Lavchiev, 2022).

The policy response to the war

At the time of the outbreak of the war, Bulgaria was administered by a coalition government that included four parties with different ideological orientations. Despite this ideological heterogeneity and the presence of the BSP in the governing coalition, the government of Kiril Petkov has taken a clear anti-Russian position and pushed several decisions in support of Ukraine through the Parliament. In March 2021, Bulgaria supported the EU sanctions on Russia, despite strong opposition from the BSP and Revival. In April, a Bulgarian delegation headed by Prime Minister Petkov visited Ukraine. In May, the Parliament voted for humanitarian, financial and military-technical assistance (including repair of military technology) to Ukraine but came short of approving the supply of weapons. This limited support reflected the BSP’s strong opposition to sending military aid and its ability to exercise influence within the coalition. In the meantime, Petkov fired the defence minister, Stefan Yanev (who had served as prime minister in a previous caretaker government), for parroting the Kremlin line that the invasion was a “special operation”, a move that was approved by a majority of the Bulgarian population (Alpha Research, 2022). In June, the Petkov government expelled 70 Russian diplomats from the country over espionage concerns. In contrast to the sacking of Tanev, this move drew strong public criticism.

One of the thorniest issues that Petkov has had to deal with is Russian gas supplies. Bulgaria has depended heavily on Russian gas, which supplied 77% of the country’s needs at the outset of the war (Popov, 2022). The rhetoric of the BSP and Revival highlighting the dire consequences of stopping Russian gas supplies instils understandable anxiety in large portions of the population. Despite continuing to meet its contractual obligations towards Gazprom, the Russian gas giant suddenly stopped deliveries to Bulgaria (and Poland) in April 2021. The EU decried this decision and labelled it blackmail. Consequently, Bulgaria was forced to rapidly diversify its gas supplies, and today receives gas from Azerbaijan through the Greek connector, Turkey, and other regional suppliers.

Despite fears of a change of direction, the current caretaker government of Galab Donev has renewed the commitment to bolster its humanitarian aid to Ukraine with new streams of assistance. In December, Parliament voted to provide Ukraine with weapons and other forms of lethal assistance, including military technology. The BSP and Revival requested a review of this decision before the Constitutional Court. As of December 2022, Bulgaria has provided €225 million in aid to Ukraine and has welcomed 150,000 Ukrainian refugees.

As Ivan Bedrov, head of the Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe, has recently outlined, one year after the start of the war, we can identify three main consequences of the war for the country. First, the war has shed light on Russian interests and influence in Bulgaria and the political actors supporting them. Second, the conflict has become one of the two main dividing lines in Bulgarian society, splitting political actors and the public once again into pro-Russian and anti-Russian camps (the other division concerns attitudes towards corruption and the mainstream parties). Finally, the conflict has proven that Bulgaria is not by default dependent on Russia, including for the supply of energy (Bedrov, 2023).

Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria

Since the 2005 elections, populist Radical Right parties have gained parliamentary representation and established a more or less permanent political presence. Before 2005, nationalist discourse was almost entirely monopolized by the BSP, a feature of many former communist countries in which nationalism is driven from the Left. Bulgaria’s sizeable ethnic Turkish and Roma minorities, as well as a string of migration crises in Europe, have provided fertile ground for nationalist rhetoric and mobilization. Some of those actors are clearly anti-elite, anti-West, and even anti-democracy, while others claim to represent small business, portraying ethnic minorities as a threat to these interests, but are not explicitly anti-EU or even anti-NATO. Kristen Ghodsee explains Bulgarian nationalism best when she describes it as “left wing, right wing, everything” (Ghodsee, 2008, p. 26). Like many other nationalist parties in Europe, some Bulgarian Radical Right parties are explicitly pro-Russian—a position that became even more evident with the war in Ukraine—and have relied on Russian support.

Thus, geopolitical issues have been intertwined with attacks on domestic minorities, welfare chauvinism, and patriotic appeals. Migration has remained secondary in this rhetoric and is discussed through the prism of national ethnic minorities (i.e., Muslim migrants radicalizing domestic Muslim minorities) (Rashkova & Zankina, 2017). Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria attract more than just the disenfranchised, with an average of 10% of the vote (see table 1 and figure 1) and appeal to left- as well as right-wing voters, a phenomenon typical of former communist countries that has been referred to as the “red‒brown” electorate (Ishiyama, 2009). In the last decade, we have witnessed overpopulation and crowding of the political space with parties from the national populist milieu (Krasteva, 2016, p. 170), resulting in the fragmentation of the nationalist vote.

Source: Compiled by the author with data from the National Electoral Commission (
Note: Asterix (*) indicates parties campaigning as part of an electoral coalition.

This fragmentation has been coupled with the diversification of Radical Right actors and discourses (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176). While Radical Right parties have established a continuous presence in Bulgaria’s Parliament and beyond, no individual party has been impervious to threats from across the political spectrum, especially new parties. A range of populist Radical Right parties have been represented in Parliament and—between 2017 and 2021, even in government—including Ataka (“Attack”), the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (Vatreshna Makedonska Revolyuzionna Organizaciya, VMRO), the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (Nazionalen Front za Spasenie na Bulgaria, NSFB), and the aforementioned Revival. Revival is thus only the newest and currently the most preeminent of these populist outfits.

Source: Source: Compiled by the author based on data from the National Electoral Commission (

Ataka entered Parliament in 2005, the first populist Radical Right party to do so. Its eccentric leader, Volen Siderov, appealed to disenfranchised voters from across the political spectrum, but most importantly to those disillusioned with the transition to democracy and the elites who dominated politics in this period. Drawing on both neo-nationalist and neo-totalitarian elements, Ataka mixes welfare chauvinism and nostalgia for the communist past (Ghodsee, 2008) with clericalism and irredentism (Pirro, 2015). Ataka’s rhetoric is explicitly pro-Russian and xenophobic, openly attacking Bulgaria’s relations with its transatlantic partners and Turkey, in particular, while promoting close ties with Russia. At one point, Ataka was the fourth-largest party in Parliament, and its electoral support peaked in the 2007 European Parliament elections when it took 14.2% of the vote. However, the party has lost ground electorally in recent years (see table 1). Siderov’s pro-Russian interpretation of the war in Ukraine has not gained much attention, as another eccentric populist leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has managed to steal the limelight.

One of the oldest political organizations in Bulgarian history, the VMRO traces its origins back to 1893 and the struggle for Macedonian liberation from Ottoman rule. The organization has gone through numerous phases since then, including terrorist activities in the interwar period (Crampton, 2007), championing cultural preservation during communist rule, and electoral competition as a political party since the transition to democracy in 1989. In the 1990s, the VMRO supported the broad anti-communist coalition and sent representatives to Parliament. In the 2000s, its rhetoric became increasingly nationalistic, especially after Ataka burst onto the political stage. With each election, the VMRO has shifted its political alliances, and its coalition policies have been highly opportunistic and chaotic, while its political identity has remained ambiguous. Although claiming to be patriotic, it has allied itself with political actors with diverse views on nationalism, from those eschewing nationalist rhetoric altogether to moderate nationalists to those on the extreme nationalist end of the spectrum (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176).

The Radical Right formula has proved the most successful for the VMRO. In 2014, the party registered big successes, both in the European Parliament and national elections, sending one MEP to Brussels and 8 MPs to the national Parliament. In the 2017 governing coalition, VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence. While the VMRO’s MEP, Angel Dzambaski, has been criticized more than once for outrageous behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament (Gotev, 2022), Karakachanov has maintained a moderate tone. He has publicly condemned Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, supported Bulgaria acquiring F-16 fighter jets from the United States and criticized Europe for not doing enough to help Ukraine. Despite adopting such mainstream positions, the VMRO has been so far unable to claw back voter support.

The National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) split from Ataka in 2011. The NFSB adopts patriotic and exclusionary rhetoric, defending Bulgarian culture, traditions, language, and sovereignty, but it is less populist and leader-centred than Ataka. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, the NFSB and the VMRO campaigned together in the so-called Patriotic Front (PF). Due to its more constructive and less populist stance, the largest party, Citizens for European Development (GERB), reached out to the PF for a supply-and-confidence arrangement that gave the PF no ministerial posts but nonetheless significant parliamentary influence.

For the 2017 elections, the NFSB and the VMRO joined Ataka in the United Patriots (UP) electoral coalition. The UP took 9.3% of the vote (more or less the same as in 2014), which was a considerable disappointment, given their much higher expectations. However, the configuration of seats in the new Parliament meant the GERB had to appeal to the alliance in order to form a government. Consequently, for the first time in Bulgaria’s post-communist history, the government formally included a party of the Radical Right. The UP alliance were given five portfolios in the Council of Ministers, and VMRO and the NFSB were awarded deputy premierships.

By the April 2021 parliamentary elections, the former partners each thought they could do better on their own, and they ran individually, with none passing the 4% threshold. None of the parties has since recovered, and all have ceded their votes to Revival and other new parties. As the war has unfolded, NFSB’s leader Valeri Simeonov has focused on protecting the right of ethnic Bulgarians in Ukraine, advocating for self-governance and exemption from military service.

As the newest populist Radical Right party in Bulgaria, Revival has managed to attract a sizeable share of votes. Founded in 2017, the party and its controversial leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, have only adopted a nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russian discourse since 2022. Kostadinov is hardly new to politics. Indeed, he is something of a “serial party switcher” in Bulgaria, having sought a home wherever the opportunity has arisen. He has appeared on candidate lists or served in the party executive of all the major Radical Right parties – Ataka, the NSFB, and the VMRO. He has also appeared on the candidate lists of centre-right and centre-left parties. His rhetoric has similarly shifted in the same opportunistic manner.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a great opportunity for Kostadinov and his party to capitalize on widespread frustration and discontent. In this context, Revival took an anti-vaccine stand, denying the existence of the pandemic and mobilizing numerous protests (Veleva, 2022a). Government subsidies, as well as anti-vax, anti-NATO and anti-EU rhetoric, have helped the party gain momentum so that by the third parliamentary election in 2021, it passed the threshold and sent 11 MPs to Parliament (see table 1). Some of the factors outlined for this success include the political turmoil in 2021 and the inability of parliamentary parties to form a government, the incumbent government’s poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic (exacerbated by strong anti-vax and anti-restriction sentiment in the population), and the pronounced pro-Russian attitudes in Bulgaria that translate into anti-NATO and anti-EU positions (Cholakov, 2021).

The war in Ukraine has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Kostadinov to broadcast his pro-Russian views and stage eccentric performances. Shortly after the start of the war, Revival supporters staged an ugly protest action at the 2022 celebrations of Bulgaria’s independence, throwing snowballs in the face of the Bulgarian prime minister and waving Russian flags. In fact, Russian flags are an indispensable attribute to the frequent protests staged by Revival in the past couple of years. While older nationalist parties have all but lost parliamentary support, Revival and its controversial leader Kostadin Kostadinov grew its support from just over 1% in 2017 to over 10% in the most recent October 2022 election.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s energy politics have heightened divisions in Bulgarian society, given the strong historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia, and have fuelled support for Revival. Kostadinov has been repeatedly accused of links to Russia, which he has not denied. A brief overview of his public appearances and statements shows clear allegiance to Russian interests. Before him, Volen Siderov played such a role, defending Russia in many of his public statements. Social networks have further amplified Russian propaganda in Bulgaria, which has been taken at heart by supporters of Radical Right parties, as well as by many BSP voters. According to a report from the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia (HSSF), Russian online propaganda has increased ten-fold since the start of the war (Gigov, 2022).

Radical Right parties have established a strong presence in Bulgarian politics, with continuous representation in Parliament and frequent access to government positions both at the local and national levels. At the same time, there has not been a growth in the nationalist vote. On the contrary, in 2021, Radical Right parties lost a big chunk of their vote to various new parties of different ideological identification, and the latest success of Revival is a result of capitalizing on the votes of other Radical Right parties (see table 1 and figure 2). This development makes us pause and think about the stability of the nationalist vote in Bulgaria. This vote looks pretty volatile and not nationalist at its core, but rather anti-establishment and directed against mainstream parties. In the past couple of years, the Radical Right discovered that new political players could easily hijack its territory and discourse and that their support was based more on the mood of the day than on lasting nationalist attitudes.

Public attitudes towards the war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has led to an immediate and radical change in public attitudes towards Russia and Putin. A study conducted by Alpha Research in late February 2022 concluded that the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in a drop in support for Putin and an increase in solidarity with European countries. The report indicates that Putin lost half of his popularity among Bulgarian citizens in the first four days of the war alone. Furthermore, 63% of respondents reported approval of EU-wide sanctions against Ukraine, 61% found the invasion unjustified, only 16% saw it as justified, 68% agreed that Bulgaria must accept Ukrainian refugees, and only 16% were against it (Alpha Research, 2022). Another study by Research Center Trend (2022) indicates that 40% of respondents report an adverse change in attitudes towards Russia. However, the same study finds a slight increase in support for Revival.

Source: Compiled by the author based on data from Alpha Research (2022).

The protraction of the war conflict combined with worsening economic conditions led to a change in public attitudes by November 2022. A survey by Estat in November 2022 found 20.7% of Bulgarians sympathize with Russia (a decline from 23.6% in April 2022) and 23.1% with Ukraine (a decline from 32.4% in April) (Estat Research and Consultancy, 2022). Furthermore, 67.5% of respondents think Bulgarian should have a neutral position in the conflict, and 19% have a negative attitude towards Ukrainian refugees, whereas those with a positive view have decreased from 38% in April 2022 to 25.8% in October 2022 (ibid.).

Source: Compiled by the author based on data from Research Center Trend (2022).

At the same time, there are signs of hope. Despite the rise in nationalist sentiments and pro-Russian attitudes, nationalist and anti-EU parties have but marginal support. If anything became evident in the numerous recent elections, it is that Bulgarians are mostly pro-European. While voters are divided on the party of their particular choice, the majority harbour pro-EU attitudes and support Ukraine in the war conflict. Even the divided 48th Parliament (October 2022–February 2023), which could not agree on a government, has taken several important, clearly pro-European decisions, voting to send arms to Ukraine, purchase F-16 fighter jets, and confirm Bulgaria’s entry into the Eurozone in January 2024.

Similarly, Bulgarians came in large numbers to commemorate one year since the start of the war and to express their support for Ukraine. While the war has strengthened the ever-present divide between Russophiles and Russophobes, it has also helped reaffirm democratic values and support for the Euro-Atlantic alliance. If anything, the reactions and the effects of the war are diverse and not unidirectional.

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(*) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh.  Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies


Alpha Research. (2022, February), The Russia–Ukraine war: A radical change in public attitudes towards the Russian president and an increase in solidarity with European countries

Bedrov, I. (2023, February 22). Три очевидни последици, които войната на Путин донесе в България. Svobdnaevropa

Cholakov, P. (2021, November 18). “Или България ще загине”: защо толкова българи харесват Костадинов и “Възраждане”. DeutscheWelle

Crampton, R. J. (2007). Bulgaria. Oxford University Press.

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Conclusion for the report on the impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe

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Download Report’s Conclusion

This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric. Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism.

By Gilles Ivaldi* CNRS-CEVIPOF-Sciences Po Paris & Emilia Zankina** Temple University

THE WAR in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world. The war has cost tens of thousands of lives of Ukrainian civilians and caused tremendous devastation to the country’s infrastructure, housing and industrial sector, causing interruptions in the water and electricity supply across many Ukrainian cities, with dire consequences for the population. In addition, millions of Ukrainians have been internally displaced, and nearly eight million have fled the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe.

Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe.

The many economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics, both among the individual states and at the supranational level. It has changed public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.

This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.

In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context produced by the war and the impact it may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.

By looking first at the “supply” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, this report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. Many of these parties have had to shift their positions on Russia to avoid being too closely associated with Putin’s regime. They have also toned down their nativism to adapt to changes in public opinion concerning asylum seekers from Ukraine. Others, in contrast, have strengthened their pro-Russian rhetoric and criticism of the EU and NATO. We have also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.

Concerning the voters, the report has examined public opinion on the war in Ukraine, how it has affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, and the impact the war has had on party support in the electorate. Finally, we have sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.

In the remainder of this conclusion to the report, we summarize the key findings of the country reports and present the implications for the future of the populist Radical Right from a comparative perspective.

The security and defence agenda of the Radical Right before February 2022

The findings indicate a tremendous variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe before the war in Ukraine. Contrary to the conventional view, Radical Right parties and movements adopted a range of positions on foreign policy, security and defence, as well as toward NATO, the EU, and Russia.

While many radical right-wing populist parties have ties with Russia, we see some nuances across Europe, which reflect different foreign policy and international agendas among these parties, particularly concerning NATO, and what is deemed American influence and the cultural and economically liberal agenda emanating from the United States. In the West, the most pro-Russian parties include the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, the Freedom Party (PVV) and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, and the Rassemblement National (RN) and Reconquête! in France. These parties illustrate the populist Radical Right’s admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberal politics, as well as his forceful defence of Christian values and opposition to Islam, positions that Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has enshrined in party manifestos. Moreover, individual populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Éric Zemmour have professed their admiration for Putin’s style of leadership, describing him as “a true patriot”.

Despite the long history of Russian imperialism in Central and Eastern Europe, zealous Putin admirers can be found in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. In Bulgaria, the Far Right ultranationalist party Revival has become explicit in its support for Russia, staging a series of protests over the past year in which prominent displays of the national flag of the Russian Federation have become an indispensable part of the party’s performative politics. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has been more moderate but firmly opposes sanctions against Russia. In the Czech Republic, the Freedom and Democracy Party (SPD) has returned to its traditional pro-Russian positioning (for example, the party backed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as legitimate) after adopting a more neutral tone at the beginning of the war. In Hungary, Orbán and his party Fidesz have consistently argued against Western sanctions (although condemning the invasion at the outset) and continue to parrot the Kremlin’s talking points about Moscow’s “legitimate” security concerns and Kyiv’s “provocations”.

On the other hand, despite their ideological affinities with the Putin regime, we see weaker ties to the Kremlin in parties such as VOX in Spain, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI) in Italy, and Chega in Portugal. These parties may share Putin’s support for “traditional” family values, opposition to LGBTQ rights and what they call leftist “gender ideology”, but they stop well short of backing the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Radical Right populists in Romania have also toned down their pro-Kremlin rhetoric and have condemned the Russian invasion in an effort to prevent further declines in support among voters, many of whom remember Moscow’s backing of the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), by contrast, has toned down its anti-Russian rhetoric and adopted a more moderate tone towards Russia since the start of the war in an attempt to attract Russian-speaking voters. Parties such as the Sweden Democrats have become increasingly critical of Russia in recent years, primarily as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, advocating sanctions against Putin’s regime. These examples illustrate the wide variety of reactions and positions towards the war, illustrating the diversity of Radical Right actors across Europe.

The NATO divide

To some extent, right-wing populists’ positions vis-à-vis Russia overlap with their attitudes towards transatlantic relations in general and NATO in particular. As the country chapters in this report suggest, populist Radical Right parties diverge in their positions on security and defence policy. Such variance reflects, for the most part, the regional divide in Europe that reflects the old Cold War blocs, the specificity of Nordic Europe, and the different historical experiences and legacies of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, the vision of world order promoted by many Far Right populists stresses multipolarity and strategic autonomy against a model of transatlantic relations that favours the United States through its dominant role in NATO. The RN and Reconquête! in France, the FPÖ, and the Dutch FvD are committed to fundamentally revising transatlantic relations. Both Le Pen and Zemmour have consistently affirmed they would again withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command structure, as was the case between 1966 and 2009. Other parties, such as the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, as well as Radical Right actors in Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia, are flexible and pragmatic, essentially deemphasizing foreign policy issues and advocating a neutral approach.

In Northern Europe, the Radical Right has generally embraced a mainstream position concerning transatlantic relations. In Norway, Finland, and Denmark, a consensus has arisen across the political spectrum supporting NATO membership. Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) is a strong NATO advocate, and the party advocates close relations with the United States. Next door in Finland, the executive council of the Far Right, anti-immigration Finns Party recently voted in favour of the country’s NATO application. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Danske Folkeparti, DF) has exhibited unwavering loyalty and support for the NATO alliance, which is a historical feature in Denmark. A notable departure from this broad Nordic support for NATO is the Sweden Democrats (SD). The latter has long opposed accession to NATO and has instead called for increased cooperation and coordination with its Nordic neighbours, including developing a joint Nordic defence force. Still, the SD is the exception that proves the Nordic rule: the Far Right in this region backs close ties with Western allies and sees the United States as a critical security guarantor.

In Eastern Europe, support for NATO among populist Radical Right parties varies. In Bulgaria, Revival and Ataka are vehemently opposed to NATO membership, while the BSP is acquiescent while expressing misgivings about the forward deployment of NATO forces on Bulgarian soil and support for military aid to Ukraine. The Czech SDP and Romania’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) openly trade in xenophobic, anti-American, anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. While Hungary has played an active role in NATO since joining in 1999 (it contributes, for example, to NATO Air Policing in the Baltics), Orbán has slow-walked approval of Finland and Sweden’s accession and is currently demanding the release of EU funds in return for a “yes” vote (Rettman, 2023). Turkey, which has expressed support for Ukraine’s NATO membership, has used its veto to press for concessions from Finland and Sweden. Estonia’s traditionally pro-NATO ERKE has declared the alliance to be in crisis. By contrast, Serbian and Slovak Radical Right parties blame the United States and NATO expansion for the conflict and argue for neutrality, a position also adopted by Austria’s FPÖ. Serbia’s position is particularly interesting, given memories of NATO bombings coupled with aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration.

Diversity in positions is found not only across countries but also within them. This is well exemplified by the Italian case, whose Radical Right populists take a range of positions on NATO. During the Cold War, the Italian Far Right adopted a broadly Atlanticist posture, although this coexisted with an impulse to promote a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, Giorgia Meloni, the FdI leader and current prime minister of Italy, has shown more inclination towards Russia and Putin, but her party remains more pro-NATO compared, for instance, with Salvini’s Lega. Similarly, in Croatia, Radical Right parties have taken divergent positions on NATO. While most have stated clear support for NATO in the context of the war, HSP 1861 has declared that “Croatia is in greater danger from its NATO membership than from Russian aggression” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2022).

Intra-party divisions over Russia

Finally, we find diverging views of Putin and Russia inside populist Radical Right parties themselves. Such divisions are seen, for instance, in the FrP in Norway, with individual party members, including former party leader Carl Hagen and parliamentarian Mika Niikko, taking more pro-Russian views. In Belgium, some VB members, such as Filip Dewinter, have expressed increasing support for the Kremlin over the past decade. Despite the war, voices within Spain’s VOX continue to speak in favour of Russia and Putin. In Denmark, prominent DF MPs MPs Søren Espersen and Marie Krarup have been criticized for supporting the Kremlin, in Krarup’s case, even after the Russian invasion. In the SD, individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russia views, although the party leadership has repeatedly criticized the Kremlin and condemned Moscow’s aggression. In Portugal, André Ventura’s condemnation of Russia has not been unanimous within his Chega party. Some influential members describe the Russian invasion as a legitimate reaction to “NATO encirclement of Russia” while accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of “siding with avowed Nazis”. The Bulgarian BSP has similarly been torn by divergent narratives on the causes of the war and the level of support Bulgaria should provide. The war in Ukraine has deepened divisions within the Romanian AUR, with one faction of the party strengthening its pro-Russian stance and another focusing on grassroots support and domestic issues.

Relations with the European Union

The populist Radical Right inclination towards Russia is also informed by the Euroscepticism of these parties who favour Putin’s Russia to symbolize their opposition to the centralized power of the “Brussels bubble”, grabbing power from the national level of governance (Carlotti, 2023). Many right-wing populist parties have adopted what has been recently described as a common “alt-European policy programme”, which can be defined as “a conservative, xenophobic intergovernmental vision of a European ‘community of sovereign states’, ‘strong nations’ or ‘fatherlands’, that abhors the EU’s ‘centralised’ United States of Europe” (McMahon, 2022, p. 10). While many of those parties have recently toned down their Eurosceptic stances (Taggart, 2019; Brack, 2020), essentially for strategic reasons, they still are the primary opponents to further European integration within the broader European political landscape.

Many parties of the populist Radical Right have instrumentalized anti-EU rhetoric during the war, using anti-elite and sovereigntist arguments. Italian Far Right populists share criticism towards the EU and other supranational bodies, which are said to weaken national sovereignty. In line with its traditional Euroscepticism, Austria’s FPÖ accuses the EU of adopting a Russia policy without consulting voters and blames it for rising prices and the deterioration of living standards. Juist Alternatief 2021 (JA21) in the Netherlands remains opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU, in line with their general opposition to further EU enlargement. In Finland, we find similar criticism and suspicion of supranational institutions in the Finns Party, which remains committed to a Finnish exit from the EU (“Fixit”) as a long-term goal of the party. In Denmark, the DF and New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) vigorously campaign against “more EU”. Such anti-EU rhetoric is less pronounced in countries like Portugal, where EU membership has traditionally been very popular. While Chega echoes the broader Far Right sovereigntist line supporting a “Europe of nations”, the party does not seek a Portuguese exit from the EU or the Eurozone.

Euroscepticism is also a significant feature of the populist Radical Right in Eastern Europe, again with some variation across countries. Estonia’s EKRE is broadly Eurosceptic, with the European Green Deal and the “woke” agenda of “Brussels elites” as major bugbears for the party. In Hungary, Fidesz has long toyed with Eurosceptic rhetoric and played the sovereigntist card in domestic politics, something Orbán has honed to a fine art, blaming Hungary’s government for “selling out” to Western interests before 2010. In the current crisis, Budapest lays the blame for spiking energy prices and economic dislocation squarely at Brussels’ feet. In Bulgaria, Revival is strongly against EU membership, advocating a referendum on leaving the EU and NATO. The Czech SDP has adopted a similar hard-Eurosceptic position calling for “Czexit”. By contrast, in countries like Lithuania and Serbia, the populist Radical Right does not target EU membership directly. Instead, it vilifies national political elites for prioritizing “foreign forces” over the will and interests of locals and lambasts Brussels for its “leftist” political and cultural dictates. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Serbia’s ruling party, is an exception to the Eurosceptic rule in the European Far Right, advocating (at least in all its public pronouncements) a pro-Brussels position as the government seeks to progress the country’s EU accession.

Russia’s influence

Finally, we must emphasize that Russian influence in Europe’s Radical Right milieu may be observed at different levels and across several domains. Over recent years, the Kremlin has cultivated individual leaders in parties such as the Belgian VB and the German AfD while also nurturing links with organizations gravitating around VOX in Spain, which have received funding from Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin. In addition, financial ties with Moscow have been suspected or established for parties such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Italian Lega, which have allegedly received financing from the Kremlin, and the French RN, whose predecessor party secured a loan of €9 million from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank in 2014.

The Finnish case also illustrates Russian influence on the fringes of the social media space through key influencers working in Finland and Russia who support the Russian cause (a phenomenon observed in Bulgaria as well). The ties between the European populist Radical Right and Russia are embedded in a broader media and social media infrastructure, which sees Russia using public diplomacy tools such as the international television channel Russia Today and social media activities to run disinformation campaigns to achieve global political influence, and interference in other countries’ domestic politics (Yablokov, 2022).

Lastly, the analysis in this report suggests that Russian influence may operate through individual ties across economic elites. For example, in Finland, Movement Now (Liike Nyt), which made its first significant breakthrough in the Finnish regional elections of 2021, has had connections to Russian oligarchs. In Italy, Forza Italia’s position on Russia is largely accounted for by the personal links and friendship that Silvio Berlusconi established with Vladimir Putin during the early 2000s. Similarly, the relationship between Salvini’s Lega and Russia is not only a matter of ideological proximity, but it has also materialized in a confidential cooperation agreement signed with Putin’s United Russia Party in 2017. In Hungary, Orbán prides himself in negotiating a favourable agreement with Putin for gas supplies when other countries, such as Bulgaria and Poland, were cut off from Russian supplies in April 2022.

The heterogeneity of Radical Right responses to the war

After the outbreak of the war, Far Right populists came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin. As a result, their responses and interpretations of the war varied. The cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion in an attempt to sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia. Some parties, on the contrary, have showcased their support for Russia and Putin, chasing fringe opinions and voters. Such variability is observed across countries, but also within them and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite their assumed highly centralized organization and strong leadership.

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. By contrast, we see more than one Radical Right party strengthening its pro-Russian rhetoric, a phenomenon witnessed in several East European countries.

Condemnation of Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Following the invasion, many European populist parties rapidly shifted their positions on Putin’s regime. At the outset, many, if not most, have condemned Russia’s invasion calling for solidarity while toning down their Euroscepticism further, although we see variation in terms of responses to the war and, in particular, the degree of distancing from the Kremlin. As recently suggested by Carlotti (2023), in the Italian case, the “position toward Russia is used in a strategic and opportunistic way” (p. 15), with populist Radical Right parties changing their communication styles and their political positions.

In France, Le Pen sought to distance herself from the Russian president, condemning the invasion and accusing Putin of “breaking the equilibrium of peace in Europe” (Le Pen, 2022). Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, used the war to gain credibility at the international level and to moderate her image with voters in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Meloni managed to distance the FdI from the positions of its electoral partners, Salvini and Berlusconi, who are known for their close ties with Putin. More importantly, she has thus far managed to maintain support for Ukraine without breaking the governing coalition. Portugal’s Chega, Germany’s AfD, the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch PVV and Belgium’s VB have similarly distanced themselves from Putin and openly criticized his actions.

To the East, Romania’s AUR, most Croatian Radical Right parties, as well as Lithuanian outfits, have taken critical positions toward Putin and the invasion. On the other hand, the Finns Party and the SD have not only condemned Putin’s aggression but have heartily cheered on NATO membership. Such reactions are not surprising given the phenomenon of “normalization” and the attempts by many Radical Right parties in Europe to appeal to an ever greater segment of voters.

However, other Radical Right parties across the continent have taken different stances. Unlike Le Pen, Zemmour took an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Russia, calling for a new “treaty to put an end to the expansion of NATO” in response to “Russian demands” (Johannès, 2022). Berlusconi instead has tried to avoid the topic altogether. The Dutch FvD remained highly supportive of Putin compared to other Dutch Radical Right parties. Croatia’s HSP 1861 has similarly stood in opposition to other Radical Right parties, maintaining strong pro-Russian rhetoric. Slovakia’s Radical Right parties have claimed that Slovakia’s support for Ukraine in the current effort to face Russia’s aggression is against the national interest of and a threat to the well-being of its people. Yet others, such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Czech SDP, have become even more avid defenders of Putin, maintaining or even growing their electoral support. Such varied responses illustrate that several parties have not opted for a strategy of normalization and mainstreaming but, quite the opposite, have chosen to differentiate themselves from the prevailing opinion, remaining true to the Radical Right’s anti-establishment traditions.

Toning down nativism

Given the 7.6 million people who have fled Ukraine to escape the war, right-wing populist parties across Europe have been challenged to adapt their traditionally xenophobic and highly restrictive migration policies. In line with public sentiment, these populist parties have shied away from the typical demonization of asylum seekers. Instead, Ukrainians are framed as “real refugees” rather than “economic migrants”, as those fleeing the civil war in Syria are often branded. This distinction between asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean and those fleeing war in Europe reflects a projection of local nativist ideology to the European level (Albertazzi et al., 2022; Farrell, 2022; Hadj-Abdou & Pettrachin, 2022). According to Albertazzi and colleagues (2022), this demonstrates populist parties’ fundamental skill in reading the room and quickly adapting according to the shifts in public opinion.

In line with the phenomenon of Far Right “normalization” (Mudde, 2022) and given an outpouring of public support for Ukraine across Europe, many populist Radical Right parties have been welcoming Ukrainian refugees. In so doing, they have deployed a rich repertoire of arguments in an attempt to justify the shift from established stances against migration and demonizing asylum seekers. Norway’s FrP has advocated a fast track for Ukrainian refugees and a pause to the resettlement of other migrants so that the former, whose Christian values the party argues, are likely to promote integration. The SD have been similarly welcoming, pointing to the religious and cultural similarities between Swedes and Ukrainians and the policy of favouring migrants from neighbouring countries. Spain’s VOX has supported taking refugees from and sending materiel to Ukraine while lambasting the slow EU response and pointing to the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) historical ties to Moscow. Meloni has been particularly supportive of Ukrainian refugees, and even Le Pen has managed to keep a lid on her reflexive demonization of asylum seekers. The Far Right in Lithuania has been very vocal about its support for Ukrainian refugees, volunteering to organize the settlement process and distinguishing between the “real” Ukrainian refugees and other “illegal” economic migrants, a distinction also emphasized by Salvini and the PVV and JA21 in the Netherlands.

While many parties have selectively adjourned their nativism and welfare chauvinism in the face of Ukrainian refugee arrivals, others have cautioned against generous support and pointed to potential threats. Zemmour sparked controversy in France when he dubbed support for those fleeing the conflict as an “emotional response” to the war. Chega has argued that the large influx of Ukrainians might allow “criminals to blend with people who are actually running from a war” (Assembleia da República, 2022b). The Czech SPD has pointed to the substantial financial support for Ukrainian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening macroeconomic situation, and the destabilizing effect refugees would have on the Czech social, healthcare, and education systems, job market and public safety. Bulgaria’s Revival has argued that the well-being of Bulgarians is being put at risk in order to help Ukrainians who drive expensive cars and enjoy a much higher standard of living than many Bulgarians. Trying to appeal to both the Estonian and Russian-speaking audiences, EKRE has used a double-faced strategy. When communicating with their Russian-speaking audience, they play on their anti-Ukrainian sentiment, claiming that Ukrainian refugees are jeopardizing local Russians’ jobs. Such sceptical views are likely to become more popular with the growing number of Ukrainian refugees and decreasing prospects for an end to the war.

Support for sanctions

Support for sanctions against Russia correlates with each party’s position on the war and attitudes towards Putin. Consequently, we observe variation in positions ranging from decisive support for sanctions and military aid to strong opposition to sanctions and arguments about the high domestic cost and ultimate inefficiency of sanctions. However, we notice that populist Radical Right parties are more hesitant to support sanctions than to condemn the invasion.

Several populist Radical Right parties, mainly in Western Europe, have expressed strong support for sanctions against Russia. Ventura from Portugal’s Chega called for harsher sanctions and demanded their imposition on the whole economy rather than only on individuals. Jussi Halla-aho from the Finns Party argued that “intervention of the West will be inevitable”, and thus it should take action against Russia sooner rather than later. Meloni’s FdI firmly supported government initiatives in favour of Ukraine, including sanctions and the supply of weapons, even when FdI was in opposition. Although they expressed scepticism about these measures, Salvini and Berlusconi voted in favour of sanctions and the sending of weapons as part of both the Draghi and Meloni governments. The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP) has expressed frustrations at the EU for “responding to Russia’s aggression only with economic sanctions and not with more drastic and urgently required measures” (Hrvatske Čiste Stranke Prava, n.d.), while the NB in Denmark lambasts Brussels for allowing Russia to “develop into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Arctic region, and ultimately Denmark”.

Hesitancy and scepticism, if not outright criticism, towards the sanctions against Russia, seem to be the more common response by populist Radical Right parties. Belgium’s VB is sceptical of the “poorly thought out” and harsh sanctions against Russia. Le Pen also criticized some of the sanctions imposed on Russia because such measures would primarily hurt French businesses and workers. The Austrian FPÖ has directed its ire not at Moscow but at the EU’s sanctions against Russia, claiming these have harmed the Austrian population and are the cause of high inflation and possible shortages in energy and consumer goods. Orbán has similarly put the blame for all economic difficulties on the EU, claiming that the sanctions against Russia are responsible for high inflation, volatile markets, and weak output. The Czech SPD 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. SMER and the Slovak Radical Right have rejected the sanctions and linked them to higher energy prices, as shown, for example, by Republika’s billboard campaign slogan, “We will cancel the sanctions and make energy cheaper”. Serbia has resisted pressures to impose sanctions, although it voted for the UN resolution that demanded the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on March 2, 2022. Turkey similarly did not join the sanctions against Russia, claiming that would allow it to act as a mediator and peace broker. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have both vehemently opposed sanctions against Russia, even if the BSP was part of the governing coalition that recommended and pushed through parliament the approval of sanctions and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Turning to domestic socioeconomic issues

The widespread economic insecurity caused by supply chain issues will likely increase dissatisfaction with national governments and motivate citizens to look for an alternative. In addition, the worrying increases in inflation, affecting food and energy costs, have caused parts of society to become more susceptible to radical political solutions. This context has been conducive for populist parties in the past (for example, the 2008 financial crisis, the war in Syria and the 2015 refugee crisis) as they have used these sources of frustration to gain popular support (Docquier & Morelli, 2022). Similarly, in the current situation, many populist Radical Right parties have exploited domestic socioeconomic issues, linking them to the war and the sanctions and emphasizing the cost of the war to domestic constituencies. On the other hand, parties that have explicitly condemned Putin still do not miss the opportunity to highlight domestic concerns and prioritize the national interest. Moreover, as the war drags on, popular support and enthusiasm give way to domestic discontent, making voters more susceptible to populist Far Right rhetoric.

In Germany, 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”, urging the government to reinstate the supply of Russian natural gas to safeguard Germany’s economy. In Portugal, Ventura questioned Portuguese financial support to Ukraine, saying the money should be spent on pensioners and demanded government intervention to control gas prices. The FrP in Norway has been largely silent in debates regarding handling the war in terms of international politics but has taken the opportunity to exploit war-related issues such as energy prices, fossil fuel production and farming. The DF, the NB and the Denmark Democrats have also stirred fears of economic insecurity, arguing the situation is much worse than the 2008 financial crisis. In debates about the war, the Dutch PVV has repeatedly emphasized protecting people’s material interests. The Czech SDP has used overarching socioeconomic framing of the war combined with nativism and welfare chauvinism. Romania’s AUR has similarly focused more on economic protectionism, particularly regarding exploding energy prices. The Croatian populist Radical Right has also placed a disproportionally higher emphasis on domestic politics than on the developments in Ukraine. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have emphasized the domestic cost of the war and the sanctions next to pro-Russian rhetoric. Le Pen, in turn, has focused her campaign on socioeconomic issues in an attempt to steer attention away from her Russian links (Ivaldi, 2022). Le Pen’s social populist agenda resonated with the French population’s many economic fears, 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).

By shifting the debate to domestic socioeconomic issues, populist Radical Right parties have managed to maintain their anti-elite and anti-establishment stances, appealing to frustrated voters while also avoiding uncomfortable questions about past relations with the Kremlin. Thus, the war has proved another fruitful arena for forwarding populist Far Right arguments and playing on voters’ fears and frustrations.

The return of national sovereignty

The attack on Ukrainian sovereignty has legitimized populist parties’ long-standing nationalist rhetoric. The invasion of Ukraine has put the defence of the nation-state back at the top of the political agenda (Farrell, 2022). Right-wing populist parties have long prioritized nationalism and sovereignty. Claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty are central to radical right-wing populism in Europe (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). The idea of “taking back control” is at the core of the concept of sovereignism, which is often associated with populist rhetoric in which claims to regain control are made on behalf of the community of the “people” against the political establishment and supranational institutions (Mazzoleni & Ivaldi, 2022).

The invasion of Ukraine has returned the idea of defending the nation-state to political discourse in more than one country (Fiott, 2022). The FPÖ has been particularly vocal about the need for Austria to maintain neutrality, as this would safeguard the country’s wealth and guarantee security in the current crisis and in an uncertain world – an argument also forwarded by the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party. The Bulgarian and Slovak Far Right have also called for neutrality and defined the war as a conflict between Russia and the US, in which small countries have nothing to gain. On the other hand, Chega has used the opportunity to display militarism, repeatedly calling for increased spending on armed forces, equating the “love for country” of the Portuguese people with the “positive nationalism leading Ukrainians to defend themselves fearlessly from Russian aggression” (Assembleia da República, 2022b).

. The Croatian Far Right has taken this rhetoric a step further, equating the war in Ukraine to the Homeland war of the 1990s and seeking to draw a tentative linkage between the ongoing developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War. Such a parallel is then used to call for the need to defend the nation and criticize the government for ceding sovereignty to supranational bodies.

Mainstream party counter strategies

The war in Ukraine has affected not only populist Radical Right parties but the way mainstream parties relate to and react to the Radical Right. On the one hand, the war has provided the opportunity to criticize the Radical Right for its veneration of Putin and the ever-stronger connections with Russia, including Russian financing for several Radical Right parties across Europe. In the presidential run-off, 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, 2022).

In Sweden, the SD’s links to Russia became an important issue in the debate on foreign and security policy during the 2022 electoral campaign. In Romania, mainstream parties adopted a strategy of isolation towards AUR, which pushed the party to tone down its rhetoric and present itself as a mainstream conservative party. In Latvia, where about one-quarter of voters are Russian speakers, mainstream parties have long drawn a “red line” around parties representing the Russian minority, arguing that they pose a threat to Latvia’s Western-oriented political trajectory. The war reinforced this trend. At the EU level, the European People’s Party finally expelled Fidesz, a move long called for by numerous MPs. Orbán’s position on the war has helped illustrate the growing ideological schism between Fidesz and other EPP members.

Some reactions give room for pause and caution. For example, in Lithuania, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen Latvia’s political centre move to the right and the mainstreaming of many of the core policy positions of the dominant National Alliance (NA), such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, and demolishing Soviet-era monuments. This example illustrates the threat of becoming what one fights against and the danger that any war poses in radicalizing and militarizing the political discourse.

The factors accounting for different populist Radical Right responses to the war

Both external and internal factors account for the different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war.

External factors

Externally, we first find country-specific factors related to different histories and foreign policy traditions, as well as economic factors, among which each particular country’s level of dependence on Russia’s oil and gas. Before the war, over half of the EU’s gas supplies came from Russia. One of the significant results of the war has been the diversification of gas imports in the EU, with Russia accounting for just 12.9% as of September 2022, a decrease from 51.3% in January 2019 (General Secretariat, 2023). Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Serbia were all highly dependent on Russian gas before the war. Hungary has preserved such dependence, and Orbán prides himself in negotiating relatively cheap Russian oil and gas before and after the war with Putin. Austria, which continues to depend greatly on Russian energy supplies, especially natural gas, views Moscow as an important economic partner. Despite diversification efforts in the past year, Bulgaria still heavily depends on Russian gas supplies, receives a lot of Russian tourists, and many Russian firms operate there. There is also a strong cultural affinity—both are Orthodox countries and speak Slavic languages—with strong historical ties given Russia’s liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth century.

In the Baltic countries such as Estonia and Lithuania, the party politics of Russia has traditionally been strongly influenced by the history of annexation by the Soviet Union. In Norway, the fact that Russia is a neighbouring country has complicated the political disapproval of all things Russian.

In Italy, one of the main reasons why right-wing populists support Putin’s Russia is a matter of economic self-interest and the fact that Italy imports large quantities of Russian oil. Back in 2005, Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government had prepared, for instance, an agreement that would have allowed the Russian company Gazprom to resell Russian gas directly to Italian consumers. In the Northern part of the country, which has traditionally been the electoral stronghold of the Lega, Salvini’s admiration for Putin is also linked with commercial interests, especially those of industrial firms in the region with significant Russian business. In Hungary, the ties with Russia are also explained by the relatively cheap Russian oil and gas and the multi-billion-euro extension of the Paks nuclear power station, which Orbán traded with Putin, which he has been able to use both economically and politically.

In the Netherlands, we find a country-specific feature: the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-controlled forces in the area, killing over 190 Dutch citizens. This dramatic event prompted the government to call for tough sanctions against Russia, making it more difficult for Dutch populists to exhibit public support for Putin.

Together with country-level contextual factors, we also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, most notably concerning the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters, and to broaden their electoral appeal. The literature on the Far Right has emphasized the importance of agency and the ability of Far Right parties to build a “reputational shield” to fend off accusations of racism and extremism (de Lange & Art, 2011; Art, 2011). Many of these parties in Western Europe have used their agency and changed their platforms, personnel, and appearance to distance themselves from the legacy of Far Right extremist ideology and to be tolerated by a larger share of the public (Akkerman et al., 2016; Bjånesøy, 2021). On the other hand, new Far Right actors may take a more radical course to differentiate themselves from their “moderating” counterparts. This trend has been observed in Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, and Slovakia.

We can discern a relationship between such strategies of normalization and the populist Radical Right’s response to the war in Ukraine across a number of the countries studied in this report. Italy is the most obvious example, where FdI has a much broader appeal than its coalition partner, Lega. In the Netherlands, for instance, this is reflected in the competition between the PVV and the FvD, with the former strategically situating itself closer to the mainstream, while the latter would continue on a more radical anti-system course, as revealed in its recent efforts to create an alternative social space for its supporters.

We see a similar split of the populist Radical Right in the French case, whereby Le Pen has striven to detoxify her party to take it into the political mainstream in recent years. In contrast, Zemmour has adopted a hardline strategy, endorsing themes and rhetoric of the Extreme Right while continuing to implicitly lend support to Russia and Putin even after the outbreak of the war. In Portugal, Chega and André Ventura’s discourses on Ukraine were deployed instrumentally, allowing Chega to continue to trail a path towards normalization as a regular player in the political system.

Since shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland has seen a surge of new marginal Far Right parties advocating a Finnish exit from the European Union and going against Finland joining NATO, which contrasted with the more moderate positions taken by the more established Finns Party. In Croatia, we have seen HSP 1861 take a radically different stance on Putin, sanctions, and the war than other Radical Right parties closer to the mainstream. Similarly, in Latvia, S! maintained a pro-Russian stance to differentiate itself from the SSD. In Bulgaria, the two pro-Russian parties, BSP and Revival, have adopted different strategies, with the former maintaining a moderate position, despite opposing sanctions, whereas the latter radicalizing its pro-Russian rhetoric even more and managing to steal votes from the BSP.

Finally, different strategic responses to the Ukraine war may reflect the different geometry of pan-European alliances of populist Radical Right parties in the European Parliament, as some of these parties may need to seek support from other like-minded parties across the continent. Populist Radical Right parties currently distribute themselves across the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups in the European Parliament, which show different policy orientations and strategic positioning in the broader European political landscape. The ECR group traditionally shows moderate Euroscepticism compared with the more radical stances in the ID cluster of populist Radical Right parties around Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. The positions on Russia by parties such as the Italian FdI and the SD may thus reflect their membership in the ECR group.

In the Swedish case, support for the Russian regime among some of the other Radical Right parties has been seen as one reason why the Sweden Democrats chose not to join the ID party group together with the RN and Lega in the European Parliament (McDonnell & Werner, 2019). Similarly, the DF has navigated the war by trying to distance itself from its allies in the ID group and the potentially damaging effect of pro-Putin stances of parties such as the RN and Lega on the DF in domestic politics. The ECR group also has members from Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Latvian, Romanian and Slovak parties, where we notice a mix of Far Right to conservative parties. Although the ECR appears more moderate than the ID group, some MEPs have demonstrated extremist behaviour, such as Bulgarian MEP from IMRO, Angel Dzambaski, have been accused more than once of scandalous remarks and behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in a session of the EU Parliament.

In the ID group, Salvini’s connections to Marine Le Pen reflect a distinct network of populist Radical Right shared hostility to the EU and ties to Putin’s regime inside the European Parliament, including other relevant radical right-wing populist parties such as the FPÖ in Austria, the German AfD, the Flemish VB, the Estonian EKRE, and the SPD in the Czech Republic. Moreover, the ID cluster of parties has established links with parties currently outside the formal EP group, such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary. Such transnational cooperation was revealed in the two-day summit organized by VOX in Madrid in January 2022, which was attended by Orbán, Mateusz Morawiecki from Poland’s PiS, and Le Pen, together with representatives of the populist Radical Right from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and the Netherlands.

Internal factors

Internally, the different responses to the war by the Far Right populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideology and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition.

Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of “their” people, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Such divides may also overlap with the primary socioeconomic orientation of those parties. The literature has found heterogeneity in the socioeconomic policies of populist Radical Right parties across countries and over time (Michel, 2020). While some parties have embraced neoliberalism, others have turned to neo-Keynesian policies, emphasizing social protection and redistribution (Otjes et al., 2018).

In the European context, the current inflation crisis is making socioeconomic issues much more salient, and this may provide incentives for Far Right parties to change and adjust their socioeconomic salience and positions concerning such matters, not only to respond to growing voter demand for redistribution but also to shift attention from their pro-Russian positions to their economic demands in favour of “the people”.

Such a response was visible across several populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In Norway, the energy crisis has opened a window of opportunity for the FrP to reclaim its populist roots, try and mobilize on petro-friendly politics, and campaign against the high prices and VAT on fossil fuels, electricity, and food. In the Netherlands, the PVV has emphasized the cost of the war for the Dutch people, linking high inflation and gas prices to sanctions on Russia, consistent with its welfare chauvinist economic positions. In Portugal, Chega quickly moved from emphasizing the need to support the Ukrainian people to claiming that the war money should be spent on Portuguese pensioners. Marine Le Pen in France well illustrated a welfare chauvinist orientation. Her 2022 campaign used social populist arguments combined with a generous redistributive package, resonating with the French’s many economic fears. Radical Right parties in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia have similarly honed in on the consequences of the war for domestic constituencies and the worsening economic conditions.

In contrast, other populist radical parties have adopted a more cultural approach, basing their support to Russia on civilizational arguments and somewhat ignoring the socioeconomic anxieties of the war. This is illustrated by the Bulgarian Revival and the Dutch FvD, which have continued emphasizing the cultural dimension and the larger global narrative to justify their support of Putin. In France, Zemmour’s focus on immigration and Islam, and his market liberal economic agenda, may have come at odds with the interests and increasingly pro-redistribution preferences of middle-class and working-class voters in 2022.

Voters in the Ukraine war

Turning to the “demand” side of populism, the country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Instead of “ending populism”, the war and the resulting populist discourse have coincided with populist electoral successes in many countries.

We have observed this all year with victories for populists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Sweden, France, and Italy (Lika, 2022). In Austria, public opinion support for Ukraine among Austrians has remained tenuous and lower than elsewhere in the EU, and the FPÖ is currently topping voting intention polls at about 28%. In Belgium, domestic issues have taken the forefront of the political agenda, and the war does not seem to have harmed the VB, which, according to the latest opinion poll, would be the largest Flemish party gaining up to 25.5% of the popular vote. We also see an increase in support for the Czech SDP since the war, which is correlated with decreasing public support for Ukraine and growing discontent with the Czech government’s handling of the war. In Hungary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine also played a role in reinforcing Fidesz’s dominant political position in the electoral campaign. Fidesz’s strategy successfully portrayed the united democratic opposition as a pro-Ukraine camp that would drag Hungary into war with Russia. We see something similar, albeit of a much smaller magnitude, in Serbia, where many commentators have argued that the invasion may have helped populist Radical Right parties to surpass the 3% threshold, whereas none of those parties had entered government in 2020. In Bulgaria, Revival doubled its support in the early elections of 2022 compared to the early elections in 2021.

Elsewhere in Europe, we find no clear evidence that the war in Ukraine may have significantly depressed support for radical right-wing populism. In Slovakia, the outbreak of the war did not bring any substantial shifts in popular support for the populist Radical Right. In Portugal, Chega’s strategy was moderately successful, showing minor gains in public opinion polls. In Germany, the AfD has not benefited from the dramatic developments as much as one could have assumed. There has been only a four percentage points increase in support for the party in polls, and the AfD so far remains below its peak of 17–18% public support recorded in 2018. In Bulgaria, by default, at least a third of Bulgarians are very pro-Russian, and the increase in support for Revival can be explained by shifting votes from the other pro-Russian party, the BSP. Support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees was strong initially, but it steadily declined by November 2022. Currently, most voters do not take a side in the war and do not defend Ukraine or Russia. Only in Lithuania do we see a potentially adverse effect of the war on right-wing populist politics, first and foremost reflecting a very high level of support for Ukraine and traditionally deep anti-Russian sentiments in the mass public.

Other populists and the war

While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.

A brief overview of the positions and strategies of non-Radical Right populist parties suggests that parties such as the French France Insoumise (LFI) and the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) have taken pro-Russian stances in the past, essentially based on anti-Americanism, pacifism, and the opposition to NATO. But, like with the populist Radical Right, we see some differences in those parties’ responses to the Ukraine war.

In Portugal, parties on the Left, especially the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), have traditionally used sovereigntist anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. The PCP has adopted an ambiguous position regarding the invasion of Ukraine, calling for “a stop to escalating political, economic, and military confrontation by NATO, the USA, and the EU towards Russia, and relying on its contribution towards a negotiated political, peaceful, resolution” (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 10). In Germany, The Left (die Linke), which is considered a populist party, is a self-professed pacifist party, and it 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, the party has unambiguously condemned Russia’s attack as a violation of international law, portraying Ukraine as the victim of a power struggle between the West and Russia and calling for Western countries to spearhead de-escalation.

In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI has taken pro-Russian stances predicated on Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views and based on the concept of a “non-aligned” France. LFI’s sympathy for Russia essentially reflects the traditional Radical Left’s hostility toward the United States, neoliberalism and American imperialism, and the party has advocated that France should leave NATO’s integrated military command. Nevertheless, 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. However, he dramatically shifted his position immediately after the beginning of the war to avoid too severe damage to his party’s credibility in the context of the April 2022 presidential election. In the first round, Mélenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote.

In Italy, the positions of the M5S have changed over time, with the party moving towards a more pro-Russian position and showing ambiguous stances after the invasion. Like other populist parties, Russia exemplifies a robust opposition to the United States and the EU, both described by the M5S as harmful to Italy’s national interests. While Beppe Grillo, the founder of the M5S, made no public statement after the February 2022 invasion, Giuseppe Conte, leader of the party, condemned it. As part of the Draghi government, the M5S also voted in favour of sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine, however, expressing doubts about the efficacy and effect on Italy. In the summer of 2022, a split occurred in the party after an internal campaign to push for an end to Italian weapons supplies to Ukraine, which was supported by Conte, who opposed Luigi Di Maio, the more Atlanticist minister of foreign affairs at the time, who left the party. Such internal struggle over the war may have weakened the M5S in the September 2022 elections, where its vote share declined from 32.7 to 15.4% compared with 2018.

Discussion and perspectives

A critical takeaway from this report is the diversity of populist politics across regions, countries and parties. Even limiting our inquiry to the populist Radical Right, we have seen a great diversity of positions and reactions. If our expectations at the outset were to find patterns that distinguish the East from the West, we have found significant variance within regions and countries. Such heterogeneity has already been observed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In their recent analysis of the fourth wave of Far Right parties in Europe, Wondreys and Mudde (2022) emphasize substantial internal heterogeneity, showing different responses to current socioeconomic and cultural issues and different effects of such issues on the electoral support for those parties.

Our findings reinforce the thesis that populism should by no means be considered a uniform phenomenon as it can take many different forms across contexts and actors while also showing change over time. Previous research has emphasized such diversity of contemporary populism (Ivaldi et al., 2017). In this respect, Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2016) argue that 

populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related with other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. (p. 9)

With regards to the Far Right, more specifically, Pirro (2022) similarly underlines the complexity of contemporary Far Right politics and argues that its current developments “reflect various forms of ideological and/or organisational osmosis” (p. 2).

Looking more broadly at anti-establishment politics in Europe, Pytlas (2022) notes that we need more studies to “assess the diversity of ‘thin’ anti-establishment supply and explore how these messages play into electoral strategies of different parties” (p. 2). Yet another approach views populism as a strategy to gain voter support (Weyland, 1999). Jones (2007), for example, views populist leaders as “political entrepreneurs” competing for voters. Such an approach portrays populists as strategic actors who adapt to changing environments. It further accounts for a dynamics-based component which helps understand the rise and evolution of populist parties and changes in their positions, behaviour and voter support, further linking them to changes in the political and economic context (Zankina, 2016). Indeed, the case studies in this report confirm prevailing heterogeneity and varied strategic responses to a fast-changing political environment.

Honing in on strategy, many parties across the continent have attempted to move towards more moderate positions in terms of foreign policy in response to the initial overwhelming public support for Ukraine by citizens across Europe. In some cases, such a move was part of an already existing strategy of mainstreaming and normalization aiming to appeal to a broader segment of voters. In other cases, the move was triggered by the war and criticisms these parties faced regarding their attitudes and links with Russia. However, we witnessed that this change in position was also dynamic. As the war has dragged on and economic costs have started affecting more voters across the continent, some parties have returned to more extreme rhetoric, albeit with a greater focus on domestic issues than on foreign policy and geostrategic alignment.

Framing the war in terms of domestic socioeconomic issues was another strategy adopted by many of the parties examined. In fact, many parties muted their positions on the war and instead emphasized domestic concerns and the economic costs of sanctions, refugees, and military and financial support to Ukraine. Hence, the war was used as an arena to criticize supranational institutions or current governments for their neglect of domestic issues and ineffective policies, allowing populist Radical Right parties to forward their traditional populist Radical Right discourse that appeals to voter frustrations and emotions. Moreover, the populist politics of the war in Ukraine illustrates how populists may ‘perform’ a crisis. As Moffit (2015) argues,

populist actors actively participate in the “spectacularization of failure” that underlies crisis, allowing them to pit “the people” against a dangerous other, radically simplify the terms and terrain of political debate and advocate strong leadership and quick political action to stave off or solve the impending crisis. (p. 190)

This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric.

Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. Many parties drew parallels between the heroism and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people in defending their nation and nationalist attitudes and devotion to the nation at home. Many parties further portrayed the war as an existential threat to the nation, calling for a strong and immediate response, including strengthening military capability. At least in one case, this renewed nationalist discourse drew mainstream parties to the right and into support for nationalist policies.

The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism. Changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristic (Taggart, 2000), suggesting a good deal of adaptability and those parties’ capacity to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi et al., 2022). Most Radical Right populist parties have adapted their discourse due to the war in Ukraine, with more remarkable successes than ever in Europe. 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). If anything, cases of some of the oldest European populist parties such as the Austrian FPÖ, the French RN and the Italian Lega attest not only to the ability of these parties to successfully navigate the recent period of the war in Ukraine but also demonstrate the political longevity and resilience of populism since the mid-1980s.

In policy terms, the malleability of these parties poses one of the main challenges to countering the success of such parties. One may argue that we can counter populism by addressing the issues that populists raise. However, populists are very quick to move on and radicalize another issue, making policy solutions short-lived in electoral terms. This is possible because populist Radical Right parties are, in essence, not programmatic and ideological but rather strategic in being quick to adapt to public sentiments, forward emotional appeals, and establish a direct link with voters (Jones, 2007; Weyland, 1999; Zankina, 2016). This aligns with the scholarship that more generally emphasizes how populist parties may deliberately blur their positions (Rovny, 2013) or adopt ambiguous stances to sustain or increase their electoral support (Jordan, 2022; Lefevere, 2023; Lorimer, 2021). Such use of strategic ambiguity by populists makes it even more difficult for parties in the mainstream to confront and counter their populist challengers programmatically.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the war and the various responses and strategies adopted by Radical Right parties have not led to a boost in their support. While there has been an increase in voter support for some populist Radical Right parties in the past year, it is not uniform. In many cases, the war has not led to a significant change in voter support for Radical Right parties. Despite the continued success of populist Radical Right parties across Europe, we must acknowledge that one of the main consequences of the war has been to unite Europeans in their support for Ukraine and strengthen overall support for democracy and democratic institutions. Except for countries such as Hungary, Serbia, and Turkey (none characterized as functioning democracies), the populist Far Right does not have a dominant position in politics.

Download Report’s Conclusion


(*) 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.

(**) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh.  Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies


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