Aldis Gobzems candidate for Prime Minister of Latvia after meeting with President of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis, during press briefing at Riga Castle in RIGA, Latvia on October 30, 2018. Photo: Gints Ivuskans.

The Russia-Ukraine War and Right-Wing Populism in Latvia

Auers, Daunis. (2023). “The Russia-Ukraine War and Right-Wing Populism in Latvia.” 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.


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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly impacted Latvia’s politics, economy and society. It also moved Latvia’s political centre to the right and mainstreamed many of the core policy positions of the dominant Radical Right 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 policy shift has been made possible by the NA’s gradual political mainstreaming over the last decade (it has been in a governing coalition since 2011) and long-standing opposition to Putin’s regime, as well as existing contacts and support for Ukrainian nationalist groups. As a result, there is a public perception that the NA was “right” about Russia. As the NA has mainstreamed and abandoned its populist rhetoric, new populist parties have emerged in Latvia. Parliamentary elections in October 2022 saw new “Latvian” (the Latvia First Party, LPV) and “Russian” (Stability! or S!) populist parties elected to parliament. The LPV largely refused to engage with the war, focusing on domestic economic issues, while S! has capitalized on the “we are for peace” niche left open by other parties’ denunciation of Russia’s invasion.

Keywords: Latvia, populism, Radical Right, National Alliance, Russia-Ukraine war, parties.



By Daunis Auers* (University of Latvia)


Right-wing populism, and populism more broadly, has long been a feature of Latvia’s political landscape. Indeed, in December 2021, a few months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Latvia’s president, Egīls Levits, a former judge at the European Union Court of Justice, warned that populism was a threat to Latvia’s democracy:

We see what happens when populists are elected to parliament in Latvia and elsewhere. They collapse. They are not capable of meaningful politics, simply wasting your vote and creating difficulties for the parliament and the state. (“President urges voters to be on guard”, 2021)

This article begins by reflecting on the scope and nature of populism in Latvia since the regaining of sovereign independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It then moves to consider the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on the current crop of Latvia’s populist parties and politicians (the supply side) and the impact on public perceptions and voters (the demand side). The final section considers the short- and long-term impacts of the war on Latvia’s populist landscape.


The concept of populism is famously contested. More than fifty years ago, Peter Wiles (1969, p. 166) wrote, “to each his own definition of populism, according to the academic axe he grinds.” Although there has been more academic consensus in recent decades, there remain three major contemporary approaches to populism that conceptualize it as either a style of politics, a political strategy, or a thin ideology.

Latvian media, the public and politicians alike tend to use the term as a “catch-all” used to criticize anything they dislike or cannot explain, the “mystery ingredient that explains why a rival political leader has inexplicably large support” (Deegan-Krause, 2007, p. 141). A search of headlines on the influential “Delfi” news portal reveals that issues ranging from speeding fines and religious education in schools through to a new bottle deposit scheme have been described as “populist.”[1] Vague and sweeping accusations of populism have long been a feature of Latvian politics, particularly among the parties that appeal to the ethnic Latvian, rather than Russian-speaking, electorate.

The late Joachim Siegerist, a shadowy far-right German–Latvian politician who never spoke Latvian, is generally regarded as Latvia’s first major post-communist populist. Having been kicked out of the radical right-wing Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības Kustība, LNNK) in 1994, Siegerist founded the People’s Movement for Latvia (Tautas Kustība Latvija, TKL). During the 1995 parliamentary election, he campaigned on both a nationalist and anti-corruption platform of “Russians to Russia and Latvia for Latvians,” handing out free medicine to emphasize the perceived failure of government economic policies and promising to weed out corrupt bureaucrats and politicians who were supposedly holding Latvia back.[2] This combination of Russophobe nationalism and criticism of a corrupt and out-of-touch elite set the template for right-wing populism in Latvia for the next three decades. Twenty-first-century additions to this winning formula have included criticism of liberal ideas spreading to Latvia via European elites and, of course, anti-Soros conspiracy theories.

The most recent incarnation of the right-wing populist mantle has been the National Alliance (Nacionālā Apvienība, NA), a merger of first-wave Latvian nationalist parties that traced their roots to the late 1980s independence movement and a second wave of younger nationalist activists that came out of the various nationalist organizations set up in the 1990s and early 2000s. The NA first entered parliament as a party union rather than a single party in 2010 and has been a part of every governing coalition since 2011. Participating in government has led to a mainstreaming of the party and an attendant decline in its populist appeals, with anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric clearly having less traction now the party has become an established part of the governing elite.

The mainstreaming of NA has opened a space for new populist political forces to emerge. However, these populists are “pure” rather than right-wing populists. First, in 2014, Artuss Kaimiņš, a moderately successful Latvian actor, leveraged a “shock jock” radio show called “the Dog Kennel” (Suņu Būda), where he regularly humiliated politicians by accusing them of graft or incompetence into a political career.[3] He was elected to parliament in 2014 when recruited as a vote-catching “locomotive” on the party’s list of the mainstream Latvian Regional Alliance (Latvijas Reģionālā Apvienība, LRA). Kaimiņš was swift to position himself as a political outsider, refusing to join LRA and then leaving the party’s parliamentary fraction altogether. He roamed parliament equipped with a pocket-sized camera, filming parliament’s plenary hall as he addressed MPs, discussions in parliamentary committees and indiscrete encounters on the streets. In advance of the 2018 election, he founded a new party—Who Owns the State? (Kam Pieder Valsts? or KPV)—which adopted a ferocious anti-elite rhetoric and fuzzy policy programme. However, KPV was not Russophobic. KPV won the second-largest share of the vote, took 16 out of the 100 seats in Latvia’s parliament and joined the governing coalition formed after a record-breaking three and a half months of negotiations. KPV collapsed just a few years after the election, torn apart by the fact that its MPs had almost nothing in common except an anti-elite attitude that had little significance after the decision to join the government and become part of the political elite.

Aldis Gobzems, KPV’s candidate for prime minister in 2018, followed in Kaimiņš’s footsteps and swiftly left KPV to form his own populist party, initially called Law and Order (Likums un Kārtība, LuK) and then renamed For Each and Every One (Katram un Katrai, KuK). Similarly to KPV, KuK was ideologically ambiguous while fielding relentless anti-elite rhetoric that tapped into the anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown movements that had spread across Latvia during the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2021, Gobzems organized a “Rhododendron tour” of Latvia, culminating in an unlicensed, bawdy evening demonstration outside the Latvian president’s office in Riga Castle.

Another new party was also formed in advance of the 2018 election and similarly tapped into the anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown movements. Like KuK, Latvia First (Latvija Pirmā Vietā, LPV) was deeply critical of the government and the political elite. However, it was led and bankrolled by one of Latvia’s three “oligarchs,” Ainārs Šlesers, who entered politics in 1998 and served as a deputy prime minister as well as stints as economics and transport minister. Šlesers had been forced out of mainstream politics in 2011 after then-president Valdis Zatlers had called an early election with the explicit aim of forcing Latvia’s “oligarchs” out of politics. Public dissatisfaction with the pandemic offered him a route back to parliament. The major difference between LPV and KuK was the former’s focus on the economy and advocacy for tighter commercial ties with Russia. At its founding in August 2021, Šlesers stated that “the current government has no economic development plan […] people are no longer prepared to accept this elite which has been in power for the last 20 years” (Klūga, 2021).

The line-up of populists was joined by Aivars Lembergs, one of the dominant figures of the political scene in the post-Soviet era, who was released from prison in 2022, having served part of a sentence for convictions of money laundering and abuse of office. Despite being an influential political figure through the Green-Farmers Union (Zaļo Zemnieku Savienība, ZZS) and mayor of the wealthy transit port city of Ventspils, Lembergs has long denounced European and national elites and lamented the influence of George Soros. He had even called the increased NATO troop presence in Latvia following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea an “occupation” (“Lembergs iespējamo NATO spēku”, 2014).

The year 2022 also bought a new addition to the populist landscape in Latvia. About one-quarter of Latvia’s voters are Russian speakers, and Latvian political parties have long drawn a “red line” around parties representing this minority, arguing that they pose a threat to Latvia’s Western-oriented political trajectory. For the last decade, the Harmony Social Democracy party (Sakaņa Sociāl Demokrātīja, SSD) has monopolized the representation of the interests of Russian speakers. However, in 2022, this dominance was challenged by an upstart political party led by Aleksejs Rosļikovs, a member of SSD, before he was kicked out of the party in 2019. This new outfit—For Stability! (Stabilitātei! or S!)—was founded in February 2021 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latvia and used the same anti-vaccination tropes as LPV and KuK but targeted the Russian-speaking audience.

The supply side of populism in Latvia

Latvia was well stocked with populist parties and politicians in early 2022, ahead of that year’s scheduled parliamentary election in October. Latvian laws on parties and elections help to explain this steady supply of populists. First, the threshold for creating a new party is low, with just 200 members needed to register a party and 500 to compete in a parliamentary election. Parties must be registered at least twelve months before an election. This allows both charismatic figures (such as Gobzems and KuK as well as Rosļikovs and S!) and well-resourced figures (Šlesers and LPV) to swiftly set up political vehicles.

The initial core issue for all three new populist parties had been the incumbent government’s Covid pandemic policies, particularly vaccination and lockdown, both of which had mobilized small but vociferous groups in 2020 and 2021. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 quickly made these issues largely irrelevant. Latvia shares a 214-kilometre border with Russia and a living memory of Soviet (often equated with Russian) occupation. The war was considered an existential threat to Latvia.

Attitudes towards Russia swiftly hardened. Policies that had long been promoted by the NA—phasing out Russian-language schooling, marginalizing the use of Russian in both public and private sectors and removing Soviet-era monuments—became mainstream. The NA became still more radical, discussing the forced emigration of pro-Kremlin Russian speakers from Latvia (Spalvēns, 2023). As an NA parliamentary deputy reflected during parliamentary debates on Latvia’s foreign policy in January 2023, “we will come to this matter sooner or later, colleagues, like all of us have come together on other issues that until recently were considered taboo” (Ventasballs, 2014).

This shift in attitudes to Russia impacted LPV, KuK and Lembergs, who had been nominated as the ZZS candidate for prime minister. LPV, which had advocated closer economic ties with Russia, was forced to backtrack (instead advocating closer ties with other post-Soviet states). As a result, criticism of the EU and the United States, now critical to Latvia’s future security, was muted. However, by the time of the election in October, the war’s impact on the economy through high inflation and rapidly rising energy prices allowed LPV to return to the theme of the economic incompetence of what they termed the “Kariņš and Levits regime” and, referring to the émigré backgrounds of both the prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš and President Levits and urged them to “return home” (Kariņš was born in the United States and Levits is of Baltic German heritage and fled with his family to West Germany in 1972 where he lived until 1990). With only the pandemic and an anti-elite message to draw on, KuK’s founder, Aldis Gobzems, simply left the country and resettled his family in Spain. Although he returned to campaign in the summer, he was diminished, and his party polled just 3.7% in the election.

S! seized on the opportunity offered by SSD’s swift condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to SSD, S! did not condemn Russia (although it stayed away from directly supporting the invasion; there was not one word of the Ukraine war in the party’s electoral programme) (Central Election Commission, 2022). Avoiding the war (and focusing on peace) was interpreted as a “dog whistle”, essentially the same as siding with Russia, especially as S! described the EU as a “strangling union” in its electoral programme.

The demand side of populism in Latvia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dampened the appeal of Latvia’s populists and boosted the appeal of the mainstream parties as well as the Radical Right. A July 2022 poll showed that 66% (compared to 37% a year earlier) of Latvians had a negative view of Russia, with just 20% (48% in 2021) having a positive outlook (“Aptauja”, 2022). This clearly strengthened the position of Latvia’s most prominent Russia hawks, the NA, as well as Prime Minister Kariņš’s New Unity party (Jaunā Vienotība, JV), whose experienced foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs (he has held the post since 2011) had emerged as a vocal and active critic of Russia on the European and global stage. There was broad support for the government’s backing of Ukraine (second only to Estonia as a percentage of GDP) and the 30,000+ Ukrainian refugees who settled in Latvia (and whose willingness to learn Latvian and integrate into Latvian society was often juxtaposed with those Russian speakers who still do not speak Latvian 30 years after independence and the 10% who remain non-citizens). Actions to limit Russian visas to Europe as well as the government’s declaration that it would not accept Russians fleeing the draft, were also supported by Latvians.

Nevertheless, some muted support for populist parties remained.[4] While Russia’s actions pushed many Latvian voters towards the status quo, the long-term trends of comparative economic decline and voter disillusionment with the political elite endured. Russia’s invasion did little to shift public attitudes toward the state of democracy. A June 2022 survey by the Latvian pollster SKDS found that just 36% of Latvians are satisfied with the state of domestic democracy while 53% are dissatisfied, which is roughly in line with data from 2021 (37% and 51%, respectively) and 2020 (39% and 49%) (“Iedzīvotāju domas”, 2022). Moreover, the harsh “valley of tears” of the economic and social crisis of the 1990s as well as the deep recession of 2008–09, left scars. Eurostat (2022) data shows that Latvia’s poor economic performance since the 2008–09 crisis has left it far behind neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania (in 2021, Latvia’s GDP per capita was just 72% of the EU average, while both Estonia and Lithuania were at 89%). This disenchantment remained, with about 10% of voters supporting the LPV and KuK. The LPV’s more refined communication, focusing on economic issues, proved effective as the true cost of the war began to bite.

The SSD finished below the 5% threshold as Russian speakers switched over to S! A poll taken just a few days after Russia’s invasion revealed that just 22% of Latvia’s Russians supported Ukraine, and roughly the same number supported Russia (21%). The majority claimed to be neutral, although there was undoubtedly an element of self-censorship at play (Domburs, 2022). S! was more appealing to this “neutral” group of Russian speakers.

Discussion and perspectives

Russia’s war on Ukraine has shifted Latvia’s political centre to the right and mainstreamed many of the National Alliance’s long-standing policy positions, such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, dismantling Soviet-era monuments and renaming Russian streets with Latvian names. There is a public perception, also frequently repeated by party leaders, that the NA was “right” about Russia. However, while the NA remains a party of the Radical Right, its gradual political mainstreaming over the last decade has made it far less populist.

Parties attempting to seize the populist political space left by the mainstreaming of the NA have proven to be less enduring because they are pure populists, with nothing to bind members together beyond anti-elite rhetoric. When the populists join the government, as KPV did in 2018, they lose their raison d’être with no “thick” ideology to attach to. However, LPV and S! have been in parliamentary opposition after a new government was formed in December 2022. With little prospect of joining the government, they will likely maintain their populist appeal in the coming years. However, it will likely be targeted less at foreign elites such as the United States, the EU and NATO, who are now so critical to Latvian security and instead focused more on domestic economic issues. S! will also remain in opposition and will draw on the rich seam of resentment of the Russian-speaking population towards the “de-russification” policies that have now become mainstream in Latvia.

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(*) Daunis Auers is Professor of European Studies at the University of Latvia, a Jean Monnet Chair (2022–25) and Director of the PhD programme in Social Sciences. He studied at the London School of Economics and defended his PhD at University College London. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley (2005–06) and a Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Scholar at Wayne State University in Detroit (2014). He has published widely on political parties, elections, referendums, populism and the Radical Right and economic competitiveness. His book, The Comparative Government and Politics of the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the 21st Century, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.


Aptauja: Līdz ar karu strauji audzis Latvijas iedzīvotāju negatīvais vērtējums par Krieviju (2022, September 20). Latvian Public Media.

Auers, D. (2017). Populism in the Baltic states. In A. Kudors & A. Pabriks (Eds.). The Rise of Populism: Lessons for the European Union and the United States of America (pp. 151–168). Center for East European Studies.

Central Election Commission. (2022, September). Stability! Electoral programme.

Deegan-Krause, K. (2007). Populism and the logic of party rotation in post-communist Europe. In O. Gyárfášová & G. Mesežnikov (Eds.). Visegrad Elections: Domestic Impact and European Consequences (pp. 141–156). Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).

Domburs, J. (Host) (2022, March 10). Aptaujas rezultāti: Latvijas iedzīvotāji par Krievijas iebrukumu Ukrainā un Putinu. [TV broadcast] In Kas notiek Latvijā? Latvian Public Media.

Eurostat. (2022). Volume of indices of GDP per capita, 2021. Eurostat.,_consumption_per_capita_and_price_level_indices

Iedzīvotāju domas: Vai Latvijā valda demokrātija? (2022, August 16). NRA.

Klūga, M. (2021, August 14). Šlesera partijas «Latvija pirmajā vietā» Valsts prezidenta amata kandidāte būs Jūlija Stepaņenko. Latvian Public Media.

President urges voters to be on guard against populism ahead of Saeima elections (2021, December 29). Latvian Public Media. politics/politics/president-urges-voters-to-be-on-guard-against-populism-ahead-of-saeima-elections.a436629/

Spalvēns, R. (2023, January 26). Ārlietu ministrija kļūdijās, ielaižot Latvijā Krievijas medijus, uzsver Šnore. Delfi.

Lembergs iespējamo NATO spēku Latvijā ievēšanu pielīdzina okupācijai. (2014, April 4). Ventas Balss.

Wiles, P. (1969). A syndrome, not a doctrine: Some elementary theses on populism. In G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (Eds.). Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics (pp. 166–179). Macmillan.


[1] From a search of the term “populism” in the Delfi archive:, retrieved January 27, 2023.

[2] For more details, see Auers (2017).

[3] See the “Suņu Būda” channel on YouTube for archived shows:

[4] Latvia First won 6.2% of the vote and 9 seats in Latvia’s 100-member parliament, while ZZS won 12.4% (16 seats) and S! 6.8% (11 seats).

Peaceful demonstration against war, Putin and Russia in support of Ukraine, with girls and women, placards and flags in Vilnius, Lithuania on  March 2, 2022. Photo: Michele Ursi.

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

Ulinskaitė, Jogilė & Garškaitė-Antonowicz, Rosita. (2023). “The populist Far Right in Lithuania during Russia’s war against 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.


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In Lithuania, centrist populist parties have been challenging the stability of the party system since 2000. Yet Far Right populist parties have not yet managed to enter the parliament. As Russia’s war against Ukraine has unfolded, the Far Right has had to reorient itself in a changing political landscape. On the one hand, the economic and energy crisis resulting from the war seems to provide the perfect conditions for populist mobilization in a low-trust and low-participation society. On the other, the Lithuanian government has benefited from a rally-around-the-flag effect. Lithuanian society has been particularly active in supporting Kyiv and welcoming refugees from Ukraine. In this article, we analyse the rhetoric of the Lithuanian populist Far Right, focusing on how these parties position themselves in light of changing circumstances due to the war and how they reframe criticism of national and international elites.

Keywords: Lithuania; Russia–Ukraine war; Far Right; populism; rally-around-the-flag effect.


By Jogilė Ulinskaitė* Rosita Garškaitė-Antonowicz** (Vilnius University)


Although centrist populist political parties have been challenging the stability of the party system in Lithuania since 2000, Far Right populist parties have not yet managed to cross the 5% threshold needed to enter the parliament. These groups successfully mobilized support against the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has eroded the significance of that critique and forced Far Right populist parties to reorient themselves in a changing political landscape.

The economic and energy crisis caused by the war might seem like perfect conditions for populist mobilization. However, the Lithuanian government has benefited from a rally-around-the-flag effect, and the ruling party’s popularity ratings have soared (Brunalas, 2022). In addition, Lithuanian society has been particularly active in supporting the Ukrainian side. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Lithuanians supported the Ukrainian side by donating money, volunteering in related organizations, or welcoming refugees from Ukraine into their homes (Stankevičius, 2023). The donation of a military drone crowdfunded by ordinary Lithuanians is a prime example of this public generosity (BBC News, 2022). Furthermore, attitudes towards Russia, which have always been negative, have become even more so. Opinion polls published in January 2023 found that 90% of Lithuanians have an unfavourable opinion of Russia, while 75% have a negative view of Belarus (Pankūnas, 2023).

In this report, we examine the rhetoric of Lithuanian right-wing populists concentrating on how they reframe criticism of (inter)national elites and navigate possible associations with Russia. We conceptualize Far Right actors operating according to the procedural rules of democracy. They can be located at the far right end of the Left–Right ideological scale, with populism, nativism, radicalism, and conservatism as essential characteristics. In their discourse, a nation is seen as a homogeneous unit that must be protected from outsiders or dangerous intruders (Wodak, 2019), such as immigrants. For them, the principle of majority rule is an essential feature of democracy (ibid.), and a strong or even authoritarian-leaning government is required to protect the homeland (Bustikova & Kitschelt, 2009). A strong emphasis is put on family values and a return to “better times” (Wodak, 2019). In addition, the political elite is perceived as corrupt, working against the will of the people and promoting the European Union (EU) agenda (Golder, 2016; Bustikova & Kitschelt, 2009; Wodak, 2019).

The report focuses primarily on the discourse of three Far Right actors: two political parties and a movement. The National Alliance (Nacionalinis susivienijimas, NS) and the Union for Nation and Justice (Tautos ir teisingumo sąjunga, TTS) took part in the last parliamentary elections in 2020 but did not get any mandates. The Lithuanian Family Movement (Lietuvos šeimų sąjūdis, LŠS) has organized several protests in the past two years. The biggest in May 2021 — the “Great March in Defence of the Family” — attracted as many as 10,000 people, an exceptionally high number in a society with low levels of civic engagement and political participation (Žiliukaitė, 2006). Marchers sought to uphold traditional family values and criticize the management of the pandemic. Later in the summer, the LŠS was involved in riots that prevented MPs from leaving the parliament building, and some of its leaders were prosecuted. As a result, the movement’s popularity declined, but it did not abandon the criticism of the pandemic restrictions and even claimed responsibility for ending COVID-19 restrictions in Lithuania. The NS, the TTS and the LŠS are now running candidates in municipal elections scheduled for March 2023. The analysed data consists of communications on official Facebook pages or official websites from the start of the war on February 24 until the end of 2022.

In addition, we provide examples of the discourse of two populist (but not Far Right) leaders closely related to the NS, the TTS and the LŠS. Ramūnas Karbauskis is the leader of the opposition Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union(Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų sąjunga, LVŽS), which led the governing coalition in 2016–2020. Members of the NSworked for this party’s MPs and are now running on its list of candidates for municipal councils (as are members of the LŠS). Ignas Vėgėlė, a lawyer and professor of law, became a well-known and popular politician after his vocal opposition to the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. He is currently supported by all the Far Right organizations analysed in this report.

National security: New wine in old “family values” bottles?

At the heart of Lithuanian Far Right ideology is what ideologues call the “defence” of families, meaning a backlash against legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence against Women,[1]and other political issues related to gender and sexual identities. They frame binary genders and heterosexual families as essential to national culture, appealing to the sense in Lithuania that this small nation may disappear due to mass emigration and negative natural population growth. This theme has remained salient in Far Right rhetoric since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

In the discourse of the Far Right, one way to support Ukraine is to resist “genderism”, as both the NS and the TTS suggest. For them, Ukraine is one of the greatest defenders of the “natural family” simply because it does not recognize same-sex unions, and Ukrainian public opinion is not favourable. To quote the TTS: “We invite you to support the Ukrainian fight for natural values, the nation-state, and Christian civilization as well as to adhere to these ideals in our state as well” (Gražulis, 2022).

The LŠS goes as far as comparing the “gender propaganda” that the Lithuanian elite allegedly promotes with war propaganda from the Kremlin. The former is even more threatening because it “propagates a war inside our country, among us” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022a). In the rhetoric of politicians, ensuring security means uniting and mobilizing society. That is why Far Right actors and the opposition leader, Ramūnas Karbauskis, criticize the government for subverting the unity of society by debating the Istanbul Convention and the gender-neutral civil partnership bill. According to Karbauskis, it is unseemly to discuss such an irrelevant question as a civil partnership with a war underway (Tapinienė, 2022). Overall, the strategy is to kick the can down the road, saying, “now is not the time”.

European friends and foes

As security has become a top priority as the war has unfolded, populist and Far Right politicians have used the conflict to criticize the national and international political elite. They have sought to delegitimize the Lithuanian government by calling ministers “temporary administrators of the country” incapable of making independent decisions, much like in the Soviet Union and, more recently, the EU. A common claim is that the government is not doing enough to protect the country. Populist and Far Right politicians argue for increased defence spending. The NS has gone further, saying additional social measures are needed to strengthen the country’s security, such as increasing the birth rate, reducing social exclusion, and strengthening patriotic education (Nacionalinis susivienijimas, 2022a).

Since Lithuanians are among the most trusting in the EU,[2] compared to other Europeans, the Far Right does not target EU membership directly. Nonetheless, they criticize the Lithuanian political elite for prioritizing “foreign forces” over “the will of their citizens” and blame Brussels for “political and cultural dictates”. Vytautas Sinica, one of the leaders of the NS, has recounted with glee how Western Europe used to teach Central and Eastern Europe about equality, diversity, ecology, and cosmopolitism, but everything has changed. Now Volodymyr Zelenskyy teaches Brussels what European values — namely, nationalism, sovereignty, and independence — mean (Petkus, 2022). The distinction is made in this case, as in many others, between “new” Europe, which is young, full of life, and proud of the nation, and “old”, pragmatic Europe.

Whereas Lithuanian society, in general, was disappointed with the slow speed and limited extent of Western military support for Ukraine, and the government urged NATO members to provide Ukraine with more weapons, a new undertone became evident in Far Right discourse. They argue for strengthening military cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States, not with Germany, currently leading a NATO brigade in Lithuania. They went further than mocking the reluctance of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send arms or diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Russia by France’s Emmanuel Macron. The key word was “hypocrisy”, and it was argued that the words and deeds of Western leaders differ.

Yet Lithuanian Far Right actors wish to cultivate some friendships in Europe. Since the outbreak of the war, the discourse on counterparts in Europe has been very cautious. For instance, the victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy was celebrated with emphasis on the “strong” pro-Ukrainian position of her party, Fratelli d’Italia. On the other hand, when criticized for congratulating Victor Orbán for his victory in the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections, the leader of the TTS employed a strategy of “whataboutism”. In his rhetoric, Orbán is as pragmatic towards Russia as Scholz or Macron, so why are Germany and France justified by the Lithuanian political and media elites while Hungary is condemned? His answer, unsurprisingly, claimed that “leftists” or “liberals”— who work against “nation-states, the natural family and Christian ethics” —are running the show (Gražulis, 2022).

Refugees: Overlap with the political elite

Since the invasion, Lithuania has welcomed over 73,000 refugees from Ukraine (UNHCR, n.d.). Even Far Right actors have provided housing support or volunteered to organize the settlement process. In doing this and communicating about their contributions, they have acted in line with the popular pro-Ukrainian sentiment, simultaneously evading associations with the Kremlin. To date, their nativist ideology emerges in discourse only in a very subtle way. Instead of using economic arguments against support for Ukraine, the LŠS leans on the cultural dimension by accusing the elite and their supporters of “ostentatious Ukrainophilia” (Čepaitienė, 2023). Their sympathizers are especially prone to complain about the widespread usage of the colours of the Ukrainian flag instead of Lithuanian ones. In their interpretation, national symbols have been deliberately ceded, and the LŠS is fighting to “take them back”.

Not just Ukrainians seek asylum in Lithuania. Since June 2021, migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to cross the border with Belarus almost daily. Although more than 4,000 were admitted in June and July 2021, since August 2021, irregular migrants have been denied entry and pushed back. Amnesty International issued a report detailing the practice of pushbacks, which violates international law, and documenting other human rights abuses against refugees and migrants (Amnesty International, 2022). The report emphasized the stark contrast between the treatment of people fleeing the war in Ukraine and victims of Belarusian President Lukashenko’s “asylum politics”. The Far Right NS has grasped the elite and public opinion adequately by saying: “It is likely that in our country there are not many people having doubts about the fact that Ukrainians fleeing the war in contrast to economic migrants sent here by Belarus have an untrammelled right to refugee status”. (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022a)

The strategy of contrasting “real” Ukrainian refugees and “illegal” and “politically and culturally disloyal” economic migrants does not help them to instigate dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. The government has built a fence along the border with Belarus and is not letting migrants in, framing the issue solely as a matter of national security. The Court of Justice of the European Union also found that preventing irregular migrants from applying for asylum and putting them in automatic detention contradicts European directives (Bakaitė, 2022). Some of the Far Right actors in Lithuania described this judgement as an additional example of how “the EU promotes multiculturalism and mixing of nations” (Petkus, 2022). They even are inclined to defend the mainstream policy.

Post-pandemic restrictions and economic crisis

The LŠS, NS, TTS, and Ignas Vėgėlė have taken advantage of the prevailing solidarity with Ukrainian society and presented themselves as victims of a brutal regime while framing the Lithuanian government as the aggressor. The LŠSaccused the government of using the war as a pretext to impose “a dictatorship, total control of society and censorship of opinion, persecuting critics of its actions and unjustifiably restricting other constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022b). They say the government “actually contributes to Russia’s aggressive ambitions” (ibid.).

Ignas Vėgėlė, who has taken the most advantage of the opposition to pandemic restrictions, is now a potential presidential candidate (Baltic News Service, 2022). As a legal scholar and former chairman of Lithuania’s Bar Council, he has positioned himself as a civil society representative, advocating for citizens’ freedom and rights and demanding accountability of politicians. Since the outbreak of the war, the claim that the Lithuanian government was restricting freedom and human rights has been extended to other contexts, equating it with the Russian authoritarian regime. Ignas Vėgėlė complained that he was being delegitimized by the cultural, media, and political elite (Vėgėlė, 2022) and suggested that the Lithuanian government was actually working for the benefit of Putin.

The NS added to criticism of the government by expressing concern about the state of emergency and linking it to constitutional restrictions on freedom of expression and information and censorship (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022b). They also introduced another trope to associate themselves with the victims of the war, creating an analogy between Putin’s claim to the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine and EU policy. In the words of one of the NS leaders, “the Lithuanian “soft de-Nazification is particularly dangerous in that the purposeful destruction of the nation and state are usually covered up by the defence of “European” and “Western” values while avoiding the need to disclose the conceptual origins of these values and their ideological and political content” (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022a).

Politicians are still using the memory of the 1990s to invoke resentment and feelings of injustice in society (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). The LŠS and the NS have questioned the country’s post-communist transformation by calling political elites “privatizers of freedom”. In the words of Vytautas Radžvilas, an NS leader, democracy in Lithuania has steadily declined along with the “plundering” of public goods through privatization (ELTA, 2020). The LŠS argues that Lithuanian parties are “entities, created in the process of ‘prikhvat-ization[3] of state assets and pseudo-elite warfare, which take turns in sharing seats in the cabinets of territorial administration, also known as Lithuania” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). This way, mainstream political forces are described as self-interested and disconnected from society.

Moreover, they are also depicted as deliberately worsening the living conditions of society. They have been accused of raising the price of food, fuel, taxes, and electricity. Since the liberalization of the electricity market (the change from regulated electricity supply to open market competition), the system has faced challenges, and the price of electricity reached record highs in the summer of 2022. The energy minister, naturally, became one of their most criticized targets. Even more, Ignas Vėgėlė called the liberalization of the electricity market and price fluctuations coercive, while the NS argued it was criminal and portrayed the liberalization and price fluctuations as a malicious scheme. The TTS called it a fraud and the LŠS a “pretext for the predatory privatization of the electricity supply system for the benefit of business groups” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). Therefore, although Lithuania had already secured its energy independence and did not face an energy crisis due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this did not prevent populist politicians from articulating and stimulating the crisis in the country and blaming the government.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a negative effect (at least temporarily) on right-wing populist politics in Lithuania. All the political, media and economic connections these parties have with the Kremlin or openly pro-Russian activists were put under the magnifying glass. The usual arguments of mainstream politicians and journalists that populists’ favoured causes coincide with the Kremlin’s gained ground in Lithuania, as the society is highly anti-Russian and supports Ukraine. In view of the unfolding war in Ukraine, Far Right actors have found it difficult to present themselves as “anti-system patriots” to attack the political elite, which is seen as focused on the national interest. Both an insider (Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the main opposition party) and an outsider (Vytautas Sinica, the leader of the NS) have publicly backed the government’s performance in relation to the war. They were also deprived of the chance to escalate the issue of irregular migration from Belarus as the government handled it in their preferred way (i.e., with a border fence).

Nevertheless, the Far Right actors have attempted to pass through an eye of a needle. It is evident in the populist rhetoric we investigated for this article that right-wing politicians have tried very hard to capitalize on any public grievances and to stimulate them even more, especially concerning the energy crisis and pandemic restrictions. They will continue to base their campaign on creating a sense of insecurity and channelling discontent toward national and EU elites. At the same time, they will most likely continue using a strategy to draw a parallel between the Lithuanian government and Putin’s regime, simultaneously identifying themselves and the whole society as victims. But in practice, their results will be best seen in 2024, when presidential and parliamentary elections will be held. The Far Right in Lithuania will likely try to secure a higher level of support through cooperation with popular but not so extreme, “non-systemic” candidates.

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(*) Jogilė Ulinskaitė is Assistant Professor of Political Science and research fellow at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. Her research focuses broadly on the discourse of populist parties in Lithuania. In the recent past, she was part of a research team that carried out several projects on the collective memory of the communist and post-communist past in Lithuania. Her current research focuses on populism and its links to emotional narratives about the past. Email:

(**) Rosita Garškaitė-Antonowicz is a PhD candidate at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. Her research interests include religion and politics, public opinion on European integration, and post-communist transformation. Email:


Amnesty International. (2022). Lithuania: Forced out or locked up refugees and migrants. abused and abandoned.

Bakaitė, J. (2022, June 30). CJEU finds Lithuania’s migrant policies in violation of EU law. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

Baltic News Service. (2022, October 19). Survey: Lithuanians would vote for Nauseda and Vegele in presidential election. Delfi.

BBC News. (2022, July 7). Lithuania donates crowdfunded drone to Ukraine.

Brunalas, B. (2022, March 16). Partinių reitingų lentelėje baigėsi užsitęsęs štilis: TS-LKD reitingas šoko į viršų, LSDP patyrė didžiausių nuostolių. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

Bustikova, L., & Kitschelt, H. (2009). The Radical Right in post-communist Europe. Comparative perspectives on legacies and party competition. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 42(4), 459–483.

Čepaitienė, R. (2023, January 9). Rasa Čepaitienė. Parodomasis patriotizmas. Kauno forumas.

ELTA. (2020, September 20). Radžvilas apie cenzūrą ir koncepciją, keliančią baimę jo oponentams: siūlo panaikinti Konstitucinį Teismą. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

European Commission (2022, September). Standard Eurobarometer – Summer 2022.

Golder, M. (2016). Far Right parties in Europe. Annual Review of Political Science, 19(1), 477–497.

Gražulis, P. (2022, April 4). P. Gražulis: Tautininkai priešinasi Kremliaus penktajai kolonai, atsiriboja nuo melagingų kaltinimų.

Lapėnienė, S. (2022, May 9). While society mobilises, Lithuanian government does little to help accommodate Ukrainian refugees. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022a, March 10). Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. Į viską jiems nusispjaut.

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022b, May 19). “Didžiojo šeimos gynimo maršo 2022” Rezoliucija. Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis.

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022c, December 8). Lietuvos šeimų sąjūdis. Deklaracija Lietuva Pirmiausia.

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022a, March 1). Pareiškimas dėl karo pabėgėlių iš Ukrainos.

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022b, May 21). Partijos “Nacionalinis susivienijimas” suvažiavimo dalyvių atviras laiškas šalies vadovams, Seimo nariams ir visuomenei dėl vykdomos šalies “minkštosios denacifikacijos” grėsmių valstybei karo Ukrainoje ir globalios saugumo krizės sąlygomis.

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022c, May 21). Partijos „Nacionalinis susivienijimas“ suvažiavimo rezoliucija dėl būtinų priemonių šalies saugumui ir gynybai.

Pankūnas, G. (2023, January 2). Survey shows Lithuanians have abysmal opinion of Russia, favour Poland and Germany. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

Pasieka, A. M. (2021). Postsocialist and postcapitalist questions? Far-right historical narratives and the making of a New Europe. East European Politics and Societies, 35(4), 975–995.

Petkus, D. (2022, July 1). Vytautas Sinica. Europos Teisingumo Teismo sprendimas dėl migrantų yra beprotybė | LAIKMETIS.

Stankevičius, A. (2023, January 30). Nepaisant lietuvių aktyvumo padedant Ukrainai, Pilietinės galios indeksas sumenko. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

Tapinienė, R. (2022, May 27). Karbauskis: kaip Lietuvoje, esant karui Ukrainoje, svarstomi tokie beprasmiai dalykai kaip partnerystė, narkotikų dekriminalizavimas. Lithuanian Radio and Television.

UNHCR. (n.d.). Ukraine Refugee Situation. Retrieved January 25, 2023, from

Vėgėlė, I. (2022, March 15). I. Vėgėlė. Valstybę skaldančios propagandos industrija įsisiūbavo.

Wodak, R. (2019). Entering the “post-shame era”: The rise of illiberal democracy, populism and neo-authoritarianism in Europe. Global Discourse, 9(1), 195–213.

Žiliukaitė, R. (Ed.). (2006). Neatrasta galia = Undiscovered power: Lietuvos pilietinės visuomenės žemėlapis = Map of the civil society in Lithuania. Versus aureus.

Žiliukaitė, R., Poviliūnas, A., & Savicka, A. (2016). Lietuvos visuomenės vertybių kaita per dvidešimt nepriklausomybės metų. Vilnius University Press.


[1] There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Lithuania. Vilnius has signed the Istanbul Convention, but not yet ratified it.

[2] In Lithuania, 69% of citizens say they trust the EU, while the European average is 49% (European Commission, 2022).

[3 This term — a play on the Russian word прихватить (“prikhvatit”, to grab) — became popular in the 1990s. It refers to the (at best) illegitimate and (at worst) downright illegal process of converting public assets to private property across that decade.

Ukrainians, Norwegians and others nations are at peaceful demonstrations on the way to Russian Embassy in Oslo, Norway with slogans to stop war in Ukraine on February 26, 2022. Photo: Oleksandr Khokhlyuk.

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

Sunnercrantz, Liv. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Norway.” 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.


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The political right-wing populism topography in Norway has for decades been dominated by the Norwegian Progress Party, which is characterized by a combination of social-conservative values like nativism combined with market liberalism. However, following the invasion of Ukraine, it is not issues of security and sovereignty that take centre stage in the Progress Party’s discourse but high energy prices. As a fossil fuel producer, Norway profits from the ensuing energy crisis and Europe’s search for other energy providers than Russia. These profits, the Progress Party argues, are unduly awarded to the state treasury while “ordinary people” and entrepreneurs struggle. Populism thus appears in Norway as a way for a right-wing opposition party to challenge the centre-left government.

Keywords: Norwegian Progress Party; Russia–Ukraine war; energy prices; immigration; populism.


By Liv Sunnercrantz* (University of Stavanger)

The diversity of political populism in Norway

Populism appears in politics amongst parties of the Left, the Right and the political centre in Norway. This diversity is apparent in the diverging ideologies and strategies entangled with populist politics. On the Right, the Norwegian Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) combines neoliberal and nativist ideologies and is most associated with populism in Norway. The traditionally agrarian Centre Party occupies the middle ground. The centre-left Labour Party advances a broad range of liberal, social democratic politics. Finally, on the Left, there are two smaller parties with populist tendencies, the Socialist Left Party (which campaigns on social justice and environmentalism) and the Far Left is the socialist Red Party, which engages in traditional class politics. In the most recent election in 2021, the Centre Party most successfully and thoroughly applied a populist agenda. It did so partly in cooperation with the Labour Party in forming a government but has since toned down its populist appeal.

The precursor to today’s Progress Party was Anders Lange’s eponymous party (Anders Lange’s Party, ALP), formed in 1973 and inspired by right-wing populist developments in neighbouring Denmark. Contemporaneously, a short-lived leftist populist movement attached to the Socialist Left Party demanded a reorientation of society and policy towards local communities and mobilized mostly peripheral coastal areas of Norway through a system critique and the threats associated with Norway’s European integration (Bjørklund, 2004). Like the FrP, this early wave of leftist populism mobilized actors dissatisfied with Labour Party governments and the politics of centralization, bureaucracy, and industrialization.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ALP morphed into the FrP, redefined itself as a libertarian party, and applied more nativist rhetoric. The Muslim immigrant figure was singled out as a scapegoat in the FrP’s discourse. This is even though Muslims are not the majority of immigrants to Norway. In the 1980s, the FrP also started to shift to welfare chauvinism, arguing for the defence of the welfare state rather than its retrenchment. But it was not until the 1990s that the party discourse became rephrased around cultural differences and integration as its key concerns.

Although the FrP is relatively moderate by European Far Right standards— and internally divided between two factions (one libertarian, one more national conservative)—it is the strongest anti-immigration voice among parliamentary parties in Norway. Like its sibling Far Right parties across the Nordics today, the FrP maintains that it is not propagating hate messages against immigrants but instead is concerned with the national interest. The party instead positions itself against the policies of the Labour Party, which it blames for the social ills it claims have resulted from admitting (Muslim) immigrants to Norway (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). However, FrP has targeted a range of “elites” for criticism in its populist rhetoric over the last few decades, including the EU, the central state administration, liberal leftists, and, of course, the Labour Party. More recently, the party has foregrounded voices sceptical of human-induced climate change and mobilized around continued fossil extraction in Norway, thus targeting supporters of vigorous climate change mitigation and those opposed to fossil fuel use.

In the 2005 and 2009 elections, the FrP increased its voter support to become the second-largest party after the Labour Party. But Labour was able to cobble together a coalition government with the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party in both cases. In 2013, the Conservative Party moved into second place ahead of the FrP but reached out to the party in coalition negotiations. The two agreed to form a governing coalition, allowing the FrP to enter government for the first time. The coalition was in office until 2017.

Populism in the 2021 elections: Now it is the turn of “ordinary people”

In January 2020, the FrP staged a dramatic exit from the governing right-wing coalition due to policy disagreements with its partners, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. The FrP claimed that the government’s decision to bring a woman who had joined ISIS in Syria and her child back to Norway was the main reason for leaving the government. This left the party with a good margin to reposition itself as an oppositional challenger party in time for the national election in the autumn of 2021. But several internal ideological battles played out between the libertarian and national conservative factions in the autumn of 2020. The deputy leader Sylvi Listhaug took a prominent role alongside party chief Siv Jensen in rooting out radical nationalist elements from the party.

Like other right-wing populist parties in Europe, the FrP has been led by female party leaders since the mid-2000s. When Jensen stepped down as party leader in February 2021, she pointed to Listhaug as her preferred successor. Listhaug was unanimously elected party leader three months later during a party congress. Her victory speech was ladened with neoliberal populist rhetoric: “We shall still maintain the soul of the party, which is that we dare where others are silent. That we challenge the elite and the experts, and we stand up for individuals” (cited in Helljesen, 2021). Listhaug’s election was nevertheless tainted by a debate centred on the complete lack of female representatives among the remaining ten members of the party’s central board (Rognsvåg, 2021).

As a term, populism now carries negative connotations in Norwegian public political discourse. As a derogative, “populism” connotes opportunistic political practices, short-term solutions, and a lack of scruples and principles (Bjørklund, 2004). Populism was avidly used by politicians, journalists, and political commentators in the months leading up to the national elections in September 2021, as the slogan “now it is the turn of ordinary people” took centre stage in the election campaign of the Labour Party and the Centre Party. While this rhetoric was criticized and ridiculed, the two parties gained enough electoral support (26.3% and 13.5%, respectively) to form a coalition government and oust the incumbent right-wing coalition. This centre-left project thus utilizes populist rhetoric to challenge the liberal–conservative status quo coalitions governing since 2013. This follows a broader historical pattern of Nordic populism, which functions as a strategy for fringe parties to challenge an existing hegemony in attempts to gain mainstream positions (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). A type of “rural populism” fronted by the leader of the Centre Party contributed to their electoral success already in the local and regional elections of 2019.

The Centre Party is one of the few parties that increased its electoral support in the 2021 election, along with other fringe parties like the Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, and the Green Party. Simultaneously, the FrP’s vote share dropped from 15.2% in 2019 to 11.6 % in the 2021 election. This was their worst result since 1993. Aggregated polling results in the past year show a slight increase for the party in the summer of 2022 and a relatively stable downward trend back to 11.8% since then. The Labour Party has experienced a general fall in support since the election (to between 17.8 and 19.6% in the past six months) and the Centre Party (between 5.2 and 7.5 % in the past six months). All the while, the conservative Right party steadily increased from 20.4% in the election to tipping above 30% in support in late 2022 and early 2023 (Stortingsvalg: Hele Landet, n.d.). It is difficult to assess whether this relates to the war in Ukraine. While a direct causal relation seems unlikely, it seems more likely that these figures are indirectly related to the invasion of Ukraine and directly related to a crisis much closer to home, namely, increased energy prices coupled with the government’s inability to live up to its many promises from the election campaign.

The Progress Party strategy in the Ukraine war

The war in Ukraine and the government’s handling of the situation do not seem to cause a stir among voters or parties. Most parties are in general agreement on how to handle the situation. Both the Socialist Left and the Red party internally debate and disagree as to whether Norway should send weapons to Ukraine. The FrP also takes a critical stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supports the government’s politics on the matter. While the FrP is largely silent in debates regarding the handling of the war in terms of international politics, they take the opportunity to exploit war-related issues such as energy prices, fossil fuel production and farming.

The Progress Party does not share the pure authoritarianism and illiberalism of Putin’s regime. The war has seemingly had both direct and indirect effects on the FrP’s discourse. First, in reassessing Norwegian defence policy, the party’s argumentation takes a more internationalist rather than nationalist turn. The FrP is a strong NATO advocate but is alone in seeing NATO as a genuinely collaborative organization. Since Norway will “play on the same team as the Finns” in case of an invasion from the east, the party argues that Norway should change its defence investment to complement the capabilities of its neighbouring newcomers to NATO (Sweden and Finland).

The fact that Russia shares a long border with Norway has complicated the political disproval of all things Russian. The border region in northeastern Norway is sparsely populated and potentially vulnerable because of its geographical remoteness from more densely populated and politically prioritized areas in the south. Therefore, Norway and its extended state apparatus maintained bilateral cooperation and relations with Russian counterparts well into 2021. Intriguingly, the FrP’s enmity with the Labour Party clashes with their NATO-friendly stance, as the NATO secretary-general is Jens Stoltenberg, a former Labour Party prime minister of Norway. Hence, while the FrP criticizes the Labour Party and Stoltenberg’s politics at home – they are not as critical of Stoltenberg’s politics as NATO secretary-general. Moreover, the FrP and Listhaug especially endorse good relations with the US. But individual spokespersons from the FrP are more understanding and even defensive of Russian actions, including former party leader Hagen and the spokesperson on foreign relations and defence (Myhre et al., 2022).

While in power, the FrP is quite happy to admit Christian immigrants from Poland and the Baltics – while less enthusiastic about immigrants from the Global South. This pattern is recognizable in the overall media discourse in Norway following the invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe faced a refugee crisis similar to that of 2015, when more than 800,000 refugees arrived in Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. European countries once again had to decide how to deal with hundreds of thousands and soon over a million displaced people. Norwegian media narratives of Ukrainian refugees are drastically different from the narratives of refugees from Syria, for example. Debates discuss whether the immense support for and engagement regarding Ukrainian refugees (compared to the more negative storylines of refugees from, say, Afghanistan or Syria) is a sign of sheer racism. Ukrainian refugees feature daily in media reports from the frontline, as well as border crossings, and the many various receptions and accommodations for refugees in Norway.

This differential treatment of refugees eventually gained attention in debate forums. Some argue that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals systemic racism in European states’ refugee and asylum policies” (Kjellmo Larsen, 2022). The Progress Party—which has promoted very strict asylum and deportation policies for years (see, e.g., Progress Party, n.d.)—now suggests a so-called fast track for Ukrainians who come to Norway by, for example, granting work permits from day one (Progress Party, 2022b, 2022c). What is more, they wish to “immediately stop the retrieval of resettlement refugees from other areas of the world and give priority to helping European refugees from Ukraine” (Progress Party, 2022a).

The energy crisis resulting from the war has opened a window of opportunity for Finnish populist Far Right parties to reclaim their populist and rural roots in antagonizing energy policies and mobilizing the “regular people” through petro-friendly politics and campaigns against spiking prices and VAT on fossil fuels, electricity, and food. Hence, the internationalist free-market ideology is rearing its head again in Norwegian right-wing populism. That Norway profits from the war is no secret. In September 2022, The Economist reported that Norway would gain over US$200 billion in extra revenue a year from the sale of oil, gas, and electricity due to the Ukraine war (The Economist, 2022). The FrP takes this opportunity to argue for increased exploration activity on the Norwegian continental shelf. This argument is framed in terms of energy security and taking “responsibility for making Europe less dependent on Russia’s energy supply” (Progress Party, 2022a). Hence, an emphasized sense of a crisis serves as a useful building block in the Progress Party’s existing fossil fuel policies. Moreover, the party’s leader mobilizes against the fact that “the state becomes richer – people become poorer” (Politisk kvarter, 2022).

As a government party, the FrP contributed to tying Norway closer to the European power market through several power cables that connect the Norwegian national grid to those of adjacent countries. These have been the subject of dispute in the past few years. As recently as 2018, the former Progress Party Minister of Petroleum and Energy (2013–16) argued whole-heartedly in favour of the international market model (Hansen & Moe, 2022). The mainstream discourse thus far “represents a political counterweight to sovereignty claims and resource nationalism” (Hansen & Moe, 2022, p. 7), which we might associate with the populist Far Right. However, the FrP changed its rhetoric through 2021 and 2022 from market-friendly internationalism towards energy sovereignty. This is coupled with skyrocketing electricity prices relative to pre-pandemic times. In 2021 and 2022, the exploding electricity prices hit Norwegian citizens and businesses hard, given their propensity for high consumption. Prices were hotly debated, not least during the election campaigns in 2021, and the centre-left government that took office in the autumn of 2021 quickly rolled out a subsidy programme for households in time for the winter months of 2021–22.

The electricity prices increased in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine and are routinely blamed on the international market and cables. Nevertheless, the many co-dependent variables that affect electricity prices are so complex that neither politicians nor experts agree on how the prices are set or how much the two cables have affected prices. Nonetheless, the FrP leader Listhaug claimed in November 2022 that “there is no doubt that the high prices in Europe are largely due to the war” (Solvang, 2022) and that the two cables for increased export capacity are also to blame for higher prices. Moreover, the first significant price increase in the winter of 2020–21 followed a long period of low energy prices.

An argument concerning who and what is to blame for the high energy costs developed between the Labour Party and the FrP in the autumn of 2022. Listhaug accused the government of blaming too much on the war and not taking sufficient responsibility for increased prices in the summer of 2021. The Labour Party, on the other hand, accuses Listhaug of playing on polarization and hatred to recruit voters. Media recounts how the social democratic minister of climate and environment sees parallels between Listhaug and Putin:

“I wouldn’t say in any way that she’s doing it on Putin’s behalf because I don’t believe that for a moment, but that’s the kind of reaction he wants, namely, “us against them”, internally in the West, that we are divided.” (Karlsen, 2022)

Listhaug later condemned these accusations and managed to reassert a focus on the two cables and “naïve European politicians” (Heldahl & Karlsen, 2022). In the end, the complexity of the electricity market has been simplified in media narratives and has become one of the major concerns for Norwegian households. The governing parties’ inability to accommodate public grievances of the high prices is often named as one of the reasons why the Centre Party’s popular support has dropped from the election results of 13.5% to polling between 4.5–7.5 % through 2022-23.

In October 2022, the FrP suddenly demanded a maximum price for electricity. But this is not an anti-marketization argument since, as Listhaug emphasizes, ownership in the energy market is dominated by state actors (usually in the form of municipal and regional ownership of electricity companies) (Solvang, 2022). the FrP wishes to set a maximum price on electricity for “industry and business” and “common people” at 0.5 NOK per kWh (Progress Party, 2021; Solvang, 2022). True to form, the FrP does not wish to regulate the energy market as such but for the state to provide subsidies covering 100% of the electricity prices over 0.50 Norwegian krone (NOK) per kWh (about €0.05). Businesses and private customers may thus receive support for the difference between 0.50 NOK and up to their billed price (a slightly higher subsidy than the electricity support scheme in place since December 2021). While this proposal did not receive sufficient support in parliament, it shows that the FrP promotes a power policy relatively similar to that which populists on the Left—in the Socialist Left Party and the Red Party—have long since propagated.

Another issue debated since the invasion of Ukraine is that Norway has profited greatly from the ensuing increase in oil and gas prices. Intriguingly, the FrP uses this as a reason for increased subsidies in electricity prices:

The money flows into the treasury from the oil and gas sector. Never before have we made more money from this than now. Of course, we can afford to let some of this benefit ordinary people if there is political will. (Progress Party, 2021)

One could argue that this is related to the “demand side” of right-wing populism. Norwegian political parties seem almost to compete on the matter of who can lower the costs of electricity the most for households and businesses in times of skyrocketing prices in 2022–23. Hence, economic grievances amongst the electorate could be the reason behind the FrP’s U-turn from free-market liberalism to increased state inference. Moreover, the FrP takes on and propagates common-sense explanations that “everybody can see” (Solvang, 2022) when seeking to account for price rises.


The effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on right-wing populism in Norway are mostly indirect. The traditional populists in the Norwegian Progress Party mobilize less on the issue of military defence and international relations and more on high fuel prices, high electricity prices and tighter finances for both private households and the business sector. These domestic issues are framed partly as consequences of the war. It is widely recognized that as a producer of fossil fuels, Norway profits extensively from the war and Europe’s turn away from Russian oil and gas. The FrP equates the increased expenses for business and “common people” with the severity of the refugee crisis and the security threat that the war has triggered.

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(*) Liv Sunnercrantz is associate professor at the Department of Media and Social Sciences in the University of Stavanger. Sunnercrantz’s work centres on post-foundational discourse theory and the sociology of intellectuals. Her current research is focused on populism and populist rhetoric, especially in the Scandinavian context.


Bjørklund, T. (2004). Norsk populisme fra Ottar Brox til Carl I. Hagen. Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 21(03–04), 410–419.

Hansen, S. T., & Moe, E. (2022). Renewable energy expansion or the preservation of national energy sovereignty? Norwegian renewable energy policy meets resource nationalism. Political Geography, 99, 102760.

Heldahl, H., & Karlsen, M. Ø. (2022, September 21). Listhaug slår tilbake mot Putin-anklager i strømdebatten: – Spinnvill beskyldning. Nettavisen.

Helljesen, V. (2021, May 8). Nå er Sylvi Listhaug Frp-leder. NRK.

Karlsen, M. Ø. (2022, September 20). Kritiserer Listhaug for «Putin-taktikk». Nettavisen.

Kjellmo Larsen, H. (2022, March 4). Det er noe som skurrer.

Myhre, M. H., Aasland, A., & Holm-Hansen, J. (2022). “Crimea will forever be Russian”: Dissenting Norwegian media discourses on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. European Politics and Society, Advance online publication, 1–24.

Palonen, E., & Sunnercrantz, L. (2021). Nordic populist parties as hegemony challengers. In A. Koivunen, J. Ojala, & J. Holmén (Eds.), The Nordic economic, social and political model: Challenges in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Politisk kvarter. (2022, April 22). Krigskrisekrav [Radio broadcast]. NRK Radio.

Progress Party. (n.d.). Mottak av flyktninger i Norge. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from

Progress Party. (2021, October 20). FrP vil gi deg billigere strøm.

Progress Party (2022a, March 2). Situasjonen i Ukraina: Dette mener FrP.

Progress Party. (2022b, March 9). FrP vil ha tilpasset integreringsløp for ukrainske flyktninger.

Progress Party (2022c, March 25). Ukrainske flyktninger må inn i arbeidslivet.

Rognsvåg, S. (2021, March 30). Frp innstiller bare menn til sentralstyret – etter Listhaug. NRK.

Solvang, F. (Host). (2022, November 8). Valla og co. Vil gi deg strøm til kostpris [Television broadcast]. NRK TV.

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The Economist. (2022, September 8). Norway is profiting embarrassingly from war in Europe.

A rally in support of the Ukraine was held in front of the Russian consulate in Porto, Portugal on February 27, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

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

Afonso, Biscaia & Salgado, Susana. (2023). “The Ukraine-Russia war and the Far Right in Portugal: Minimal impacts on the rising populist Chega party.” 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.


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The effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on Portuguese politics have been negligible, leading to only minor changes in political positions or the relative popularity of the parties. Chega was the first right-wing populist political party to achieve a parliamentary breakthrough in Portugal, emerging as the third-largest political force after elections in January 2022. It shares rhetorical features and positions with European counterparts but distinguishes itself by its flexibility. Unencumbered by association with the Russian regime, Chega has been free to take the more popular position among voters, supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, one of its foremost adversaries, the Portuguese Communist Party, took an ambiguous position regarding the invasion of Ukraine, making Chega’s decision about positioning clearer. Nevertheless, Chega has used the war instrumentally in service of its established priorities—namely, nationalism, opposition to immigration, and militarism. Moreover, after temporarily setting aside welfare chauvinism, the party reverted to this staple as the war continued. We shed light on the rhetoric and positioning of Chega and its leader, André Ventura, by analysing 47 parliamentary commentaries by Chega MPs in 2021 and 2022 and 28 tweets mentioning Ukraine, Russia, nationals from both countries, or the war posted by Ventura during the same period.

Keywords: Portugal; right-wing populism; Chega; André Ventura; Twitter; legislative proceedings.


By Afonso Biscaia* Susana Salgado** (University of Lisbon)

Background: Votes, rhetoric, and ideology

Chega is currently Portugal’s largest right-wing populist party and the third-largest political party overall. Established in 2019, Chega’s parliamentary breakthrough came the same year when founder and leader André Ventura was elected as the party’s lone MP. Then, in 2022, Ventura was joined by 11 new Chega MPs after the party took 7.18% of the vote in snap elections held in January. The Portuguese Far Right landscape includes two other noteworthy parties, Ergue-te! (Rise Up!) and ADN (Alternativa Democrática Nacional). However, they are electorally irrelevant (their combined vote share in the 2022 elections was 0.29%).

The rise of right-wing populism in Portugal came as something of a surprise. With the right-wing Estado Novo authoritarian regime still in living memory, the country had been considered resistant to Far Right mobilization, with news media coverage being consistently critical of populist or radical right-wing actors (Salgado & Zúquete, 2016; Salgado, 2019). Even though Ventura was the sole MP for Chega until 2022, the party began receiving disproportionate media coverage, as usually happens to smaller parties with seats in the national Parliament (Salgado, 2022). Nevertheless, despite the 11 new MPs who joined Ventura in 2022, Chega remains a “one-man show” (Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022). Ventura is the uncontested leader and face of the party, with internal power so concentrated in his hands that Portugal’s Constitutional Court deemed the party charter unconstitutional in late 2022 (Pinto de Mesquita & Rodrigues, 2022).

Furthermore, media resistance to right-wing populism should not be equated with the absence of demand for it. For example, intolerant cultural attitudes led nearly 54% of Portuguese respondents to the 2014 European Social Survey to agree with the statement, “Some cultural groups are clearly superior to others” (European Social Survey, 2014). Moreover, “the size of the Roma minority [and] percentage of social assistance recipients” in a given locality are “associated with higher radical-right vote shares”, although, somewhat surprisingly, the “classic” factors seen as driving such voters (such as high unemployment and the presence of sizeable immigrant minority communities) do not (Afonso, 2021, p. 5).

Constants in Ventura’s rhetoric include references to a homogeneous community of “righteous Portuguese” people (Portugueses de bem) sharing certain norms and values and anti-system positioning by constructing an agonistic dichotomy between Chega (which means “enough!”) and the “establishment” parties and politicians, but also the regime itself (Biscaia & Salgado, 2022; Pimenta et al., 2022). Chega also evinces vocal support for the police and enthusiastically deploys penal populism (i.e., exploiting public anxiety about crime for political gain) (Bottoms, 1995).

Chega and André Ventura’s rhetoric and policy proposals bear similarities with other radical right-wing populist political actors across the European Conservatives and Reformists and Identity and Democracy groups in the European Parliament. Ideologically, Chega describes itself as “liberal-conservative” (Chega, 2021), and Ventura’s rhetoric shares features with European counterparts, such as nativism and authoritarianism. But the party’s primary feature is its pliability. Put differently, Chega and Ventura constantly seek to “read the room” (Albertazzi et al., 2022) to maximize visibility and media coverage. They are adept at adapting right-wing populist talking points to Portuguese political realities, adopting ambivalent rhetorical strategies, and frequently shifting positions. For instance, research has observed that European populist Radical Right movements do not usually prioritize economic issues (Morini, 2018). Chega follows this tendency, making exceptions for high-profile issues such as fiscal policy and tolls on roads serving economically deprived areas (Jornal de Notícias, 2022; Pires, 2022), but also by being quick to retract unpopular policy proposals, such as minimizing state intervention in the health and education sectors (Mendes, 2022).

Immigration stances encapsulate the party’s rhetorical pliability. For instance, despite its low salience among voters (Reis de Oliveira, 2022), Chega’s 2021 electoral programme contained several proposals aimed at reducing immigration flows, including rescinding the UN’s Global Compact for Migration and rejecting naturalization paths for asylum seekers, using conspiracist discourse (the “Great Replacement”) and describing immigrants as “a threat to the survival of the Portuguese as a people with its own identity” (Chega, 2021). At the same time, Ventura seldom mentions immigration in public, and when he has, it has usually been to defend Portugal’s border police, the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF), from accusations of misconduct and brutality. In sum, Ventura uses migration instrumentally as a pretext to engage in welfare chauvinism and defend the state authorities.

In line with its European party family’s rejection of “any policy designed to create a supra-state or supra-national model” (Identity and Democracy Party, 2019), Chega claims to stand for a “Europe of nations”, working toward “integration, not dilution” (Chega, n.d. a). However, the EU and European integration are not prominent features of its rhetoric, nor does it advance hard Eurosceptic proposals such as reversing European integration or demanding Portugal’s exit from the Eurozone (much less the Union itself). In Chega’s 2021 manifesto, sovereigntist claims are used only in connection with immigration and administrative issues (Chega, n.d. b). In Portugal, it is parties of the Left, especially the PCP, that monopolize sovereigntist anti-EU, anti-Euro, and anti-NATO discourses. The PCP proposed to “staunchly stand up against submission to the Euro and the EU’s impositions and conditionalities, taking back the tools Portugal needs for its sovereign development” as part of its platform for the last European Parliament elections (Partido Comunista Português, 2019).

Taking the same position as the communists would be untenable for Chega since it claims to unreservedly oppose them. Thus, while Chega makes no explicit reference to NATO in its official campaign materials, it often voices its support for Portugal’s participation in the alliance, coherent with its general militarism (See, e.g., Assembleia da República, 2022p; Assembleia da República, 2022q). Furthermore, while the party is ideologically close to the Putin regime—for instance, in its opposition to the expansion of LGBTQ rights articulated through “opposition to gender ideology” and the politicization of religion—it does not have the same kind of ties to Moscow as other European right-wing populist parties (Weiss, 2020). For example, it stops short of expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin and has managed to avoid credible accusations of financial ties with the Kremlin.

Interpreting the Russia-Ukraine war

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Chega backed Kyiv. However, the decision was apparently more informed by political expediency than principle. Unlike many other Far Right parties in Europe, such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega or Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Chega had few established commitments or vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia, so it was free to take the more popular position of supporting Ukraine without concerns about being accused of “flip-flopping”. A 2022 survey found 78% of Portuguese respondents favour “EU-coordinated defence”, and 38% endorse direct NATO military intervention in the conflict (Public Opinion Monitoring Unit, 2022).

In fact, in early 2021, Ventura called for harsher sanctions on the Russian “enemy” in light of ongoing Russian provocation in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, demanding they be applied to the entire economy rather than individual Russians (Assembleia da República, 2021). On the day of the 2022 invasion, Ventura “unreservedly” denounced Putin’s aggression in Parliament, urging Portugal to do “everything in its power, militarily and sanctions-wise [against Russia]” (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 18), and used Twitter to warn followers of the “danger” posed by “Putin’s and China’s friends in the Portuguese Parliament” (Ventura, 2022a).

Nevertheless, the Chega leader’s position was not supported unanimously within his party (at least not initially). On February 24, António Tânger Corrêa, one of Chega’s vice presidents, posted on Facebook characterizing the invasion as a legitimate reaction to “NATO encirclement of Russia” and accusing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, of “siding with avowed Nazis”, echoing official Russian justification of the invasion (Malhado, 2022). Tânger Corrêa was backed by high-profile party members, including the famous actress Maria Vieira, a municipal deputy in Cascais near Lisbon, who voted against a local resolution condemning him and used Facebook to deride President Zelenskyy as a “puppet” (Malhado, 2022). These internal tensions were quickly resolved due to Ventura’s centrality within the party structure and a strong exogenous incentive provided by parties on the Left, particularly the PCP.

The oldest active Portuguese political party, the PCP was founded in 1921 and was the pivotal player in the resistance against the Estado Novo regime. It developed in a close, clandestine relationship with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Eastern Bloc states, which it perceived as natural allies (Cunhal, 1997). After democratization in 1974, the PCP resisted the trend toward autonomization from the CPSU and the adoption of “Eurocommunism” exemplified by its Italian, French and Spanish counterparts (Cunhal, 1977). The PCP continues to advocate “progressive patriotic Left policies,” which it believes will lead to a “sorely needed anti-monopolist, anti-imperialist rupture”, and argues for the dissolution of NATO as a “crucial objective towards national sovereignty and world peace” (Partido Comunista Português, 2010), although the party, like Chega, has rejected identification with the Putin regime (Partido Comunista Português, n.d.).

During the February 24 parliamentary debate following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, João Oliveira, a PCP MP, read the situation from this perspective and diagnosed the issue in Ukraine as part of

[T]he same problem we’ve seen in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. The problem is the use of siege tactics, confrontation, and war to impose economic relations that engender injustice, inequality, and appropriation [prescribing] an end 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)

Thus, Chega’s choice of Ventura’s pro-Ukrainian positioning was made easier by the PCP’s position. The party could observe how unpopular the communists’ ambivalent positioning was with voters and — since the PCP was the only party to consistently reject condemning the invasion — readily isolate the communists politically.

Exploiting the Russia-Ukraine war

In the weeks after the invasion, Chega’s efforts were directed at quelling doubts about its position, loudly proclaiming support for Ukraine. An early example concerned a protest scheduled for February 27 in front of the Russian embassy in Lisbon, organized by the youth wings of all the major political parties. Chega was the only party not invited to participate, part of an orchestrated strategy to establish a cordon sanitaire around it (Ribeiro, 2022). In response, Ventura tweeted his condemnation of other parties’ “low politics” (Ventura, 2022b). On the same day, Chega organized its own demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy, where Ventura was formally introduced to Ina Ohnivets, the Ukrainian ambassador to Portugal. Although Chega’s protest turned out to be smaller than the other parties’, it did allow Ventura to draw significant media coverage, be photographed standing side-by-side with the ambassador and play to the cameras in the role of party leader-cum-statesman (Rato, 2022). Ventura also suggested an ideological similitude between his party and Ukrainian resistance to invasion, equating its members’ “love for country” with “positive nationalism leading Ukrainians to defend themselves fearlessly from Russian aggression” (Assembleia da República, 2022b, p. 16).

The invasion was also used as ammunition against the Left. In a tweet soon after Russia’s invasion, Ventura prophesized that the war would be “lethal to Putin and Russian development, but also to the old Portuguese Communist Party, which is absolutely anachronistic in the 21st century. And one has to say ‘good riddance’!” (Ventura, 2022c). When PCP MPs were absent from President Zelensky’s address to the Portuguese Parliament (Lopes, 2022), Ventura accused the communists of having “[Ukrainian] women’s, children’s and senior citizens’ blood on [their] hands” (Assembleia da República, 2022e, p. 8). Simultaneously, when the Left attempted to highlight Chega’s ideological proximity with the Kremlin, such as when Pedro Filipe Soares of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE) accused Ventura of “walking hand-in-hand with Marine Le Pen, who walks hand-in-hand with Putin” (Assembleia da República, 2022d, p. 59), Ventura reversed the accusations. Specifically, he pointed to the ambiguous positions of some members of The Left in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL European party group, such as Spain’s Podemos, which, according to the Chega leader, “criticized sanctions on Russia and military support to Ukraine” (ibid., p. 60-61). Similarly, in September 2022, when Jerónimo de Sousa, the PCP leader at the time, tried to dispel the perception of proximity between his party and Russia by equating Putin’s authoritarianism with Chega’s, Ventura sneered in a tweet that “commies are funny: they’re incapable of condemning the war in Ukraine, blame the West for the inflation crisis, and reject sanctions on Russia, yet they say the President of Chega is like “Putin””  (Ventura, 2022f).

The ongoing war also presented an opportunity for Chega to display its militarism. The party repeatedly called for increased spending on armed forces with the aim, in MP Diogo Pacheco de Amorim’s words, of confronting the “unforeseen hazards of an extremely geostrategically volatile world” (Assembleia da República, 2022e, p. 9) and fulfilling Portugal’s obligations towards NATO, as MP Pedro Pessanha stressed more than once (Assembleia da República, 202l, p. 73 , 2022 p. 32 ).

Immigration was also brought to the fore in connection with the situation in Ukraine. Party whip Pedro Pinto condemned a proposed reorganization of the SEF, saying it would make it easier for “criminals to blend with people who are actually running from a war […] as is already happening, especially in the Algarve, with migrants coming from Morocco carrying iPhones” (Assembleia da República, 2022g, p. 59). Ventura employed xenophobic rhetoric in his parliamentary speeches outlining Chega’s concerns with non-Ukrainian migration to Europe. He asserted that it was “a disservice to Europe” to compare Ukrainians to other migrants coming to Europe, claiming that in the latter case was tantamount to “substitution of the European population by people from North Africa or the Middle East [… who] treat women as objects, think women should wear the burka to Parliament and believe our Western values should be discarded” (Assembleia da República, 2022k, p. 8).

As the war dragged on and attention moved back to domestic politics, Chega’s defence of Ukraine progressively became less solid as it reverted to welfare chauvinist discourse. For example, in early March, André Ventura tweeted about “doing everything we can to stand up for the Ukrainian people” (Ventura, 2022d), only to question Portuguese financial support for Ukraine two months later, tweeting that the money should be spent on pensioners (Ventura, 2022e) and assailing the government’s priorities in a parliamentary speech as “upside-down” (Assembleia da República, 2022j, p. 11).

The Russia-Ukraine war also provided avenues for Chega to pursue previous agenda priorities. For instance, Ventura had blasted the government on Twitter for rising gas and energy prices already in 2021 (e.g., Ventura, 2021a, Ventura, 2021b) and continued to do so in 2022, with Ventura demanding government intervention to control gas prices in his first parliamentary intervention after the invasion, and alleging voters prioritized gas prices over the war (Assembleia da República 2022a, p. 18, 2022g, p.18). Other Chega MPs mentioned energy prices in connection to the war in ten further separate parliamentary proceedings (Assembleia da República, 2022c, p. 36; 2022f, p. 13; 2022h, p. 37; 2022j, p. 27; 202l, p. 71; 2022m, p. 22; 2022n, p. 39; 2022o, p. 23-24; 2022q, p. 25; 2022r, p.16). Other issues touched upon by Chega MPs using war framing included a proposal to lower municipal real estate tax due to an alleged increase in demand due to the conflict (Assembleia da República 2022h, p. 37) and criticism of the National Health Service (SNS) for “killing more people than the war” (2022p, p. 51).


Chega and André Ventura’s discourses on Ukraine were deployed instrumentally, allowing Chega to continue to trail a path toward normalization as a player in the political system. Initially, it allowed the party to side with the majority opinion, both in Parliament and among voters, and, conversely, take advantage of the fact that one of its main political adversaries did not, and could thus be isolated and portrayed as anachronistic, radical, and out-of-touch, in contrast with Chega’s sensible position. Then, when the weight of war waned in voters’ minds, Ventura and Chega MPs began to use it as a pretext to articulate pre-existing political priorities, such as militarism, opposition to immigration, and welfare chauvinism.

Chega’s strategy was moderately successful. Since the January 2022 election predates the invasion, there were no concrete, immediate electoral gains to be had, but the party hovered around the 9% mark in opinion polls taken in late 2022 and early 2023 (e.g., ICS–ISCTE Surveys, 2022; Rodrigues, 2023), meaning a slight upward trend. Other parties were hard-pressed to paint Chega’s position as unreasonable or out of bounds, and the attempt to isolate PCP was not carried out by Chega alone, as other parties also used PCP’s refusal to explicitly concede Russian blame for the war against it. The Communists were steadily losing electoral support. At the 2015 election, they obtained 8.25% of the vote (17 MPs), and by the 2022 election, this had fallen to 4.3% (6 MPs). Still, the PCP seems rather unaffected by developments, as neither the party’s overall unpopular positions on Ukraine nor the replacement of former leader Jerónimo de Sousa by the younger, largely unknown Paulo Raimundo has significantly altered its popularity in the polls (e.g., Rodrigues, 2023).

At the time of writing (February 2023), the war in Ukraine seems to have caused few changes to the Portuguese political landscape, even if inflation caused by the ongoing war is a factor in the slightly eroding popularity of the current Socialist Party (PS) government, in office since 2015. This is also the case when looking at Chega as the leading right-wing populist party in the country. The conflict is unlikely to cause deep rifts, as the relative success of Ventura’s strategy and his undisputed internal power ensure that doubts and disagreements about the matter will most likely not be voiced. Party positioning regarding key issues is also unchanged and has not impeded Chega’s transformation of the Portuguese political system by carving space for and normalizing right-wing populist actors.

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(*) Afonso Biscaia is a PhD candidate in Comparative Politics at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais–Universidade de Lisboa. His main research interests include radical right-wing populism and digital political communication.

(**) Susana Salgado (PhD, 2007) is political communication scholar. She coordinates research projects, teaches, and publishes on democracy, populism, disinformation, hate and online extremism, and political polarisation. Salgado is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais–Universidade de Lisboa and the principal investigator of externally funded research projects, including “(The Matrix of) Populist and Denialist Attitudes towards Science” (PTDC/CPO-CPO/4361/2021) and “Depictions and Politicization of the Truth in Democratic Politics” (2020.04070.CEECIND/CP1615/CT0007).


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Pimenta, D., Gonçalves, E., Zúquete, J.P. (2022) “The Irregular Populist: André Ventura–The Leader of Chega” [Report] Team Populism–Leader Profile Series. Retrieved from:

Pinto de Mesquita, H., Rodrigues, S. (2022, November 11). TC chumba estatutos do Chega: remetem para “hierarquia militarizada”. Ventura admite congresso. Público. Retrieved from:

Pires, F. (2022, January 20). Ventura quer acabar com as portagens em Portugal. TSF–Rádio Notícias.

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Rato, M.M. (2022) André Ventura diz que encontro com embaixadora ucraniana “foi muito importante para o Chega”. Journal I.

Reis de Oliveira, C. (2022). Indicadores de Integração de Imigrantes:Relatório Estatístico annual (Coleção Imigração em Números). Migration Observatory, High Commissioner for Migration.

Ribeiro, N. (2022, February 27). Quatro mil pessoas frente à embaixada russa em Lisboa contra a invasão da Ucrânia. Público.

Rodrigues, S. (2023, January 13). Sondagem: PS sofre desgate com demissões no Governo. Público.

Salgado, S. (2019). Where’s Populism? Online media and the diffusion of populist discourses and styles in Portugal. European Political Science, 18(1), 53–65. DOI: 10.1057/s41304-017-0137-4

Salgado, S. (2022). Mass Media and Political Communication. In P. Magalhães, A. Costa Pinto, & J. Fernandes (Eds.), Oxford handbook of Portuguese politics (pp. 308–322). Oxford University Press.

Salgado, S., Zúquete, J.P. (2016) Portugal: discreet populisms amid unfavorable contexts and stigmatization. In T. Aalberg, F. Esser, C. Reinemann, J. Strömbäck, and C. de Vreese (Eds.), Populist political communication in Europe (pp. 235–248). Routledge.

Ventura, A. [AndreCVentura] (2021a, April 7) Sim, o CHEGA propõe que os preços dos combustíveis sejam limitados. Chega de explorar o povo português! [Tweet] Twitter.

Ventura, A. [@AndreCVentura] (2021b, November 11) Usei uma das minhas últimas 
intervenções no Parlamento nesta legislatura para confrontar o Governo com a vergonha dos preços dos
[Video attached][Tweet]. Twitter.

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Romanian populism and transnational political mobilization

Soare, Sorina. (2023). “Romanian populism and transnational political mobilization.” 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.


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Once considered a partial exception to the recent diffusion of populism worldwide, Romania saw Radical Right populism return to Parliament in 2020. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) successfully campaigned on a platform of defending the Christian faith, freedom, the traditional family, and the nation. Although the party was initially considered the result of individual entrepreneurship linked to its founding leaders, it has successfully built on diffused networks of societal activism whose origins could be traced back to the early 2000s. However, the AUR’s track record of discourse aligned with Kremlin rhetoric calling for Western economic, political and cultural hegemony to be resisted and rolled back saw a temporary decline in voters’ support for the party. However, the party managed to rebuild consensus strategically by drawing on voters’ increased anxiety regarding the economic effects of the war. This report offers a cogent analysis of the political performance of the AUR, examining the party’s formative phase as well as its evolution since 2020, alongside a discussion of the impact of the war in Ukraine on Romanian party politics.

Keywords: Radical Right; populism; Romania; reunification; nativism; societal activism.



By Sorina Soare*[1] (University of Florence)


The literature dealing with the diffusion of populism across new and old democracies usually considers Romania a partial exception. While different variants of populism received electoral support and influenced the governmental agenda during the 1990s, in the 2010s, the supply of parliamentary populist parties dwindled if one only considers the most unambiguous cases. In 2012, amidst an economic crisis, widespread corruption, political instability and severe institutional clashes, the People’s Party–Dan Diaconescu (PPDD) gained some electoral support. The party was able to capitalize on being new in politics and standing for “the people” in opposition to “the elite”, but only for a short while. The PPDD platform combined populism with authoritarian discourses around “social order” and a peculiar form of nativism in which the defence of the Romanian community and the endorsement of the project of reunification with neighbouring Moldova coexisted with an odd ethnicization of merit in a slogan claiming targeted collaboration with foreigners (Gherghina & Soare, 2021). By 2014, several parliamentarians had defected from the PPDD, and in 2015, the party merged with the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR). For the next half-decade, nativism, authoritarianism, and populism dwelt outside the parliamentary arena (Soare & Tufis, 2019). Only in the 2020 elections did Radical Right populism return to the Romanian Parliament with a strong showing from the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR).[2]

Yet public discourse and parliamentary debate point to populism’s polymorphism and resilience in Romania, with a reach far into the mainstream political forces that are central to defining governmental alternatives (Soare & Tufis, 2019). Dragoman (2021), for instance, finds populism even in the anti-corruption platform of the Save Romania Union (USR), a party that is probably most often associated with liberal opposition to populism in Romania. Dragoman sees in the USR discourse “recombinant populism”, which is notable for connecting anti-communist stances with anti-corruption ones. Indeed, in Romanian politics, USR representatives have habitually accused traditional political actors — namely, the Social Democrats (PSD) and the Liberals (PNL) — of dishonesty and of serving their own interests. However, Engler (2020) has identified this kind of rhetoric as par for the course for centrist anti-establishment parties, which — apart from their anti-establishment and anti-corruption rhetoric — do not differ from the established parties they criticize. Similarly, the USR can be considered part of the group of anti-establishment reform parties identified by Hanley and Sikk (2016), committed to liberal democracy and the market economy.

A borderline populist position can also be traced in the Social Democratic Party (PSD), per forthcoming updated research on Romania from Populist ( A successor of the communist-era governing party, the PSD (and its predecessors) has been in Parliament since the first post-communist elections, with regular participation in government. The formerly socialist party’s first ideological turn came at the end of the 1990s when the PSD endorsed market-liberal economics and cultural liberalism. Starting in 2012, though, the party increasingly came to champion left-wing populist economics and right-wing cultural traditionalism and adopted a Eurosceptic stance on issues from time to time. However, the PSD remained within the coordinates of mainstream party politics as an electorally dominant actor competing on the Left–Right political spectrum.

The AUR is undoubtedly the most noteworthy and universally recognized example of Radical Right populism in Romania today. This report focuses only on the AUR, given its peculiarities and significance today. As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, the AUR has aligned with the other parliamentary parties in condemning Russia’s invasion and voicing concerns for the security of the community of co-ethnic Romanians living in Ukraine. However, the party’s track record of discourse aligned with Kremlin rhetoric calling for Western economic, political and cultural hegemony to be resisted and rolled back saw the AUR initially penalized in terms of electoral support. Despite that, the party strategically invested in the heightened anxiety among voters regarding the economic effects of the war. It adapted its public stances to the need to defend the national interest by promoting forms of economic and energy protectionism, by promoting the idea that national resources (including energy) should be primarily directed towards Romanians and that foreign companies should receive limited access (if any) to these strategic resources. The latest opinion polling shows that the AUR has recovered from the decline in its electoral fortunes registered in the spring of 2022 and remains anchored as the third party in voters’ preferences.

The remainder of the report is structured as follows. The first section details the origins of the AUR and party development in its formative phases. The second section focuses on the evolution of the party since it returned to Parliament after the 2020 elections. The third section focuses on the impact of the war in Ukraine on Romanian party politics while also summarizing the main findings of the analysis.

Where did the Alliance for the Union of Romanians come from?

The AUR’s programme combines an ethnically defined emphasis on the “people’s will” with authoritarianism, understood as the belief in a strictly ordered community. This belief set encompasses traditional concerns about “law and order” but also culturally authoritarian positions like opposition to same-sex marriage, a hard line on LGBTIQ+ rights, and legislative proposals that claim to protect children from sexual propaganda in kindergartens, schools and the media. Due to the overlap between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 electoral campaign, the AUR skilfully leveraged opposition to the government’s vaccination strategy and unpopular public safety measures, such as the obligatory use of masks, mandatory vaccination, and vaccine certificates. Although the party leadership did not openly oppose vaccination, AUR representatives regularly emphasized opposition to forcing citizens to get vaccinated. One of its leaders repeatedly endorsed the protests against the government strategy, reasoning that the AUR sides “with the people who are right-headed, who want justice” (Deutsche Welle, 2021).

The AUR’s rise was a great surprise in Romanian politics. The party garnered 9.1% of the overall vote in the 2020 legislative elections, including 541,938 votes for the Senate (9.17% of the total cast) and 535,831 votes for the House of Deputies (9.08%) ( As a result, the party saw four senators and thirty-three deputies elected. While the general turnout was the lowest since the end of communism, in the Romanian diaspora, turnout hit an all-time high. Previous studies have observed that Romanian non-resident voters have traditionally tended to vote disproportionately for centre-right candidates and parties over left-wing and populist parties (Vintilă & Soare, 2018). Still, in 2020 one in four Romanians abroad voted for the AUR; the party came first in the section polls organized in Cyprus and Italy and second in France, Germany and Spain (Ulceluse, 2020).

The available data allow us to clarify who voted for the AUR in Romania, but to the extent of my knowledge, no exit polls were conducted with Romanian voters living abroad. Exit polls conducted inside Romania show the typical AUR voter as a middle-aged male with a medium level of education. There was a strong correlation between conservative votes in a recent referendum related to the definition of the family in the Romanian Constitution and the vote share of the AUR in the 2020 legislative elections (Pora, 2020). Recent data (Soare & Tufis, 2023) also show that emigration from Romania mattered: the higher the emigration rate across different Romanian regions, the better the AUR scored in those areas. Moreover, other exit polls stressed that the AUR’s electoral success rested on voter disenchantment with traditional politics in the context of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and rising economic inequality (Pora, 2020).

What looked like an unexpected electoral success resulted from a strategic investment in low-cost online campaigning with simple messages and Manichean stances claiming that all mainstream politicians were corrupt, the values of the Christian family were under threat, and the like (Doiciar & Creţan, 2021). The party was also very active in on-the-ground canvassing both in Romania and among non-resident voters in the West European diaspora (Andrei, 2020). Probably most importantly, the party benefitted from ties to political movements that pre-date its legal registration in 2019. In this early period, the AUR capitalized on the extensive societal activism of the party’s founding co-presidents, George Simion and Claudiu Târziu[3] (Soare & Tufis, 2023). Although the trajectories of these two men in terms of political activism do not fully overlap, their activities have converged on several key themes: the goal of unifying Romania and the Republic of Moldova, an emphasis on tradition (traditional family values), and the defence of the Christian faith.

The challenges of winning seats in the national Parliament

Like many other populist parties, when it arrived in Parliament, the AUR faced a deficit of credibility among the other parliamentary parties. This was coupled with a bad image in the mainstream media. As a result, in February 2021, 40 Romanian intellectuals and representatives of civil society organizations signed an open letter expressing strong concern about the AUR’s impact on Romanian democracy. They publicly called on the other parliamentary parties to establish a tight cordon sanitaire around the AUR by foreswearing any cooperation or coalition with it (Europa Liberă România, 2021). For a while, the traditional parties followed this strategy of political exclusion by regularly blocking or voting against the AUR’s legislative initiatives. It was, however, impossible to exclude the AUR completely. For example, Claudiu Târziu, former co-president of the AUR and a senator representing Bucharest since 2020, managed to get elected as president of the Senate’s Commission for Romanians Abroad.

Despite using folksy expressions and displaying raw and even violent behaviour (Deutsche Welle, 2022), the AUR was not hermetically isolated. In the middle of the 2021 governmental crisis, the AUR backed a motion of no confidence submitted by USR-PLUS, the junior partner in the governing coalition. At the beginning of 2022, different Romanian journalists wrote about a possible merger between AUR and the People’s Movement Party (PMP), founded by supporters of Traian Băsescu, then president of Romania, with other minor parties. The merger, which in the end fell through, was supposed to become a movement to circumvent the AUR’s international isolation and open direct access to the European People’s Party that the PMP was part of. This strategy was complemented by direct lobbying from the extraterritorial branches that AUR successfully created across the different communities of Romanian emigrants who built local connections with possible sister parties, such as the Vox party in Spain and the Fratelli d’Italia (Soare & Tufis, 2023).

In recent years, the AUR has worked on developing a broader political agenda and building transnational ties. In 2022, for instance, the AUR founded the Mihai Eminescu Conservative Political Studies Institute in Bucharest, aiming to support scholarship and research on conservative themes and to raise citizen awareness of conservative values and ideas. As the head of the newly created institute, Târziu gave the opening speech at the first International Conference organized in Bucharest under the title “The Europe we believe in”. The party invited representatives from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), and the Fratelli d’Italia to the conference together with representatives from Israel’s Likud, France’s Reconquête, and Portugal’s Chega! (, 2022). As emphasized in Târziu’s speech, this event was seen as an occasion for intense networking with parties sharing conservative views.

Consequently, the AUR presented itself as a mainstream conservative party seeking to join a broader European and international campaign against the moral degradation purportedly produced by the spread of neo-Marxist ideology. Echoing one of the leading figures in the pantheon of European neo-conservatism, Ryszard Legutko and his The Demon in Democracy (Behr, 2021), Târziu and the other guests elaborated the thesis of the decadence of Western liberal democracy and the need to protect traditions following the model set by Poland and Hungary after 2010 (, 2022). It is yet too soon to evaluate the success of this networking. Still, the November 2022 event represented a radical change from Simion’s failed attempt to join a similar meeting organized by Vox in Madrid in February 2022 (Dutulescu, 2022).

Overall, in the first two years of parliamentarian representation, the AUR representatives remained vocal in accusing the government of damaging Romanians’ living standards and for its mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. However, despite the continuity in discourses and behaviour, the first cracks in the party structure soon became visible. According to different media reports, the cracks were born out of two different visions of the party’s future. While Târziu aimed to bring the AUR into the European neo-conservatism mainstream (in the mould of Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s PiS), Simion was more interested in maintaining the emphasis on the radical grassroots. The tensions between the two orientations exploded in public when Simion endorsed Călin Georgescu as an honorary president of the party. Georgescu was a highly controversial choice given his lionization of historical Far Right figures in Romanian politics, including Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and Ion Antonescu, antisemites both (Pavel, 2022). In the face of intense criticism, Simion was forced to back down and renounce his support for Georgescu and a raft of other controversial figures in Romanian politics.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further accelerated this process, as Călin Georgescu was among the leading figures taking a pro-Russian position and publicly backing Putin, telling a news reporter, “He [Putin] is a leader, one of the few” (În Linie Dreaptă, 2020) while also helping to organize a visit of Alexander Dugin, the Eurasianist ideologue with ties to the Kremlin, to Romania in 2014 (, 2014). At the AUR National Congress in March 2022, the party’s dual leadership was abandoned, with Simion beating out Târziu to assume the sole presidency of the party. Simion continues to exhibit the kinds of public behaviours in Romania that characterized his pre-2019 societal activism and made him credible with the grassroots base of the party. He is uninhibited when it comes to standing up for “ordinary people”, uses everyday or even coarse language to attract attention and burnish his “every man” credentials, and will readily exploit private events—including his own wedding—to stay in the public eye and be seen mixing with ordinary people.

While continuing to reinforce its organization on the ground in Romania and abroad, the AUR remains very active online, with a heavy presence on Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. According to Romanian experts, the party’s extensive online networks are rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation, and Russian propaganda (Despa & Albu, 2021). The popular perception of the AUR as being close to Russia and the anti-European Union (EU) and anti-NATO rhetoric led to an abrupt drop in the party’s popularity. Opinion surveys published just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine found 22% of respondents intended to vote for the AUR. By May 2022, this share had dropped to 16.3%. Yet, with increased war fatigue, rising energy costs, and high inflation, the party’s voter support had returned to 22% by September 2022 (Anghelus, 2022). Internal tensions in the AUR have also calmed down as the party organization has consolidated and its ideology refined.

The war in Ukraine and its influence on Romanian politics

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, all Romanian parliamentary parties rapidly aligned towards vocal condemnation of the Kremlin, backing the pro-Ukrainian position adopted almost universally in the West and raising concerns for the community of Romanian co-ethnics in Ukraine. This endorsement echoed the diffused perception of trust in the Western partnerships among the Romanian electorate. A January 2022 poll showed that the prospect of Russian aggression against Ukraine had increased Romanian voters’ confidence in NATO and the EU. An overwhelming majority of voters (77%) believe Romania should intensify its political and military ties with the West; only 10.4% agreed that Romanian foreign policy should be oriented to the East and closer relations with Russia and China cultivated. However, compared to other international leaders, trust in Vladimir Putin remained high, in line with his image as a strong leader, with pronounced support among the young (Lupitu, 2022).

The pro-Ukrainian alignment came as a surprise, given the pro-Russian stances taken by prominent figures in the AUR in the past, their positive views of Putin’s strong leadership and, more generally, their vocal endorsement of the Kremlin’s fierce defence of national traditions and Orthodox Christianity. However, despite different media reports arguing a pro-Russian party might take up to 7% of the vote in Romania (, 2020), the AUR’s official message was nuanced. In the aftermath of the December 2020 elections, Simion argued that “Russia, throughout the ages, from the Tsarist Empire to the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia today, has done a lot of harm to Romania” (Andrei, 2020). Moreover, he pointed to his dogged campaigning for the reunification of Romania with Bessarabia (most of which lies in today’s Moldova), which put him directly at odds with the Kremlin, which seeks to retain meddle in Moldovan affairs and has troops stationed in the breakaway region of Transnistria (Andrei, 2020). Consistent with these public statements against Russian imperialism, Simion had no hesitation in condemning Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: “We are worried about the fate of the ethnic Romanians there [in Ukraine] and the repeated threats on the territory of Romania” (Mazilu, 2022).

At the same time, various AUR representatives have constantly expressed support and admiration for how traditions, values, and religion are defended in Russia. The Russian propaganda machine has picked up on this. At the end of 2021, the local outlet of the Kremlin-backed Sputnik media published a list of top personalities and political parties in Romania. At the top of their list was Diana Șoșoacă, a former AUR senator known for her anti-EU and anti-NATO stances. The Sputnik article also held the AUR out as “the absolute surprise of the Romanian political class” and praised its clear stance in defence of the national interest and domestic capital (Leonte, 2021). In parallel, the media chronicled a vast constellation of (former) AUR members with a record of avowedly pro-Russian positions in the public sphere. In addition, several newly registered parties rose to prominence in the public arena with pro-Russian messages grafted onto different conspiracy theories (Şuțu, 2022). A case in point is the Patriots of the Romanian People party founded by Mihai Lasca, a former AUR parliamentarian who vocally endorsed Putin’s hardline position on homosexuality and lambasted President Zelenskyy’s supposed “provocations” and “refusal to make peace” with Russia. Similarly, the new outfit SOS Romania welcomed Șoșoacă into the fold and aligned with her pro-Russian narrative of the war in Ukraine. Similar positions have been promoted by the so-called Roexit Party (a nod to Britain’s exit from the EU) and the Alliance for the Homeland, both founded by figures who once found a home in the AUR but who were eventually expelled from the party or decided to resign.

The diffusion of pro-Russian stances, however fringe, is far from a recent phenomenon and goes beyond the AUR constellation (, 2015). Various experts and reports have chronicled diffuse networks of support in the media, among civil society organizations or in the political, economic, cultural, and religious arenas (Fati, 2022). Many politicians have lobbied on behalf of Russian economic interests (mainly in the field of energy) since the early 2000s. Since the beginning of the war, some — including former foreign affairs ministers Andrei Marga and Adrian Severin and Adrian Năstase, a former prime minister — have parroted Kremlin propaganda that Kyiv, more or less explicitly, provoked the conflict and drawn attention to reports of discrimination against Romanian co-ethics in Ukraine (Fati, 2022).

Overall, the consensus across the parliamentary parties in Romania has championed the government in its consistent backing for the Western coalition supporting the Ukrainian resistance since February 2022. The AUR has adapted to this consensus, although not without putting its own twist on the framing. For example, party president George Simion has leveraged increasing energy prices to attack both Western companies operating in the Romanian energy market and the Romanian government for exploiting the country’s natural resources without sharing the benefits with the Romanian people. The party’s position echoes the data on electoral support. A recent analysis published by the CPD SNSPA (2022) captures how confidence in the West (the EU, NATO, the United States) and the East (Russia) has evolved over time and how voters of the main parties position themselves on this topic. The analysis confirms that Romanian voters retain strong pro-Western attitudes. It also shows that very few express vocal support for or trust in Russia, with inactive young people (unemployed and with low levels of education) and people with populist attitudes being the most positive toward Moscow. Strikingly, this group of respondents reports getting most of its news and information online. While the analysis finds that the voting intention for the AUR is a predictor of trust in Russia, it also observes that support for Moscow has dropped significantly over the past year, with most mainstream party voters expressing a lack of confidence in Russia.


This report has shown that the AUR’s rise in the Romanian Parliament is partly due to disenchantment with traditional politics. The other part of the explanation is connected to pre-existing dense networks of social ties that have allowed the AUR to successfully present itself as a credible counterpoint to the established political consensus regarding liberal democratic values while simultaneously promoting a return to tradition as a safety net in turbulent times. Some party members’ customary obescience towards the Kremlin has been chronicled by a range of media reports, although the party has remained cautious in its official positions. Still, before February 2022, a number of party representatives were on the record praising the Putin regime and Russia generally as offering credible alternatives to the “decadent” liberal values of the West and as a hedge against economic exploitation from Western companies.

As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, some former AUR members have even parroted the Kremlin line, portrayed the aggression as justified and occasionally accused the government of failing to protect the Romanian minorities who call Ukraine home. Yet, the official message has focused more on the frame of economic protectionism, particularly regarding exploding energy prices. While carefully edited out of the AUR’s public statements, pro-Russian positions lie just below the surface in the minds of the AUR electorate and, most specifically, Romania’s inactive young voters.

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(*) Sorina Soare is a lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Florence. She holds a PhD in political science from Université libre de Bruxelles and has previously studied political science at the University of Bucharest. Her work focuses on post-communist comparative politics, and her main research interests are emigration, party politics, populism, transnational participation and post-communist activism. Among her recent publications are “Saved by the diaspora? The case of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians” (2023, European Political Science, co-authored), “Speaking Out against the Discrimination of Romanians Abroad: An Analysis of Parliamentary Speeches in the Home Country” (2022, Nationalities Papers, co-authored) and “No populism’s land? Religion and gender in Romanian politics” (2021, Identities,co-authored). Email:

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Pavel, A. (2022, February 18). Video Călin Georgescu anunță că a oprit discuțiile cu partidul extremist AUR/ Fostul ”premier”, motiv de tensiune între Târziu și Simion, are dosar penal pentru elogierea vinovaților de genocid și crime de război. 

Pora, A. (2020, December 12). Profil votanți. AUR: vârsta medie 41 ani, studii superioare 22%, din zone cu comunități religioase. Europa Libera România.

Soare, S., & Tufis, C. (2023). Saved by the diaspora? The case of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians. European Political Science, Online First,

Soare, S., & Tufis, C. D. (2019). Phoenix populism: Radical Right parties’ mobilisation in Romania after 2015. Problems of Post-Communism, 66(1), 8–20.

Şuțu, C. (2022, November 15). Minionii lui Putin în România. Partidele de buzunar, cu gura mare, care fac propagandă pentru Rusia.

Ulceluse, M. (2020, December 17). How the Romanian diaspora helped put a new far-right party on the political map. LSE EU Politics Blog.

Vintilă, D., & Soare, S. (2018). Report on Political Participation of Mobile EU Citizens: Romania. (Country Report 2018/10). Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT), European University Institute.
PP_2018_10.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y (2014, June 26). Ideologul lui Putin, vizita fulger la Bucuresti.


[1] The author thanks Marina Popescu, Daniela Vintila and Emilia Zankina for helpful comments.

[2] Information on the party’s profile can be obtained from its website (

[3] Târziu’s CV is listed on his personal website (

Rally of support in Kragujevac in the pre-election campaign of President Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia on March 26, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

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

Spasojević, Dušan. (2023). “Balancing on a pin: Serbian populists, the European Union and Russia.” 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.


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This report investigates the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the Serbian party system. The Serbian case has two unique characteristics. The first is the final status of Kosovo, which Serbia has traditionally relied on Russian support over (as a member of the UN Security Council). However, Ukraine has also respected the territorial integrity of Serbia and did not recognize Kosovo. The second characteristic is Serbia’s ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Unlike many other Eastern European populist parties, the SNS is formally pro-European Union. Since the beginning of the war, the ruling parties have been under international pressure to join sanctions against Russia; on the other side, the opposition splits between right-wing supporters of Russia and left-wing and liberal parties with weak support for international sanctions. This report aims to analyse the potential change in the ideological positions of Serbian parties — especially the populist ones — due to the significant changes in the international landscape occasioned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Keywords: Serbia; populism; European Union; Russia; cleavages.



By Dušan Spasojević* (University of Belgrade)


Serbian politics has revolved around identity issues since the beginning of party pluralism. Milošević’s authoritarian rule (1991–2000) was based on leveraging nationalism and conflicts during the break-up of Yugoslavia. After his defeat in 2000, the new ruling coalition of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia split between modernist and traditionalist forces based on similar identity-based issues: war crimes prosecutions, foreign relations — especially Serbia’s integration into the European Union (EU) — and finally, the status of Kosovo. Competition between these two sides was the critical process of Serbian politics during the first post-Milošević decade. In 2008, pro-EU forces led by the Democratic Party (DSS) made what seemed to be the decisive electoral victory that led to the establishment of a national consensus on European integration.

In this report, I will briefly describe the Serbian party system with particular emphasis on populist actors and populism-related issues. This part will be followed by a description of changes caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, focusing on the 2022 parliamentary elections in Serbia and a comparison with the period after the campaign. The final part will be dedicated to the “demand side” of politics – public opinion surveys and the electoral results of parties with specific positions on the war in Ukraine.

The Serbian party system – an overview

Since 2012, the Serbian party system has been dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Narodna Stranka, SNS). The SNS was founded by the Far Right, nationalist, and populist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) after its electoral defeat in 2008. The new party declared itself a moderate centre-right and pro-European people’s party (Stojić, 2018), increasing its coalition potential and enabling electoral victory in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012. Since 2014, the party has consistently won almost 50% of the vote and ruled under the very popular president, Aleksandar Vučić, as a predominant party with several coalition partners, including the Socialist Party of Serbia or SPS (Milošević’s former party) and minority Hungarian and Bosniak parties, among others.

Due to ideological baggage carried over from its radical period before 2008, the SNS initially moderated its political views to present itself as something completely new. The SNS tried to avoid most of the old identity issues and to promote issues such as economic growth and combating corruption. Corruption proved critical during the 2012 and 2014 electoral campaigns as the SNS accused previous governments of being “thieves and tycoons” and responsible for the corrupted transition from communism. In a classic populist manner, SNS leaders contrasted the corrupt ruling elites with the “ordinary” people. The SNS claimed to represent ordinary Serbs who had been left behind socioeconomically by the transition to democracy and a market economy (Spasojević, 2019).

In contrast to many Eastern European populist parties, the SNS had to formally maintain pro-EU positions as Serbia is a candidate country. This meant that criticism against the EU had to be expressed in vague and general terms; simultaneously, the SNS conveyed significant respect for individual European leaders. For example, Vučić spoke very highly of Merkel and had many meetings with the German chancellor, even as a part of electoral campaigns. The SNS developed an extensive catch-all ideological profile, including the balance between the East and the West. The previous DSS government already defined a similar foreign policy posture emphasizing “the four pillars” (the EU, the United States, Russia, and China), and it was primarily related to the question of the final status of Kosovo. In other words, as most EU countries recognized Kosovo’s independence, Serbia relied on Russia and China (as permanent members of the UN Security Council) as counterweights to the EU and the United States” support for Kosovo’s independence.

As time progressed, the SNS felt more confident in power and increasingly foregrounded non-European actors in Serbia’s political landscape. Simultaneously, the EU integration process stalled, both because of enlargement fatigue on the EU side and a dearth of reforms on the Serbian side. During Donald Trump’s presidency, relations with the United States intensified as there was more understanding of an “alternative” solution to the Kosovo issue, partition between Serbs and Albanians. This solution was perceived as practical but “against the European values” (an ethnic division of territory) and as a potential trigger for other similar cases in the region. Conversely, Russia and China have been praised as reliable partners that recognize Serbian interests and do not put pressure on Serbia like Europe. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Serbian government always emphasized medical support from China and Russia, in contrast, to aid from the EU.      

However, this should not be understood as Serbia giving up on European integration – the process is still ongoing, and government officials often refer to EU values and cooperation with the EU institutions and EU representatives praising Serbian progress. Also, the SNS limits its right-wing populist policies primarily to regional issues and for a domestic audience while adhering to a pro-EU approach internationally. For example, the Serbian government took a very cooperative stance during the 2015 “refugee crisis”, the Serbian prime minister is openly lesbian, and Belgrade hosted the 2022 EuroPride (after initially cancelling the event, the Serbian government recanted, but the parade failed to attract the typical attendance). EU legitimacy enables the Serbian regime to undermine the opposition and relativizes criticism of autocratic rule (Spasojević, 2022). Support and legitimacy of this kind has been termed “stabilitocracy” (Bieber, 2018).

The SNS is not the only populist party in Serbia. Parties like Dveri, Zavetnici, Dosta je Bilo (Enough is Enough), which has run in past elections under the banner of the Sovereigntists, the SRS, and perhaps even the DSS are in many ways further to the right of the SNS. In total, these parties garner as much as 15% of the electorate, with each party winning 2–3% of votes. This group is heterogenous – the SRS and the DSS are the old parties from the 1990s, while the rest emerged during the last waves of populism. Most of these parties object to EU integration and demand strict anti-immigrant policies and the establishment of stronger ties with Russia. Some opposed COVID-19 measures and the government’s vaccination policies, and most accuse the current regime of being prepared to recognize Kosovo’s independence. At the same time, there are frequent accusations that they cooperate with the government and do not represent the “real” opposition. These claims are based on the fact that representatives of these parties have access to pro-government media, in contrast to the liberal and left-wing opposition parties. 

Finally, since 2018 there have been examples of left-wing populism, such as the grassroots Ne davimo Beograd (“Do not let Belgrade d(r)own”) movement to participate in Belgrade elections. In 2022 they became a part of a parliamentary coalition with environmental groups and small regional parties, establishing a left-wing populist presence in the institutions.

The supply side of right-wing populism and their political environment

The Russian invasion began almost simultaneously with the kick-off of the electoral campaign in Serbia. The elections were scheduled for April 3, which gave parties an opportunity to react and adapt to new circumstances. Having the most resources, the ruling SNS immediately reacted and shifted the entire campaign from usual electoral promises of progress and rapid development toward stability – president Vučić argued that the world as we know it will collapse and that our goal should be to preserve ourselves. The main concerns the SNS and government officials raised were energy (as the Serbian energy sector is heavily dependent on Russian supplies) and food. As a result, the Serbian government was pressured to introduce sanctions on Russia. Still, it seems that they used the electoral campaign and technical mandate of the government as an excuse, at least initially. In later statements, the SNS representatives claimed that Serbia would not impose sanctions if it could resist pressure from the West. Finally, however, Serbia voted for the United Nations Assembly Resolution that demanded the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on 2 March.

Far Right populist parties saw the invasion as an opportunity and took a position that resonated with their constituency’s established anti-West (and pro-Russian) values. In this sense, the war gave new impetus to old arguments, with the war cast as a classic proxy war of the West against Russia, that Ukraine was under the sway of the Western powers, and Serbia should not take sides and impose sanctions on Russia. The arguments of these parties varied from the moderate position of the DSS (Serbia should not pick sides and should retain principled positions respecting the international law and territorial integrity of Ukraine and, therefore, should not recognize the separatist Donbas and Luhansk republics) and anti-EU positions of Dveri, Dosta je Bilo and Zavetnici (the EU integration process has stalled and thus there is no incentive to harmonize foreign politics with Brussels and to jeopardize relations with Russia and Belarus), toward the more critical SRS, which demanded strong support for Russia. The right-wing parties were already in a good position because of a recent campaign against the constitutional changes supported by the EU in January 2022.

The ruling SNS expressed positions close to Far Right populists. The SNS is often classified as pro-Russian. The Socialists rejected the idea of joining the sanctions regime against Russia as it would go against Serbian national interests. They referred to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, asking why the international public was not interested in Serbian civilian victims. President of the Socialist Party, Ivica Dačić, argued that it would take another 25 years for Serbia to become an EU member and that Belgrade could thus happily shelve policy harmonization for the foreseeable future.

Other (non-populist) parties tried to avoid this issue during the campaign, hoping the war would end quickly. However, most non-populist parties believed the war would only provide incentives for nationalism and identity politics, traditionally perceived as a vital element of the regime and right-wing parties. Therefore, in the first several weeks of the campaign, the Party of Freedom and Justice (SPP), Serbia’s largest opposition party, argued against the sanctions on the ground they affect ordinary people and not the regime (often referring to the Serbian experience during the 1990s with claims that sanctions did not harm Milošević at all). Still, most non-populist parties demanded that Serbia condemn Russian aggression on Ukraine. However, as the war progressed toward the end of the campaign, several parties, including the DSS, the PSG (Movement of Free Citizens) and the left-wing party Moramo (We Must), spoke out strongly in favour of Ukraine and called for sanctions on Russia.

These voices were strengthened after the elections when the SSP supported the sanctions and even asked for a parliamentary session on this issue. It is unclear if these changes resulted from public opinion, war events (e.g., atrocities, destruction of civilian infrastructure), or international pressure on these parties. In the post-electoral period, pro-EU liberal and leftist parties started to demand sanctions against Russia daily and to warn that Serbia could be an isolated part of Europe once again if it did not change politics.

Radicalization after the elections also happened on the Right, where parties gathered in a coalition that aimed to prevent sanctions on Russia. These issues have been intertwined with developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and presented as Western pressure on Serbian interests to disrupt relations between Serbia and Russia to facilitate Kosovo’s independence. In contrast to other European parties, being pro-Russian in Serbia is not an obstacle, so these parties could freely express their views.

Finally, the SNS position after the election remained similar for months – although there was a clear majority in the parliament, the government was formed just before the legal deadline – this deflected international pressure for a long time and enabled the SNS to escape from initial pressure. Party position remained neutral, and Vučić insisted on the complexity of the Serbian position and the necessity to put Serbian interest first; this led to a number of warning signs from both Russia and the West, but so far, it seems like there still is some manoeuvre space for him.

The demand side of right-wing populism

Since the beginning of the invasion, the war in Ukraine has become the most critical issue in Serbian media. Based on a recent report from the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA, 2022a), a Serbian human rights outfit, most of the media coverage is pro-Russian (although with some moderation compared to the initial phase of the war), with the most substantial imbalance observed in national TV stations (especially TV Pink and TV Happy) and tabloids (Informer and Večernje novosti). Biased reporting is moderate during the news sections and quite open during the morning talk shows (open pro-Russian propaganda by pro-government journalists and analysts). The CRTA report also shows that most fake news is pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

Considering this media landscape and established attitudes on foreign politics of the Serbian population, it is not surprising that a survey conducted in May 2022 (CRTA 2022b) showed that 66% of citizens claimed to be “closer to Russia” in the conflict, in contrast to only 12% who were pro-Ukraine; also, 72% agreed with the statement that Russia has been provoked by NATO expansion. These figures changed over time to some extent – a similar study conducted in September of 2022 showed a small decline in support for Russia and the number of citizens supporting the sanctions rising to 20% (Miletić, 2022). Other surveys show that Serbian citizens might change their position in the case of outside pressure, the threat of sanctions from the West or in the case of Russia recognizing Kosovo independence (on several occasions, Putin used the Kosovo argument to justify the independence of the Donbas and Luhansk republics) (Euronews Srbija, 2022).

Because the 2022 electoral campaign took place after the war started, many commentators argued that the invasion helped Far Right parties surpass the 3% threshold (in 2020, none of those parties had entered parliament). The same assessment was shared by President Vučić just after the elections when he accused the Far Right parties and the SPS of being opportunistic and irresponsible to Serbian interests because they allegedly used the pro-Russian sentiments of the voters to gain more support. However, if we observe mid-term trends (and compare results with the 2016 elections, as those were the last ones with the full participation of the opposition), it seems that there is a small growth of both the Far Right group and the SPS, probably on behalf of the SNS share. Although it could be argued that it is the consequence of the war, data already showed the gradual growth of the Far Right parties even before the war due to strong campaigns against COVID-19 measures and already mentioned constitutional changes in January 2022.

Table 1: Electoral results of populist and “pro-Russian” parties, 2016–2022

  2016 2020 2022
Votes % Votes % Votes %
SNS 1,823,147  48.0 1,953,998  60.0 1,635,101  44.0
DSS 190,530 5.0 72,085  2.2 204,444  5.5
Dveri Boycott 144,762  3.9
Zavetnici 27,690  0.7 45,950  1.4 141,227  3.8
Sovereignists  73,953  2.3 86,362  2.3
SRS 306,052  8.0 65,954  2.0 82,066  2.2
Far Right populists (total) 524,272* 13.7 257,942** 5.7 658,861 8.3
SPS 413,770  11.0 334,333  10.0 435,274  11.7

Source: Republic Electoral Commission

* In 2016, the Sovereigntists could not be classified as Far Right. Dveri and DSS ran as a coalition that year.

** In the 2020 elections, some Far Right voters voted for the monarchist party POKS (85,888) and right-wing SPAS (123,374); in 2022, POKS split between DSS and Dveri, and SPAS joined the SNS.

Concluding remarks

The issue of Russian aggression merged with already existing political cleavages and reinforced some of them. None of the relevant parties dramatically changed their position due to war and the change in the international landscape; however, parties with strong ideological positions gained more strength and new topics that reinforced divisions between them. At the same time, catch-all parties found themselves in problems as balanced politics became much more complicated.

In terms of populist parties, Far Right populists gained additional issues and incentives to preserve strong anti-EU positions and to oppose the introduction of sanctions on Russia as it would weaken the Serbian position on Kosovo. At the same time, they gained the opportunity to reinforce narratives on the hypocrisy of the West and politics of power instead of politics of principles (e.g., territorial integrity). On the other side, the SNS, as a moderate right-wing and populist party that balances between East and West, found itself in a delicate situation. Although the SNS mastered balancing between powers in the last ten years, the space for manoeuvres is shrinking. So far, Serbia’s government did vote “against” Russia in the UN General Assembly twice, but it also rejected demands to impose sanctions. Moreover, the recent conflict in Kosovo regarding licence plates led to the withdrawal of Serbs from Kosovo institutions, which intensified the situation and raised concerns about the conflict to the highest levels since early 2000. On one side, this makes the situation for president Vučić and the SNS even more complicated, while on the other, it decreases the pressure regarding the sanctions.

In general terms, the war in Ukraine put the Serbian position in the spotlight and emphasized old divisions and issues. Most of them are identity-based and related to significant foreign policy issues, which remind us of previous periods of great divides – in the late 90-ties and before the decisive 2008 elections. However, the current party system does not reflect the divisions – the SNS has a stable government with coalition partners, and the bilateral opposition cannot agree on most of the issues. Also, there are many concerns about the quality of Serbian democracy and recent trends of autocratization. In other words, although there seems to be a challenge in foreign affairs for the Serbian government, there is significant stability in the internal political arena.

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(*) Dušan Spasojević is an associate professor in the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. His main fields of interest are political parties, populism, civil society and the post-communist democratization process. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Political Perspectives, published by FPS Belgrade and FPS Zagreb. Spasojević is a member of the steering board of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA).


Bieber, F. (2018). Patterns of competitive authoritarianism in the Western Balkans. East European Politics, 34(3), 337–354. doi:10.1080/21599165.2018.1490272

CRTA. (2022a). Media monitoring: The war in Ukraine cast a shadow over all other topics. Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability.

CRTA (2022b). Survey: Democracy on the Margin of the War. Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability.

Euronews Srbija. (2022, November 26). Nova istraživanja, stari odgovori: Većina građana protiv sankcija Rusiji, ali nekoliko faktora može da poljulja taj stav.

Milojević, A., & Krstić, А. (2019). Dimensional approach to populism: Party communication during 2014 Elections in Serbia. In М. Dragićević Šešić & M. Nikolić (Eds.), Situating populist politics: Arts and media nexus (pp. 143–160). Institute for Theatre, Film, Radio and Television, Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Belgrade.

Miletić, M. (2022, November 25). U Srbiji raste podrška uvođenju sankcija protiv. Rusije Radija Slobodna Evropa.

Republic electoral commission

Spasojević, D. (2019). Transforming populism – From protest vote to ruling ideology: The case of Serbia. In V. Beširević (Ed.), The new politics of decisionism (pp., 125–140). Eleven Publishing.

Spasojević, D. (2021). Two and a half crises: Serbian institutional design as the cause of democratic declines. Political Studies Review, 20(4), 550–563. doi: 10.1177/14789299211056197.

Stojić, M. (2018). Party responses to the EU in the Western Balkans: Transformation, opposition or defiance? Palgrave McMillan.

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Russia–Ukraine War and the Radicalization of Political Discourse in Slovakia

Učeň, Peter. (2023). “The Russia–Ukraine War and the Radicalization of Political Discourse in Slovakia.” 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.


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The report opens with a reflection on the political actors who have been labelled and analysed as populists in the modern history of Slovakia. Then, it assesses the impact of the Russian aggression in Ukraine by taking into account the broader group of radical challengers to the liberal-democratic notion of “politics as usual” in Slovakia who operate beyond the populist Radical Right. Overall, the report finds that while the Russia–Ukraine war has contributed to the radicalization of the public discourse in Slovakia, it has not engendered new populist or radical actors nor caused notable changes in the ideational profiles and political strategies of existing ones.

Keywords: Radicalization; Slovakia; Radical Right; Direction–Social Democracy (SMER); Russia–Ukraine war.


By Peter Učeň*

The argument presented in this report is that while Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has contributed to a radicalization of the political discourse in Slovakia, the main avenue of such radicalization was not the Radical Right or right-wing populism. The Radical Right parties were pro-Russian long before Putin’s war of aggression, have not changed their stance as a consequence of it, and have studiously avoided any suggestion of support for it, at least as far as the invasion itself is concerned. The issue did not cause significant realignment or institutional changes in the Radical Right scene. Nor are Radical Right parties the sole purveyors of an oblique pro-Russian stance. They may have been outperformed in this respect by a non-radical, centre-right party with motivations rooted in Slovakia’s domestic political conflict.

A brief historical outline of (suspected) populists in Slovakia

Accurate or otherwise, reflection on the populist phenomena in Slovak politics has often suffered from the same general problems afflicting populist studies and anti-populist activism and journalism elsewhere. In the case of academic treatments, we have witnessed conceptual stretching, confusing populism with its thicker ideational fellow-travellers (nativism, authoritarianism), and promoting populism to the status of the all-encompassing category subsuming other ideational constructs to which, in practice, populism often serves as a means to convey their messages more efficiently. Beyond the academy, anti-populist movements have also engaged in broad-brush engagement, with “populist” becoming an “officially sanctioned slur” for politics in general, which risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater and, in any event, constitutes a morally unacceptable way of marshalling popular support against bogus messages and dangerous ideas. With this caveat in mind, it is helpful to summarize the several ways of “doing politics” in Slovakia’s modern history that have been—accurately or otherwise—labelled as “populist”.

At first, the populist label was a part of various attempts at capturing and explaining the tribulations the young and underdeveloped Slovak liberal-democratic polity was experiencing in the 1990s. These included the post-1989 surge in Slovak ethnic nationalism demanding broad political autonomy or secession from the federal republic of Czechoslovakia, created in 1989–90 and dissolved in December 1992, when the Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways.

Another powerful source of such reflection was a combination of effective nationalist and populist mobilization under the auspices of the shrewd populist politician Vladimír Mečiar. His political success and attempt to retain power led the Slovak polity to the verge of having its liberal content entirely hollowed out and continuing as an illiberal democratic facade. Later a series of articulate, yet varying, anti-establishment appeals by new political parties distancing themselves from mečiarist populism as well as the civic-democratic and largely liberal opposition that defeated it in the 1998 elections were analysed as forms of “populism”.[1]

Among the parties labelled populist from this first wave of anti-establishment challengers, Direction–Social Democracy (SMER) came to dominate and shape Slovak politics in the 2000s and continues to do so to the present day. In the past two decades, the party has undergone a series of ideological and strategic transformations, of which some can be clarified with the help of the notion of populism, while others should not be. The second decade of this century has witnessed the rise of a second generation of anti-establishment challengers, which includes the anti-corruption and market liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party in 2010 as well as the anti-corruption movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO). While often called populist, these parties’ appeals—undeniably anti-establishment in their nature—have been primarily informed by anti-corruption and calls for integrity in politics.

A few years later, a genuinely Radical Right outfit, the People’s Party–Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), broke through on the regional level and entered the national parliament in 2016. Finally, in 2016 the Slovak polity witnessed the rise of the conservative We are Family party, which described itself explicitly as on a mission to “purify” Slovak politics and did not shy away from Radical Right tropes on occasion, particularly about immigration. As expected, both of these two new challengers have been analysed in terms of populism and extremism. All of these actors, at certain points in their political activity, presented—in varying degrees and forms—some kind of challenge to “politics as usual” in the Slovak polity. Populism—properly conceptualized—has been, and continues to be, a part of the appeal of some of them. Yet, in itself, populism hardly explains the nature of the challenges confronting Slovak politics.

Right-wing populism and other (radical) challengers since the 2020 elections

 Not all challenger parties in the Slovak political system are right-wing populists. Some would qualify as mainstream right-wing parties that (on occasion) adopt a “populist style”, but a sustained combination of nativism and authoritarianism and populism is not the defining aspect of their appeals. Moreover, the right-wing populists do not present the single dominant threat to the quality of liberal democracy in Slovakia.

As for the political fate of the challengers listed above, SaS has never been Radical Right, and in the meantime, it has practically become the mainstream party. OĽaNO retained and repeatedly reinvented its anti-establishment appeal and the form of the anti-party, deliberately eschewing a meaningful organizational structure. The movement described itself as a platform for promoting independent (read: non-partisan) personalities to the parliament to address problems in the political process, hence the name.[2] Characteristically, the movement has undergone a series of reinvention cycles before each election since 2012, in terms of candidates but also electoral appeals. The typical OĽaNO candidate list has been a rather odd mix of anti-corruption activists and whistle-blowers (often with centrist or liberal inclinations) and conservative activists from the traditional Christian as well as newer charismatic (Pentecostal) milieus. The glue that has held this somewhat motley crew of candidates has been a staunch commitment to combat political corruption.

While OĽaNO satisfies both conditions—being right-wing and populist—it has never become a Radical Right party. Following a vote of no-confidence in the OĽaNO-led government in December 2022, an internal discussion started regarding the separation of the party’s “liberal” and “conservative” wings. The latter might take the movement in a more radical direction by engaging in culture wars and vigorous opposition to “gender ideology” and the rights of trans people.

The We are Family party broke out in 2016 as a socially conservative and paternalistic party for ordinary people. The party explicitly cast its approach in contrast to the elitist manner of previous conservative champions in Slovakia. The party appeal is primarily based on the curious charisma of the party leader Boris Kollár—a millionaire with an eccentric private life (normally incompatible with any version of conservatism). Kollár is known for occasional anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric outbursts. But more importantly, We are Family is a political project of predatory opportunists who try to marshal support from a paternalist but the largely non-Left and likely non-religious electorate. Being both right-wing and populist, We are Family is not a Radical Right party. Like in the case of OĽaNO, it lacks the combination of nativism and authoritarianism at the core of its ideology. While the party leader in the past expressed sympathies for Austria’s FPÖ, Italy’s Lega, and France’s FN, currently, such alliances do not bring any political profits to the party’s project.

The People’s Party–Our Slovakia (ĽSNS)—nowadays officially known by its prefix Kotlebistas—ĽSNS (K-ĽSNS)—broke out on the regional level in 2013 and made it into the parliament in 2016. The party has been analysed in terms of both the Radical Right and political extremism. In fact, it is part of the family of Central European Far Right parties—such as Hungary’s Jobbik—which, from the point of view of traditional comparativist schemes, could best be described as a hybrid of Radical Right and extremist political programmes. While ĽSNS was established by extremist cadres, for the sake of public consumption, it has developed a political programme that is radical and vaguely anti-systemic, albeit carefully avoiding refutation of democracy. However, while placing extremist ideas on the back burner for the sake of smoother participation in the game of democratic politics, the party has offered a series of dog-whistle gestures aimed at its extremist supporters (and mocking the establishment). One such gesture—handing out checks to needy families in the amount of €1,488[3]—saw party leader Marián Kotleba accused of propagating extremism and put on trial. The pending threat of four years in prison caused tension within the party. Kotleba started preparing for eventual prison time by packing the party leadership with loyalists. This alienated the group around Milan Uhrík, MEP, who led a splinter group which left the party to establish the Far Right Republika party in 2020. The split resulted from purely personal and organizational disagreements rather than programmatic and tactical clashes. The new Republika adopted slightly more consensual stances while the rump ĽSNS embarked upon further radicalization, including a return to anti-Roma marches. As a result, Republika took over most of the electoral support of the old ĽSNS, and the rump party has since languished with low-single-digit support in opinion polls.

Both ĽSNS and Republika are Radical Right and populist parties. They also stand out notably from the rest of the political spectrum in terms of their attitude to the Russia–Ukraine war. Paradoxically, their closest ally in both the fight against “the system” and the positions taken on the war is the left-wing populist SMER, which bills itself as a social democratic party.

The once anti-establishment party SMER has undergone a series of transformations over the two decades. While continuing to identify as a social democratic party, SMER has lately come to rely on appeals that are both socially paternalistic (in a generally leftist vein) as well as culturally conservative. The latest addition to its ideological tool belt has been authoritarianism. Thus, the party, which started life with a younger, urban and educated voter base, has ended up as a radical actor with messages appealing to a historically paternalistic left-wing electorate (pensioners), conspiracists, and those who question Slovakia’s geopolitical orientation. In fact, SMER has become the functional equivalent of the Radical Right for members of these constituencies that identify as left-wing.

Like Mečiar in the 1990s, SMER’s malleability has been conditioned by the need to shield party cadres and external allies from the consequences of losing power. Over decades, the party has come to be dominated by a “cabal” of senior party politicians and external actors exhibiting all the signs of state capture. Politicians have thus traded protection to external “fixers” and oligarchs for material benefits. The whole extent of the captors’ activities was revealed following an extensive report published on the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. A substantial part of the public concluded that SMER party elites were morally responsible for the murder by instituting the system of “our people” (the nickname given to the cabal) with the pervasive feeling of impunity provided by such cover, which encouraged one of the fixers to mastermind the murder. The change of public mood cost party leader Robert Fico the prime ministership when the popular (and less tainted) Peter Pellegrini preemptively replaced him as party leader.

Fico, a former prime minister, launched a campaign to undermine the integrity of investigations of high-profile corruption cases that evolved around himself, his party peers and their allies in business and the state administration. Such campaigns were primarily based on challenging the investigations as biased, politically motivated and infringing on the rule of law. It also included accusations of foreign interference in Slovak politics and in the investigations themselves.

The radicalism of Fico’s campaign increased in the aftermath of the February 2020 elections when the opposition alliance came to power on the back of electoral appeals for de-oligarchization, and ending systemic corruption and state capture—as symbolized by Fico’s circle. This estranged the wing of the party around Peter Pellegrini, which split from SMER in 2020 to establish the party Voice–Social Democracy (HLAS). HLAS leaders could plausibly claim to have been outside the “our people” cabal and therefore felt less exposed to the consequences of the anti-corruption investigations. They objected to the anti-systemic shift in SMER’s appeals, preferring to position themselves in the political centre and burnish their prospective governing credentials. HLAS quickly bested SMER in popularity ratings, and the breakaway soon took over a substantial part of the original organization. This only caused Fico to further radicalize his appeals, which have increasingly come to rely on the mobilization of a part of the anti-systemic and “alternative geopolitics” electorates.

The role of the Russia–Ukraine war in the radicalization of Slovak politics

First, the actors primarily responsible for the overall radicalization of the political discourse and the ruling OĽaNO have been SMER, Republika and ĽSNS. As noted, ĽSNS and Republika are Radical Right outfits, and the reasons for their extreme conduct are both ideological and tactical. For the failing ĽSNS, radicalization is seen as a way to bring former voters who now prefer Republika back into the fold. This is effectively a fight over the ownership of the Radical Right issue space in Slovak politics. For Republika, a slight moderation might be an advisable strategy, but they still need to retain the anti-system but non-extremist voters inherited from ĽSNS. The two Radical Right parties’ relationship with SMER is logical and paradoxical. In many respects, currently, they are tactical allies—particularly SMER and Republika. However, radicalized SMER represents a clear and present danger of poaching anti-systemic voters of Republika.

In the case of SMER, the reasons for the radical conduct are mainly tactical. Like ĽSNS, the party found itself bested by its splinter, HLAS. The polls, however, show that a significant part of HLAS’s support still considers SMER as the alternative regarding their voting choice. While SMER fights for its former voters, the party also seeks to complement them with the radicalized anti-systemic voters from the two Radical Right parties. These efforts are incredibly intense as their motivation is the return to power and undoing any possible damages resulting from the high-profile corruption cases against SMER’s cadres and allies. The strategy—characterized by an utter absence of inhibition combined with Fico’s considerable political skills—has worked. SMER has become the second-most popular party in Slovakia, lagging behind HLAS by a margin of only 3–4 percentage points.

Secondly, the primary motivations of the radicalization efforts regard domestic politics. The issues of geopolitics, the relations with Russia and taking sides in the Russia–Ukraine war play an important but secondary role in attempts to mobilize anti-systemic voters to engineer a return to power and a purging of those who currently occupy the offices of state. In one way or another—and with varying degrees of intensity—all three parties claim that Slovakia’s support for Ukraine in the current effort to face Russia’s aggression is against the national interest and threaten the country’s welfare.

The outbreak of the war did not bring any substantial shifts in the popular support for political parties, including the Radical Right. The polls also confirmed that supporters of SMER and Republika were the most inclined to prefer Russia’s victory in the conflict. Public opinion data collected in September 2022 by the polling organization Globsec suggest that 47% of Slovaks would prefer a Ukrainian victory as opposed to 19% who support Russia. This compares with 55% of Republika supporters backing Russia and 36% of SMES sympathizers. Of SMER’s constituency, 34% responded that they did not care either way.

While all the parties surveyed here condemn Russia’s act of aggression, this should not be read as a condemnation of the ideas behind the Kremlin’s move. Open support of the Kremlin has certainly been rare and mainly limited to individuals on social media. Among the politicians, ĽSNS MP Slavěna Vorobelová, who replaced Marián Kotleba after he lost his parliamentary seat, said to the press that “she would not go and fight” if Russia invaded Slovakia because, among other things, the conflict was not between Russia and Slovakia but between the United States and Russia. Most of the time, political actors siding with Russia have opted for various indirect and proxy expressions of pro-Russian sentiment, such as the second part of Vorobelová’s statement.

From among these, the most frequent were:

  1. Praise of geopolitical realism and arguments regarding the legitimate spheres of influence of players like Russia. This included references to various Western experts in the international relations field (such as John Mearsheimer) who advance this line of thinking in an attempt to look competent in foreign policy.
  2. Narratives shifting the responsibility for the war from Russia to Ukraine, the West, NATO and the United States. These included claims that Russia had a legitimate case for aggression or that it was provoked and manipulated to invade Ukraine by the West. The “proxy war” argument has also been used to assert that the conflict was between the United States and Russia and that Slovakia ought thus to stay out of the fray. All three parties in question referred to geopolitical realism in such a manner. Also, in January 2023, both MEPs elected on the ĽSNS ticket—one of them becoming, in the meantime, the leader of Republika—voted against the resolution of the European Parliament calling for the establishment of the international tribunal dealing with Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine.
  3. Calls for ending the war and “unnecessary suffering”. This narrative was a euphemism for stopping the military support to Ukraine—thus facilitating Ukraine’s surrender and Russia’s victory. For example, SMER’s chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee criticized the Slovak mainstream political discourse as “having resigned on the language of peace and diplomatic solutions” and becoming “limited to hardening of the sanctions and supply of weapons to Ukraine”. Similarly, SMER’s chairman Robert Fico asserted that should his party become a part of the new government, “it would preclude a supply of a single cartridge to Ukraine” because such a policy would “only prolong the problem”.
  4. Related to this were arguments appealing to the economic interests of the country. These involved an open criticism of the Western sanctions targeting Russia. This was the official position of SMER and HLAS, who declared that the “solution of the impact of war required an active foreign policy emphasizing the enforcement of the national economic interests”. On other occasions, SMER and the Radical Right linked the sanctions to higher energy prices, as shown, for example, by Republika’s billboard campaign slogan, “We will rescind the sanctions and make energy cheaper”.

All the arguments contributed to the overall narrative of the betrayal of the national interest perpetrated by the ruling majority: According to ĽSNS and Republika, the “government did it all to prolong the war and involve Slovakia in it”, which was proof that the “government was serving foreign interests”. In contrast, ĽSNS praised the “neutral position of Hungary in the conflict” as an example to follow. In a similar vein, according to Republika, “the government involved Slovakia in global issues while it was better to take the neutral position”, described by the party as “a total failure to defend our sovereignty”.


In the last couple of years, the political discourse in Slovakia has notably radicalized. The topic of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, however, has not been the main reason for such radicalization in general or regarding the populist Radical Right parties in particular. Instead, the main reason was the conflict over the political and criminal consequences of investigating the high-profile corruption cases involving people linked to the previous government. However, the Russian aggression in Ukraine, to some degree, informed the radicalization process in the last year. Mostly, it has provided additional arguments for the “geopolitical” dimension of domestic political polarization. For SMER, ĽSNS and Republika, it has offered a means to distance themselves more convincingly from the post-2020 election majority. With the different motivations described above, SMER and the two Radical Right parties seek to enlarge and further encapsulate the estranged anti-systemic constituency and divide it among themselves. Their principal argument—taking the various forms described earlier—is that the current establishment’s geopolitical orientation, as best illustrated in supporting Ukraine in the current war, presents a grave danger to the national interest of Slovakia—a betrayal similar to the anti-national activities taking place in the domestic arena.

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(*) Peter Učeň studied political science in Bratislava (Comenius University), Budapest (the CEU) and Florence (the EUI), focusing on party politics and populism. He spent most of his career as a practitioner in international democracy assistance and political party aid. Currently, he is a freelance consultant and evaluator in democracy, governance, civil society capacity-building, the rule of law and anti-corruption.


[1] The author has contributed to this state of affairs by popularizing the term “centrist populism” with reference to these parties, the politics of which—he now contends—could certainly better be explained by a conceptual elaboration on the term “anti-establishment politics” rather than populism proper.

[2] In Slovakia, independent candidates are barred from running in parliamentary elections.

[3] The number 1,488 is seen as referencing the neo-Nazi slogan “14 Words and 88 Precepts” often abbreviated as “14/88”, part of coded language that is propagated by the late white supremacist David Eden Lane and his followers.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the extreme right Spanish party VOX at an election rally in Casetellon, Spain in October 2019. Photo: Aitor Serra Martin.

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

Marcos-Marne, Hugo. (2023). “The Spanish Radical Right under the shadow of the invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels.


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Despite the geographical distance, the war in Ukraine has brought to the fore links between the Russian establishment and Radical Right forces in Spain. Both scholars and pundits have taken an interest in the question, which spread to party competition, quickly turning into a (discursive) race away from Putin as the consequences of war become more evident. Despite the war’s unquestioned relevance and previous links between Russia and the Radical Right in Spain (albeit less established than in other European countries), a systematic analysis of the effects of the invasion is missing. This report addresses this gap by focusing on the impact of the Ukraine invasion on party discourse and public opinion in Spain. It analyses records of proceedings from the Spanish Parliament, Twitter messages posted by the VOX party and its leader, and survey data gathered since February 2022 by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS). The main findings at the party level highlight the relatively weak associations between the Kremlin and The Radical Right in Spain (compared to other European countries), as well as efforts to separate from Putin after the invasion started. A more complex pattern of preferences is identified at the individual level.

Keywords: Radical Right; populism; Russia–Ukraine war; VOX party; Spain



By Hugo Marcos-Marne* (University of Salamanca, Spain)


Located on opposite sides of the European continent from Spain, Russia has seldom exerted much economic and political influence on the country. Whatever influence Moscow had has only declined since European Union (EU) sanctions were introduced in 2014, which adversely affected bilateral trade (Dunaev, 2018; Féas, 2022). These changes have shaped connections between Russian political and economic elites and the Spanish Radical Right.

This report focuses on Russia’s links to VOX, the most electorally successful but certainly not the only party with a radical right-wing orientation in Spain.[1] Other relevant parties in the Spanish party system mentioned in this report are the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the Partido Popular (PP), and Unidas Podemos (UP). The PSOE—a centre-left party that belongs to the group of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (EP)—received the most votes in the most recent national elections. The PP, currently the main opposition party in Spain, lies on the centre-right and belongs to the European People’s Party group in the EP. For its part, UP is a Radical Left party that belongs to the European United Left (GUE/NGL) in the EP and is part of the coalition government led by Pedro Sánchez (Bakker et al., 2020). The UP is itself an electoral coalition dominated by the parties Podemos and Izquierda Unida (IU), which have often been characterized as populist outfits (Ramiro & Gomez, 2016; Marcos-Marne et al., 2020). VOX is universally classified as a Radical Right party because it adheres to authoritarian and nativist ideas (Ferreira, 2019; Mudde, 2004). Populist ideas also appear less consistently in the discourses of the party (Marcos-Marne et al., 2021; Rooduijn et al., 2019).

For a long time, Spain was a European outlier in lacking an electorally successful Radical Right party (Alonso & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2015), but this ended in 2019 when VOX broke through in national elections (Turnbull-Dugarte et al., 2020).[2] VOX’s emergence confirmed the disintegration of Spain’s established two-party system, and while the 2019 elections saw a left-wing national government elected, VOX’s success quickly had institutional consequences at the subnational level. For example, the PP was only able to form a coalition government in Madrid after VOX was persuaded to abstain and the party’s votes were necessary to ensure the PP’s regional government in Murcia. In Castilla y León, VOX entered coalition government alongside the PP.

Analysis of relations between VOX and Russia before the invasion of Ukraine falls into several distinct categories. First, in organizational and financial terms, VOX and Russia share several international allies on the Far Right (e.g., Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini), and organizations associated with VOX (i.e., Hazte Oir-CitizenGO) have received funding from Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin (Datta, 2021). Second, in ideological terms, there is a strong complementarity between the Kremlin and VOX primarily based on nationalism (with a strong emphasis on opposing the EU as a supranational project) and authoritarianism (including resolute opposition to gender equality). There is thus a strong ideological affinity between VOX and the Kremlin, which is not necessarily reflected in deep financial ties (especially when compared to Russia’s support for other Radical Right forces in Europe).

To be clear, voices that speak in favour of Putin have continued among VOX politicians even after the invasion of Ukraine started (Testa, 2022). Even before the invasion (and since), party leader Santiago Abascal has pointedly refrained from criticizing Putin in public interviews due to ideological connections (González, 2019, 2022). However, ties have never been as blatant and significant as in other European countries. So then, how has the invasion of Ukraine affected these relations?

The Radical Right parties and Russia after the invasion

At the level of party discourse, the invasion of Ukraine forced VOX to take a comparatively less ambiguous position towards Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. In this vein, Abascal largely supported both the arrival of refugees[3]and sending war supplies to Ukraine, a position that he combined with strong criticism against the EU (both for being too weak and too expansionist) and the Spanish government (blaming UP for having relations with the Russian government). In March 2022, alongside all the parliamentary groups except the Grupo Mixto[4], VOX supported an official statement supporting Ukraine and against the invasion by Vladimir Putin. In the same debate, Abascal directed robust discourse against members of the government, accusing them of supporting the invasion of Ukraine indirectly due to government links with Russia via “El Grupo de Puebla”, their critical positions towards NATO, and previous criticisms directed against the Ukrainian government for (allegedly) giving support to Radical Right groups (Congreso de los Diputados, 2022a).

In Spain’s “state of the nation” debate held in the Spanish Parliament in July 2022, VOX’s MPs avoided any positive statements about Russia, the Kremlin, or Vladimir Putin, even if they did accuse Prime Minister Sánchez of using the war in Ukraine to deflect responsibility for the economic crunch (“It is not Putin, it is not Franco, it is not the virus. It is you, Pedro Sánchez, the government, and the erratic economic policy that explains to a great extent the economic collapse suffered…”( Congreso de los Diputados, 2022b, p. 27). Although a systematic analysis of VOX discourse on Twitter is beyond the scope of the current report, there are also enough examples to support the view that the party turned (more) critical toward Russia after February 2022:

Putin’s arrogance progresses due to the silence of many cowardly leaders and the support of tyrants from all around the world, like those from the Grupo de Puebla, formed by socialists and communists from the Spanish government. (Abascal, 2022a)

Putin’s allies are sitting in the government, and Pedro Sánchez should expel them immediately. Spain must support Ukraine unanimously, and there is no room for half-measures. (VOX, 2022)

I celebrate the Spanish Parliament’s support for the Ukrainian president. Zelenskyy has exhibited heroic behaviour in front of the criminal and deadly attack led by Putin, which would have made most Western politicians flee by helicopter. That deserves our recognition. (Abascal, 2022b)

Overall, the invasion of Ukraine has been politicized in the Spanish political landscape, and repertoires of competition have included accusing political opponents of being allies of Putin and his government.[5] VOX took part in this trend despite its previously ambiguous discourses towards Russia and the Kremlin, mostly focusing its discursive efforts on criticizing UP. However, consistent with the ambiguous relations highlighted above, VOX did not concentrate its communication strategy on the war. Indeed, at the time of writing, only 11 mentions of Putin, 20 of Ukraine, and 8 of Russia have been posted by VOX’s official Twitter account since February 2022. Abascal’s Twitter account had posted ten mentions of Putin, six of Ukraine, and two of Russia in the same period.

Voters of the Radical Right and Russia after the invasion

Data gathered by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS) allows for a public opinion perspective on the effects of the war in Ukraine among voters of the Radical Right, focusing on two main topics: the degree of concern about the war in Ukraine and support for different measures to help Ukraine (sending humanitarian help, hosting refugees, putting pressure on Putin to withdraw the army, and advocating for direct NATO intervention).[6] To allow for comparisons, we grouped respondents in each survey of the CIS by vote recall (which party the respondent voted for) in the last national elections (held in November 2019), considering the four parties that garnered the highest vote share: the PSOE, the PP, VOX and UP.

The lines in Figure 1 represent the share of voters for each of the four main parties declaring little or no concern at all about the war. These values evidence that most of the respondents were at least somehow concerned about the war, as the percentage plotted never reaches 30% or even 15% for the two main parties. They further suggest an overall growing lack of concern about the war among voters of all parties, with comparatively higher values displayed by voters of VOX and UP. Last, they indicate that voters of VOX were the least concerned about the war in eight out of nine surveys conducted by the CIS between March and December 2022 (in May, voters of VOX and UP reported almost the same level of concern with the selected indicator).

Source: Author’s elaboration based on data from the Center for Sociological Research (Study 3355, 3359, 3363, 3366, 3371, 3375, 3380, 3384, and 3388).

Beyond levels of concern, a battery of questions referring to specific measures regarding the invasion of Ukraine were asked in four different surveys between March and June. Four of them were selected for this report and refer to sending humanitarian help to Ukraine, hosting refugees from Ukraine, putting pressure on Putin to withdraw the army from Ukraine, and supporting a NATO direct intervention on Ukrainian territory.

Figures 2 to 5 show the percentage of voters for each party that disagree or disagree strongly with each of these measures. It can be seen in Figure 2 that respondents who declared to have voted for VOX were the least disposed to sending humanitarian help to Ukraine (a trend particularly visible in May and June). Voters of VOX also opposed more clearly the hosting of refugees from Ukraine (Figure 3), but the evolution of preferences in this group seems to diverge from the others. Voters of PSOE, PP, and UP start with very low levels of disagreement that grow only marginally with time. The trend for voters of VOX is more U-shaped as it starts with much higher levels of disagreement in March and April, almost joins the three other parties in May, and deviates again in June with higher levels of debate. I speculate this trend could be explained because discourses of VOX towards Ukrainian refugees, comparatively much more positive than previous refugee crises, had an effect among its voters that vanished with time as the invasion went on in time, and less public attention was devoted to it.

VOX’s voters also express reluctance towards the notion the government should pressure Putin to withdraw Russian forces from Ukrainian territory (as do UP voters, albeit less so, see Figure 4). Last, the distribution of preferences vis-à-vis direct NATO intervention in Ukraine shows that UP voters most strongly disagreed with this proposal (Figure 5). This might be explained by the traditional negative relationship between NATO and the (radical) Left in Spain (Viñas, 1988).[7] In this case, the position of VOX voters was indistinguishable from that of PSOE and PP voters.

Source: Author’s elaboration with data from the Center for Sociological Research (Study 3355, 3359, 3363, and 3366).
Source: Author’s elaboration with data from the Center for Sociological Research (Study 3355, 3359, 3363, and 3366).
Source: Author’s elaboration with data from the Center for Sociological Research (Study 3355, 3359, 3363, and 3366).
Source: Author’s elaboration with data from the Center for Sociological Research (Study 3355, 3359, 3363, and 3366).

Final remarks

The weak and somewhat ambiguous links between VOX and the Kremlin transformed after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Although not very frequent, the main messages from VOX on the war have criticized Putin’s government, presented Ukraine in a positive light, and often accused members of the Spanish government of collaborating with Russia. Therefore, the invasion of Ukraine has been integrated into the discourse of VOX as a second-order element used to undermine the position of rival parties within a more integrated discourse, including nationalist and authoritarian elements. Although further analysis would be needed to test the proposition, we might speculate that the party’s limited public profile on the war reflects the fact that any pro-Ukraine message would not sit well with the party’s virulent anti-EU positioning, together with the ideological affinities between VOX and the Kremlin that persist despite the war.

At the individual level, VOX voters are comparatively less concerned about the war, which seems consistent with the low-profile strategy mentioned above. They are also comparatively more reluctant to help Ukraine by sending humanitarian help, hosting refugees, or calling on Putin to withdraw. Overall, the findings from this report suggest that the association between Russia and VOX can be better explained by focusing on the radical right-wing component of the party’s discourse (crucially, nationalism and authoritarianism) rather than the populist one.

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(*) Hugo Marcos-Marne is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Salamanca. Previously, he has been a postdoctoral research fellow at SUPSI-Lugano, the University of St. Gallen, and the National University of Distance Education (UNED Madrid). His research sits at the intersection between public opinion and electoral behaviour, political parties, and populism. He has published on these topics in many top-ranked international journals, including Political Communication, Political Behavior, West European Politics, Political Studies, Politics, Electoral Studies, the International Political Science Review, and Politics and Governance, among others. He is currently a researcher in the project entitled “Youth Political Socialization, Journalism & Social Media: Understanding Democracy in Contentious Times” and a member of the Democracy Research Unit (DRU) and Team Populism. 


Abascal, S. [@Santi_ABASCAL]. (2022a, February 27). La soberbia de Putin avanza gracias al silencio de muchos líderes cobardes y al apoyo de tiranos de todo el mundo [Tweet]. Twitter.

Abascal, S. [@Santi_ABASCAL]. (2022b, April 6). Hilo: Celebro que el presidente ucraniano recibiera el apoyo de las Cortes Generales [Tweet]. Twitter.

Albin, D. (2022, February 24). Así se posiciona la ultraderecha española en el conflicto entre Rusia y Ucrania. Publico.

Alonso, S., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2015). Spain: No country for the populist Radical Right? South European Society and Politics, 20(1), 21–45.

Bakker, R., Hooghe, L., Jolly, S., Marks, G., Polk, J., Rovny, J., Steenbergen, M., & Vachudova, M. (2020). 2019 Chapel Hill Expert Survey. Version 2019.1.

Center for Sociological Research (n.d.). Barometers. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from

Congreso de los Diputados (2022a, March 2). Plenary Session 156. Cortes Generales.

Congreso de los Diputados (2022b, July 14). Extraordinary Plenary Session 195. Cortes Generales.

Datta, N. (2021). Tip of the iceberg: Religious extremist funders against human rights for sexuality and reproductive health in Europe 2009–2018. European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Dunaev, A. (2018, March 5). Why Spain doesn’t fear the “Russian threat”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Féas, E. (2022, March 2). Los efectos de la invasión de Ucrania sobre la economía española. Elcano Royal Institute.

Ferreira, C. (2019). Vox como representante de la derecha radical en España: un estudio sobre su ideología. Revista Española de Ciencia Política; Número 51, Noviembre 2019.

González, M. (2019, March 29). Abascal dice que rechazó reunirse con Putin “por prudencia”. El País.

González, M. (2022, August 26). Los vínculos de Vox con Dugin, el ideólogo de cabecera de Putin. El País.

Marcos-Marne, H., Plaza-Colodro, C., & Hawkins, K. A. (2020). Is populism the third dimension? The quest for political alliances in post-crisis Spain. Electoral Studies, 63, 102–112.

Marcos-Marne, H., Plaza-Colodro, C., & O’Flynn, C. (2021). Populism and new Radical-Right parties: The case of VOX. Politics, Advance online publication.

Morillo, I. (2022). Vox rechaza que Andalucía acoja refugiados o niños de la guerra de Ucrania. El Confidencial.

Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 541–563.

Ramiro, L., & Gomez, R. (2016). Radical-Left populism during the Great Recession: Podemos and its competition with the established Radical Left. Political Studies, 65(1_suppl), 108–126.

Rooduijn, M., Van Kessel, S., Froio, C., Pirro, A., De Lange, S., Halikiopoulou, D., Lewis, P., Mudde, C., & Taggart, P. (2019). The PopuList: An Overview of Populist, Far Right, Far Left and Eurosceptic Parties in Europe.

Testa, G. (2022). Los líderes de Vox en Ceuta, con Putin. El Faro de Ceuta.

Turnbull-Dugarte, S. J., Rama, J., & Santana, A. (2020). The Baskerville’s dog suddenly started barking: Voting for VOX in the 2019 Spanish general elections. Political Research Exchange, 2(1), 1–21.

Viñas, Á. (1988). Spain and NATO: Internal debate and external challenges. In J. Chipman (Ed.), NATO’s southern allies (pp. 152-206). Routledge.

VOX [@vox_es] (2022, February 25). Lastra, Enrique Santiago, Irene Montero… Los aliados de Putin están en el Gobierno y Pedro Sánchez debe expulsarlos inmediatamente [Tweet]. Twitter.


[1] For additional information on the complex relations between comparatively small groups of the Radical Right and Russia, see Albin (2022).

[2] To be clear, radical right-wing parties existed in Spain before VOX attained institutional representation following the regional elections in Andalucía in 2018. However, these were mainly marginal groups that never achieved the electoral success VOX attained nation-wide in April 2019.

[3] This measure was not supported by all members of VOX, as can be seen in statements issued by VOX Andalucía (Morillo, 2022).

[4] The Candidatura de Unidad Popular (CUP), which counts two MPs in Spain’s parliament, decided not to support the official statement as it failed to mention the role of NATO and the United States in the origins of the conflict. 

[5] Criticisms directed towards Russia have traditionally had traction among the Radical Right in Spain, and VOX emphasized links between Russia, as the successor to the USSR, and current members of the government belonging to the Spanish Communist Party. 

[6] The CIS surveys used in this section can be retrieved from the Center for Sociological Research (n.d.). 

[7] This position has been mainly based on anti-imperialism, anti-militarism and non-alignment infused with a critical view of the foreign action of the United States. PSOE’s turn from criticizing to supporting Spain’s participation in the NATO in 1986 was a major political issue that put to an end the overall agreement of left-wing forces in this regard. The radical left-wing IU was born in 1986 at the height of mobilization against NATO and has remained opposed to NATO since then.

Sweden Democrats' Square Meeting in Umeå. Jimmie Åkesson speaks to the people on the city square where opposition left-wingers have formed a chain and protest in Umeå, Sweden on August 14, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

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

Bolin, Niklas. (2023). “The repercussions of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the populist Radical Right in Sweden.” 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


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The populist Radical Right Sweden Democrats (SD) have long been excluded from cooperation with other parties. As other parties have moved closer to the party’s more restrictive migration policy, and as older party leaders from the extreme Far Right have departed, some of the arguments in support of isolating the SD have waned. However, the party is still criticized for its ambiguous attitude towards Russia. But although individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russian views, the current SD leadership has repeatedly rejected such accusations. The party’s position became increasingly relevant in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with the parliamentary elections. This article analyses the attitude of the SD towards the Putin regime and how this developed in response to the invasion of Ukraine. It also looks at how this has affected the public perception of the party and to what extent its position on Russia will continue to be important in the public debate.

Keywords: Radical Right; Sweden Democrats; Russia; Ukraine; elections.


By Niklas Bolin* (Mid Sweden University) 


There has long been a debate about the stance of European populist Radical Right parties towards the Putin regime. Traditionally, many of them are described as pro-Russian parties and are often criticized for their admiration of the Kremlin. In Sweden, the picture has been mixed. Their political opponents have repeatedly criticized the populist Radical Right Sweden Democrats (SD) for their ambiguous attitude towards Russia. However, although individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russia views, the leadership of the SD has repeatedly rejected such accusations.

The party’s position became increasingly relevant in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with parliamentary elections. With mainstream parties on the Right having, in many ways, moved closer to the SD on immigration and law and order issues, the stance on Russia was potentially one of the key remaining obstacles to ending the party’s isolation. In this report, I analyse how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the SD. More specifically, I describe the party’s stance towards the Kremlin and how this has developed in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Further, I discuss how the invasion has affected the public perception of the SD and how the party’s position on Russia will remain relevant in the public debate. The analysis is based on available research, media reports and official party documents.

The Radical Right scene in Sweden

With the partial exception of the short-lived populist New Democracy party in the early 1990s, Sweden, unlike many other European countries, had not experienced an electorally successful populist Radical Right party at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Rydgren, 2002). Since then, the story has changed drastically. The first SD members were elected to the national parliament in 2010, and their progress ever since has been remarkable, to say the least. In fact, the party has yet to experience an electoral loss and has increased its vote share at every election since it first ran in 1988. In terms of Radical Right electoral success, Sweden is no longer an exceptional case (Rydgren & van der Meiden, 2019).

Even though the SD have steadily increased their support in the electorate, the party has long been completely excluded from cooperation with other parties. An important reason for this cordon sanitaire can be found in the SD’s history. Unlike most other parties in the populist Radical Right family in Europe, the party was founded by outright racist groups with links to neo-Nazism (Larsson & Ekman, 2001). Although the party has worked hard to build a more respectable facade, the SD’s marginalization has remained. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, six parties concluded the so-called December Agreement to ensure that the SD would remain without influence while at the same time allowing a government to be formed without an explicit majority in the Riksdag (Aylott & Bolin, 2019; Bjereld et al., 2016).

Government formation was even more difficult after the 2018 election. The four parties of the centre-right Alliance could have formed a government if they had been willing to rely on the parliamentary support of the SD. However, two of them, the Centre Party and the Liberals, preferred the incumbent centre-left minority coalition to continue rather than make any kind of concession to the Radical Right (Teorell et al., 2020). The agreement between the Social Democrats and the two centrist liberal parties ended a decade of wide-ranging cooperation between the four parties of the Alliance. It also had implications of great importance because it was decisive in bringing the SD in from the cold. The Moderates and the Christian Democrats immediately began to initiate a policy of détente with SD. The cordon sanitaire that had prevailed until then was lifted. Later, the Liberals also decided to withdraw their support for the centre-left to reunite with their former Alliance partners.

Even though they all lost ground compared to the 2018 election, their joint election result in September 2022 with the SD was enough for a majority. Thus, they were able to form a government by the end of the year. Although the SD is not formally a member of the governing coalition, it has concluded a far-reaching agreement with the three centre-right parties, securing formal political influence for the first time (Aylott & Bolin, 2023).

The Sweden Democrats and Russia

As other parties have moved closer to the party’s more restrictive migration policy, and as older party leaders from the extreme Far Right have departed, some of the arguments in support of isolating the SD have waned somewhat. For example, in recent years, the SD’s stance on international cooperation and the European Union (EU) has come to the fore. Relatedly, there has been a recurring debate on the SD’s position towards the Kremlin. Critics argue that the party, or people associated with it, have shown sympathy for Putin’s government and have taken positions aligned with Russian interests. For example, a report on how the European Parliament voted on Russia-related matters in 2014 found that the SD were one of the most Russia-friendly parties (Bolin, 2015). Indeed, the two Sweden Democrats MEPs were the only Swedish representatives voting against ratification of an Association Agreement with Ukraine (Christodoulou, 2014).

Similarly, people closely associated with the SD, unlike politicians from other Swedish parties, have on several occasions participated in Russian state-supported media platforms such as Sputnik and Russia Today (RT). Researchers characterize the latter as “an opportunist channel that is used as an instrument of state defence policy to meddle in the politics of other states” (Elswah & Howard, 2020, p. 623). In addition, there are several examples of how leading SD politicians have expressed appreciation for Russia or participated in contexts that have been interpreted as indirect support of the Putin regime. On several occasions, both former and current MPs have expressed themselves in favourable terms about election processes in Russia after being invited by the regime to function as election observers or having participated in conferences arranged by the regime (Sundbom, 2018).

Those who harboured suspicions about the SD’s attitude towards the Russian regime were given further fuel when in an interview just a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, refused to say whether he preferred Joe Biden or Vladimir Putin as a political leader (Odmalm, 2022). The leadership of the SD has, however, denied all accusations of being a pro-Russian party. It is also hard to find Russia-friendly statements in official party documents. Russia was not mentioned in the early party programmes and election manifestos. However, in recent years, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the party has become increasingly critical of Russian developments (e.g., Shekhovtsov, 2018, p. 238). For example, the latest election manifesto for 2022 states that “Sweden should advocate clear sanctions against […] Russia and other countries with negative development” (Sweden Democrats, 2022, p. 57).

There are also signs that the SD have become more critical of Russia in practical politics. In stark contrast to the report mentioned above, a recent assessment of the degree of “assertiveness towards Russia”, SD comes out as the most critical of Russia among all Swedish parties represented in the European Parliament (VoteWatch, 2022). The appreciative attitude towards the Kremlin among some of the other Radical Right parties has also been presented as a reason the SD chose not to join the same party group in the European Parliament as, for example, France’s National Rally and Italy’s Lega (McDonnell & Werner, 2019).

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Swedish domestic politics

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 made it even more pressing to fend off any accusation of complicity towards Russia. Among other things, it significantly impacted the willingness to join NATO. Although Sweden became a member of the EU in 1995, it has maintained a policy of nonalignment and did not join NATO during the Cold War like neighbouring Nordic countries, Denmark and Norway. However, relations with NATO have developed considerably. In the 1990s, Sweden began cooperating more closely with NATO on peacekeeping missions and crisis management operations. Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, it has increasingly participated in the alliance’s activities and developed close relations with NATO countries (Wieslander, 2022).

Even though Sweden’s relations with NATO have become closer, there has always been a party-political divide, with centre-left parties opposing NATO membership and centre-right parties being more supportive of it. As late as November 2021, the Social Democratic defence minister assured its party congress that as long there was a Social Democratic government, an application for NATO membership was unthinkable. The SD have also been against NATO accession historically, and they have instead called for increased cooperation with other Nordic countries, including developing a joint Nordic defence force (Sweden Democrats, 2019). Despite the long-standing opposition to NATO, Åkesson declared in April 2022 that the party was ready to support a Swedish application for NATO membership if Finland applied simultaneously (Arenander & Nilsson, 2022). When the Social Democrats also made a ‘drastic U-turn’ (Hinnfors, 2022), the Swedish government took the same path as Finland and decided to apply for NATO membership (Aylott & Bolin, 2023).

Despite SD’s more openly critical stance towards the Russian regime and its new position on membership in NATO, political opponents still consider the party’s position untrustworthy. That this is still thought to have a deterrent effect on the electorate became apparent when the Social Democrats called a press conference just a week before the election to report on cases where the SD had acted in favour of Russian interests and thus posed a security risk. The Moderate prime ministerial candidate, Ulf Kristersson, was asked how he would prevent the SD’s links to Russia from affecting Swedish foreign and security policy if the election resulted in a parliamentary majority for the right-wing opposition. Åkesson unsurprisingly rejected this and tweeted that the statements were reminiscent of how the opposition would be dealt with in a dictatorship. More startling, however, was that Kristersson also came to the SD’s defence and argued that the Social Democratic stunt was unworthy, not least as it was the simultaneous positional changes in the Social Democrats and the SD that made a Swedish NATO application possible (Petersson, 2022). It was clear that alleged connections between SD and Russia were no longer seen as an obstacle to including the SD as part of a new political majority.

The demand for the Radical Right in the aftermath of the invasion

The last parliamentary term has been clearly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has meant that the main political issues of SD have been less salient in the public debate. These crises also seem to have affected support for political parties somewhat. A rally around the flag effect can be observed, where both the outbreak of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and the Russian invasion in the spring of 2022 boosted the popularity of the governing Social Democrats (Esaiasson et al., 2021; Novus/SVT, 2022). Support for the SD also seemed to decrease somewhat in connection with the outbreak of the war, but the impact on the electoral outcome of 2022 was small. Some of the political issues that became important in the 2022 election campaign, partly because of the war, were favourable to the SD, and the party won 20.5% of the vote, becoming the second-largest party in parliament.

Despite the spectacular Swedish shift in attitude towards NATO membership and the fact that there were still parties that opposed this, the issue was absent from the election campaign. Other issues indirectly connected to the war, such as rising inflation and electricity prices, gained great importance (Aylott & Bolin, 2023). While the governing party blamed the war in Ukraine and chose to refer to it as “Putin’s price hikes”, the opposition argued that it was mainly about how the government had mismanaged Swedish fuel and energy policy for years. Judging by the exit polls, the opposition benefited the most from the salience of these issues in the campaign.

The Sweden Democrat’s traditional issue, immigration, came further down on the list of voters’ most important issues. A possible explanation is that several other parties have altered their policies in a more restrictive direction and, in this way, narrowed the distance of the mainstream to the SD’s position. In addition, it is noteworthy that the SD was positive about receiving Ukrainian refugees. According to the party, this was in line with its previous policy that Sweden should help countries in its nearby area. Åkesson (2022) also justified the position on both cultural and economic grounds as he argued that Ukraine is both religiously and culturally more similar to Sweden “compared to clan societies in the Horn of Africa” and that Ukrainian refugees differ from previous migration “of low-educated, or even completely uneducated, people”. As a result, Åkesson claimed, “the burden on society, economically, socially and culturally, will not be as devastating as with previous mass immigration from culturally distant countries” (ibid.).

Concluding remarks

Despite its continuous electoral progress, the Sweden Democrats have been in the political cold for a long time. Not until the two liberal centre parties chose to support a Social Democratic government in 2018 did the Moderates and the Christian Democrats approach the SD seeking to return to office. Previously, the SD’s history and attitude toward immigration had been the main reasons for excluding the party from cooperation. However, in the wake of the 2015 “refugee crisis” and the SD’s electoral progress, other parties have also moved towards a more restrictive immigration policy. The SD’s deviant approach to international cooperation and its ambivalent stance towards Russia have remained obstacles to it being fully accepted as a political cooperation partner.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant that the SD’s attitude towards the Kremlin was given further attention. Officially, the party has also taken a stand against Russia’s actions and for support and assistance to Ukraine. The party has even advocated a relatively generous reception of Ukrainian refugees. Given the party’s very restrictive immigration policy, this can be seen as a departure from its traditional line.

Despite the clear stance on Ukraine, the SD are not yet rid of their Russia-related problems. While the current parties in government no longer see the SD’s position towards Russia as problematic, both the opposition and political commentators continue to argue that the party’s murky connections to Russia are an acute security risk and that the leadership should more clearly uphold a red line against any actions that are in Russia’s interests (Johansson Heinö et al., 2023). The issue was given further attention again at the beginning of 2023 when a central figure in the alternative media environment around the SD, previously accused of Russian connections, helped the anti-Muslim activist Rasmus Paludan to get permission to burn a Qur’an near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. The incident worsened already strained relations between Turkey and Sweden, further frustrating Sweden’s NATO application (Rankin, 2023). In addition, political opponents criticized the SD for being “useful idiots” for the Kremlin (see, e.g., Lindberg, 2023) and not taking responsibility for people associated with the party, thus potentially serving the interests of Russia. However, the SD leadership rejected any responsibility for the incident and, more generally, any alternative media favouring Russian interests even though individuals associated with the party frequently appear in them.

Although there is much to suggest that the isolation of the SD is a thing of the past, it cannot be ruled out that the issue of NATO and, indirectly, the SD’s relationship with Russia will influence these relations. There is no evidence that the SD has direct links to Russia. Nevertheless, SD members and persons associated with the party appear from time to time in contexts that can be interpreted as pro-Russian. As a result, the SD leadership probably will be wary of any pro-Russian sentiments among its ranks and will continue to reject any accusation of acting in accordance with Russian interests. However, it is doubtful that this will prevent the opposition from criticizing the party’s connections to Russia.

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(*) Niklas Bolin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden. His main research interests are parties and elections, particularly organisation, leadership, intra-party democracy, Radical Right parties and Green parties. He is co-editor (with Nicholas Aylott) of the edited volume Managing Leader Selections in European Political Parties (Palgrave, 2021) and has published in high-ranking international journals, including Party Politics, The Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Scandinavian Political Studies and West European Politic.


Åkesson, J. (2022, March 31). Det är skillnad på flyktingar och ”flyktingar”. Aftonbladet

Arenander, I., & Nilsson, E. (2022, April 9). Åkessons besked om Nato: ”Har svängt”. Svenska Dagbladet

Aylott, N., & Bolin, N. (2019). A party system in flux: The Swedish parliamentary election of September 2018. West European Politics, 42(7), 1504–1515. doi:10.1080/01402382.2019.1583885

Aylott, N., & Bolin, N. (2023). A new right: The Swedish parliamentary election of September 2022. West European Politics. Advance online publication.

Bjereld, U., Eriksson, K., & Hinnfors, J. (2016). Förhandla eller dö. Decemberöverenskommelsen och svensk demokrati i förändring. Atlas.

Bolin, N. (2015). A loyal rookie? The Sweden Democrats’ first year in the European Parliament. The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs11(2), 59–77.

Christodoulou, L. (2014, September 16). Sweden Democrats voted against EU–Ukraine agreement. Sveriges Radio

Elswah, M., & Howard, P. N. (2020). “Anything that causes chaos”: The organizational behavior of Russia Today (RT). Journal of Communication70(5), 623–645. doi:10.1093/joc/jqaa027

Esaiasson, P., Sohlberg, J., Ghersetti, M., & Johansson, B. (2021). How the coronavirus crisis affects citizen trust in institutions and in unknown others: Evidence from “the Swedish experiment”. European Journal of Political Research60(3), 748–760.

Hinnfors, J. (2022). Socialdemokraterna: högervridning och hot utifrån In N. Bolin, K. Falasca, M. Grusell, & L. Nord (Eds.), Snabbtänkt 2.0 22. Reflektioner från valet 2022 av ledande forskare (p. 39). Demicom, Mittuniversitetet.

Johansson Heinö, A., Melin, C., Oksanen, P., Poohl, D., Silberstein, W., Schenström, U., & Scherman, J. (2023, January 31). SD:s rysskopplingar är en akut säkerhetsrisk. Aftonbladet

Larsson, S., & Ekman, M. (2001). Sverigedemokraterna: Den nationella rörelsen. Ordfront.

Lindberg, A. (2023, February 4). Jomshof skojar inte om att bränna 100 koraner. Tack SD! Hälsar Vladimir Putin. Aftonbladet.

McDonnell, D., & Werner, A. (2019). International populism: The Radical Right in the European Parliament. Hurst.

Novus/SVT. (2022). Väljarbarometer Maj 2022

Odmalm, P. (2022). Ombytta roller i valet 2022 – när nationalismen blev viktig igen för den radikala populististhögern. In N. Bolin, K. Falasca, M. Grusell, & L. Nord (Eds.), Snabbtänkt 2.0 22. Reflektioner från valet 2022 av ledande forskare (p. 29). Demicom, Mittuniversitetet.

Petersson, B. (2022). I skuggan av Putins krig: Valrörelsen och borgfreden som försvann. In N. Bolin, K. Falasca, M. Grusell, & L. Nord (Eds.), Snabbtänkt 2.0 22. Reflektioner från valet 2022 av ledande forskare (p. 104). Demicom, Mittuniversitetet.

Rankin, J. (2023, January 27). Burning of Qur’an in Stockholm funded by journalist with Kremlin ties. The Guardian

Rydgren, J. (2002). Radical Right populism in Sweden: Still a failure, but for how long? Scandinavian Political Studies25(1), 27–56. doi:10.1111/1467-9477.00062

Rydgren, J., & van der Meiden, S. (2019). The Radical Right and the end of Swedish exceptionalism. European Political Science18(3), 439–455. doi:10.1057/s41304-018-0159-6

Shekhovtsov, A. (2018). Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango noir. Routledge.

Sundbom, H. (2018). Sweden: Fertile Soil for Influence OPS? In A. Polyakova (Ed.), The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3.0 (pp. 23–29). Atlantic Council.

Sweden Democrats. (2019). Sverigedemokraternas principprogram 2019

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Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview on September 5, 2012 in the Netherlands.

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

Nijhuis, Chris; Verbeek, Bertjan & Zaslove, Andrej. (2023). “Disagreement among populists in the Netherlands: The diverging rhetorical and policy positions of Dutch populist Radical Right parties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels


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The Netherlands boasts a wide array of populist Radical Right parties, from the Freedom Party (PVV) and Forum for Democracy (FvD) to Correct Alternative 2021 (JA21). To complicate matters further, the left-wing Socialist Party (SP) is also considered a populist party. Mirroring the diversity of responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the rest of Europe, Dutch populist parties have reacted in myriad ways. Whereas the PVV condemned the Russian invasion, the FvD remained highly supportive of Putin. Interestingly, while many European populist Radical Right leaders, following public opinion, pivoted away from support for Russia, the FvD has maintained its support for Putin’s regime throughout 2022. JA21, on the other hand, has followed the non-populist parties, calling for tougher sanctions on Russia. This report maps the diverse positions of the three populist Radical Right parties regarding Russia. However, we also seek to explain why they have chosen such diverse paths. The report focuses on supply-side considerations, such as the impact of the parties’ relative degree of populism, their attaching ideology, and their position in the highly fragmented party system.

Keywords: Populism, Foreign policy, the Netherlands, Russia–Ukraine war, Party for Freedom (PVV), Forum for Democracy (FvD).



By Chris Nijhuis*, Bertjan Verbeek** & Andrej Zaslove*** (Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands)


The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven to be particularly problematic for the European populist Radical Right, challenging an alleged core feature of even the more moderate bedfellows: their desire to challenge the dominant liberal world order. This report focuses on the Dutch populist Radical Right’s response to the Russian-Ukrainian war. We map and account for the diverging responses of three parties: the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV), Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy, FvD), and Correct Alternative 2021, widely known as JA21. The puzzle that drives our report is the remarkable divergence in reaction to the war among these parties.

Our contribution is structured as follows. After a short description of the rise and the growth of the Dutch populist Radical Right, we argue why the Netherlands is a relevant case for tracking populists’ reactions to the war. Next, we present how these parties’ narratives regarding Russia developed in the 2010s. Third, we offer three possible explanations for the differences between these narratives, focusing on their degree of populism, their attaching ideology, and their position in the party system. Finally, we will discuss what effect the narratives have had on the official Dutch position towards the war as well as on the position of the three parties in the Dutch political system.

This contribution is positioned at the interface of comparative politics and International Relations theory (IR). Congruent with the approach within comparative politics that sees populism as a “thin ideology” (Mudde, 2004), we expect a populist party’s foreign policy preference to be a mix of its idea of the divide between elites and the people and the broader ideology from which it borrows. Similarly, we expect that the closer the party is to the corridors of power, the more likely its foreign policy preferences will be reflected in governmental policies (Verbeek & Zaslove, 2017). Congruent with the “second image reversed” approach in IR scholarship, we assume that international crises pose a challenge to political parties domestically (Verbeek & Zaslove, forthcoming). Especially when such events are perceived as threatening national survival, they may upset the dominant security narrative underlying a country’s political discourse, thus affecting initial threat management but usually dissipating after some time. It may also provoke a rally around the flag effect for the incumbent government (Lee, 1977). Such upheavals may impact politicians’ domestic positions. The Russia–Ukraine war may thus prove an advantage or disadvantage to populist parties.

Why the Netherlands?

From the perspective of comparative politics, the Netherlands is intriguing. On the demand side, since the mid-2000s, 18–22% of the electorate has consistently voted for a populist party (of the Left or the Right). However, on the supply side, the (right-wing) populist landscape is highly volatile, with a plethora of populist parties that pop up and then (often) disappear. At the time of writing in early 2023, right-wing populist parties hold 29 of the 150 seats in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. The largest is Geert Wilders’s PVV, with 17 seats. Thierry Baudet’s FvD lost three of its eight lower house seats to the breakaway Groep Van Haga in May 2021. In the Dutch Senate, the FvD lost 11 of its 12 senators to three breakaway groups despite its tremendous success in the 2019 regional elections, which defines the election of senators. The 2021 parliamentary elections ushered in JA21 (three seats) — itself another breakaway from the FvD — as well as the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer Citizen Movement, BBB), which is less easy to classify as right-wing populist. Three months before the 2023 regional elections, scheduled for May 30, JA21 and the BBB were riding high in the polls, polling 7–9 and 11–13%, respectively (Louwerse, n.d.). The Netherlands is thus a political system where many right-wing populists compete for the same electorate (de Jonge, 2021). It also boasts a left-wing populist party, the Socialist Party (SP) (Meijers & Zaslove, 2021). However, since the report focuses on the populist Radical Right, we do not analyse the SP further.

The Netherlands is similarly intriguing from an IR perspective. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, as the United States sought to progressively limit its role in Europe, the country worked hard to improve its relationship with Russia, especially after the Obama Administration announced the “pivot to Asia”. The climax of these efforts should have been the celebration of 400 years of Dutch–Russian relations in 2013. However, 2013 ended awry due to unease over the Kremlin’s anti-LGBT+ policies, Russia’s jailing of Dutch environmentalists, and the Dutch arrest of a Russian diplomat over domestic violence (Walker, 2013). Nevertheless, the 2014 annexation of Crimea did not alter the broadly shared desire for better relations between Russia and the West.

This fundamentally changed with the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-controlled forces in the area. More than 190 Dutch citizens were killed. The Dutch narrative of Russia quickly soured when Russia proved unwilling to cooperate with the official inquiry. The Dutch official reaction to the 2022 war was very outspoken, calling for tough sanctions against Russia. This call came despite the Dutch government’s decision to end gas production in the Groningen gas field in the country’s earthquake-prone north, making the Netherlands somewhat more dependent on gas imports from Russia (Sterling, 2022). However, Dutch dependence on Russian gas is low compared to other European countries. The new dominant narrative on Russia, which changed from (coveted) friend to (potential) enemy, was problematic to right-wing populists. The rally around the flag caused by the MH17 tragedy and, later, the war has made it more difficult for right-wing populists to claim that the elites were neglecting the people’s interests. Also, the reliance on international cooperation in NATO, the European Union (EU) and the International Energy Agency (IAE) made it more challenging to sustain the criticism of global liberal institutions as a “corrupt elite”.

Dutch right-wing populist narratives of Russia

The three major right-wing populist parties in the Dutch parliament (FvD, JA21, PVV) differ substantively in their narratives of engagement with Russia. Newcomer JA21 sticks closest to the Dutch government’s line. Wilders’s PVV explicitly condemns Russian aggression and accepts the temporary hosting of limited numbers of Ukrainian refugees. Overall, however, it remains more concerned with the consequences of Dutch foreign policy for the Dutch people rather than with direct involvement in the Ukrainian war effort. Baudet’s FvD, although never formally endorsing the Russian attack, has shied away from condemning Moscow. Instead, it seeks to paint a broader picture of geopolitical change (“the great reset”) in which the EU’s support for “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet sphere has prepared the ground for this war. Before describing the narratives in more detail, we emphasize that for the FvD and the PVV, resistance against the EU–Ukrainian association treaty through a non-binding referendum in 2016 was important in mobilizing domestic electoral support. The 2022 war poses the populist Radical Right with a dilemma: either support a country they previously called corrupt and not worthy of European support or continue to be critical of Ukrainian at the risk of ending up in the pro-Russia camp (see Coticchia & Verbeek, in press).

The PVV, being the oldest of the three, had consistently criticized the EU’s opening to Ukraine in the 2010s. It did not condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (only a parliamentary minority of the CDA, D66, and the Greens supported a condemnation of Russia). The downing of MH17 made the PVV more critical of Russia, but the party argued that EU support for Ukraine had contributed to further escalation in the Donbas. In 2016, Wilders strongly opposed the association treaty with Ukraine and moved closer to Russia by describing Putin as a “true patriot” and depicting Russia as an ally in fighting terrorism and immigration (de Jong, 2018). Nevertheless, in its electoral manifesto, the PVV insisted that the perpetrators of the MH17 shooting be brought to justice (Partij voor de Vrijheid, 2020, p. 48). Wilders condemned Russian aggression in 2022 but considered the earlier prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership an escalatory step.

In Wilders’s tweets and the PVV’s contributions to parliamentary debate, the war itself was seldom addressed but rather instrumentalized through the prism of the needs of the Dutch people. Wilders tweeted on March 18 2022: “I have sympathy for Ukrainians, but I represent the one million Dutch citizens who have elected me” (Wilders, 2022). During parliamentary debates, the PVV emphasizes the cost of the war for the Dutch people, linking high inflation and gas prices to sanctions on Russia. This is consistent with the PVV’s welfare chauvinist economic positions. Regarding parliamentary actions, the PVV and the FvD supported an unsuccessful motion to declare Dutch neutrality in the conflict in late February and an unsuccessful motion to stop sanctions against Russia in early June, while JA21 opposed both motions (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022a, 2022c). The PVV hinted at a willingness to house a limited number of Ukrainian refugees (preferably in the region or by expelling other refugees). Furthermore, the party leverages sympathy with Ukrainian refugees rhetorically (by labelling them “real refugees”) as a counterpoint to other refugees (which they label “the wrong kind of foreigners”) (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022b).

The FvD has never formally approved Russia’s actions but has consistently argued that prior EU and NATO offers of (eventual) membership to Ukraine, including the association treaty, were conducive to the war. Starting from the notion that morality in international relations is absent, Baudet invests considerably in communicating a perspective that, he claims, qualifies the dominant story on the war in the West. Through blogs, tweets, and the organization of a conference in Amsterdam to present an alternative perspective, he presents arguments that align with the Russian narrative, including the demand for the protection of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. Positioning his view within a warning against the so-called “great reset”, Baudet presents NATO expansion, the colour revolutions, and the Arab Spring as part of an American ambition to achieve regime change across the globe (Baudet, 2022). Whereas Wilders thus downplays the war and focuses on the needs of the Dutch people, Baudet frequently engages with the events and interprets the war from the perspective of his view on world politics. Unlike many populist Radical Right parties, the Forum is not welfare chauvinist but rather market liberal. The cultural dimension and the larger global narrative are much more important for Forum’s justification of its support of Putin than is its market liberalism.

In its inaugural manifesto, JA21 did not address the Russian annexation of Crimea and Donbas or its involvement in the MH17 crash (JA21, 2021). In response to the 2022 invasion, the party called for tougher sanctions on Russia, increased defence spending, and using the funds appropriated from Russian oligarchs to rebuild Ukraine. Interestingly, since the start of the invasion, the party has adjusted some of its stances towards Ukraine. Early on, JA21 opposed the supply of weapons to Ukraine, a position they abandoned shortly after the start of the invasion. While the party opposed a parliamentary motion before February 2022 calling for unconditional support for Ukrainian sovereignty, it holds Russia (and Putin personally) solely responsible for the invasion (unlike the PVV and the FvD). However, JA21 remains opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU, in line with their general opposition to EU enlargement. Like the PVV, JA21 rhetorically links the housing of Ukrainian refugees with other refugees (labelling the current situation as an asylum crisis). It further argues that Ukrainians should stay in neighbouring countries. The Dutch government should do more to support these countries and impose a cap on Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands, thereby preventing Ukrainians from seeking help on Dutch soil (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 2022b).

Explaining position diversity on the Dutch populist Radical Right

Three factors help account for the diverse positions of the populist Radical Right vis-à-vis the Russian invasion of Ukraine: we focus on the combination of the party’s degree of populism and its attaching ideology and the nature of the party system.

Anti-elitism is an essential component of populism. A populist party’s anti-elitism emanates, in part, from its location within the party system. In other words, the more populist a party is, the more likely it will set itself against the established parties. The most reliable indicators of populism suggest that both the PVV and the FvD score high on the populist dimension (above 8 on a 0–10 point scale) (Meijers & Zaslove, 2021). At present, no existing measure of JA21’s populism exists. However, JA21’s actions within parliament, its conduct during the electoral campaign, and its party programme show that JA21 is less populist than its right-wing companions (references to the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” are less prevalent).

The higher levels of populism displayed by the PVV and the FvD partly explain why these parties remain critical of the Dutch government’s handling of the situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The fact that JA21 has not opposed the Dutch government’s policies is consistent with its lower level of populism. Nevertheless, it remains puzzling why the PVV mostly followed the government and condemned the Russian invasion, whereas FvD remained aloof and even came close to accepting Russia’s legitimization of the war. Understanding the difference requires insight into each party’s attaching ideology.

Regarding its attaching ideology, the PVV is a classical populist Radical Right party. It demonstrates a nativist nationalism, arguing that the Netherlands should prioritize native Dutch people over (especially non-Western) immigrants. This dovetails with its law and order orientation and welfare chauvinism. Foreign policy concerns, generally, are less important to the party’s identity. Its war narrative is congruent with this: in debates about the war, the PVV emphasizes the protection of the people’s material interests. It is neither essential for the PVV’s identity nor attractive to its voters to sit outside the mainstream by fully supporting the Russian invasion.

Similarly, the FvD is nativist and favours strict law and order policies. However, it voices a larger critique of the state of Western civilization, arguing that the West is decadent and in decline, endorsing Russia’s illiberal democracy as a viable alternative. The FvD’s positions regarding immigration and EU membership, for example, are couched in a broader story of the decline of the West, Europe, and the Netherlands. It pleads for a new global world order and sees Vladimir Putin as a pivotal player in this regard. The Forum’s steadfast defence of Russian foreign policy concerns is crucial for its identity. Forum, unlike the PVV, steers clear of economic arguments in its opposition to the Dutch government’s position regarding the war and Russia.

JA21’s more moderate position regarding the war emanates, in part, from its liberal-conservative ideology and the timing of its entry into the Dutch party system. JA21 was created by ex-FvD members who left the party, feeling that its leader Thierry Baudet had become too radical. Being a latecomer (the third populist Radical Right party on the block), JA21 had to find a space within an overcrowded system. As a result, JA21 chose a more moderate line than the PVV and the FvD, fitting its desire to present a more moderate identity and position itself as an eligible partner in a future centre-right governing coalition. JA21 is more moderate regarding its degree of populism, and its opposition to immigration, while its economic positions resemble more those of the governing VVD.

Public opinion research shows that the positions taken by the three parties largely reflect their respective voters’ positions. For example, fewer than 10% of the FvD supporters see Russia as a threat to Dutch national security, compared to roughly 50% of the PVV supporters and some 60% of JA21 voters. Similar trends hold regarding the support for Russian gas imports and sanctions on Russia (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

Lastly, the Dutch party system is open and fragmented. The system boasts a large number of relevant political parties producing a myriad of possible government coalitions, complicating government formation (Mair, 2008). Given the, albeit slight, possibility of the PVV joining a governing coalition, strategically, the PVV cannot situate itself too far from the mainstream. Consequently, the PVV places itself both inside and outside the party system. It threads the needle between being critical of the Dutch government’s policies following the Russian invasion without ostracizing itself from the positions of the mainstream parties. The FvD, on the other hand, has chosen to be an anti-system force. This is apparent in its parliamentary behaviour and its radical stances vis-à-vis, for example, COVID-19 and the war. Its recent efforts to create an alternative social space for its supporters is another expression of its anti-system approach. The FvD’s position directly contrasts with JA21, which presents itself as a comparatively moderate force within the party system, and as a potential coalition partner. Therefore, a radical stance regarding the war would harm JA21’s future ambitions, both in terms of its attempt to appeal to a broader electorate and its ambition to cooperate with mainstream parties.


The Dutch government has been steadfast in its opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this regard, the populist Radical Right has not affected the government’s position. Although public opinion research (I&O Research/NOS, 2022) demonstrates that there is a (sizeable) market for a more critical position regarding the Russian invasion, support for Ukraine remains high. We observe a rally around the flag effect regarding Ukraine, contributing to the Dutch government having the leeway to support Ukraine. Although this effect generally tends to be transient, support for Ukraine within the Netherlands has remained comparatively strong (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

If the conflict were to continue for a prolonged period of time, this might change. The Netherlands is somewhat insulated from higher gas prices (in comparison with other countries) due to its own supply of natural gas. However, if the war were to continue, high energy costs and inflation might create a situation in which the more critical position of the populist Radical Right could become more influential, especially during an electoral campaign. Nevertheless, we do not expect the influence of the populist parties to dramatically change the government’s position. This does not imply, however, that the more critical positions of the PVV and the FvD have not been important for party politics in the Netherlands. On the contrary, their critical positions have served to solidify their position as populist challengers, demonstrated by what appears to be continued support among their constituents (Houtkamp et al., 2022).

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(*) Chris Nijhuis is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. His research concentrates on the impact of populist parties on the foreign policy of states, with a particular focus on the link between national identity and foreign policy.

(**) Bertjan Verbeek is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He researches decision-making in foreign policy, including during crises, and the link between populism and foreign policy.

(***) Andrej Zaslove is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Political Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He conducts research on populism and political parties. He measures populist attitudes among voters and within political parties and examines the links between populism and democracy, foreign policy and gender. His publications can be found in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, West European Politics, Political Studies and the European Political Science Review.


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