Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women and these women play games as well as men do.
By Anita Tusor*
In line with this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” our first The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) interview not only focused on youth radicalisation and its platforms, contemporary antisemitism, online hate and gaming, and historical memory of the Holocaust; but closely examined educational, roleplaying games with stories about women in WWII designed by an international team of women and non-binary writers led by Moyra Turkington.**
The 21st century has seen an impressive and considerable evolution in the capability and popularity of gaming. With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover analog- and video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. Nonetheless, the depiction of historical events in certain games has recognizable flaws. A common thread of criticism lies in the representation of war – most notoriously, World War Two – and how most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games (Glouftsis, 2022). Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies from historical conflict. In this way, these games appear to contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period.
However, it must be noted that a growing number of games published in the last decade have broached the topic of war and conflict in a far more nuanced and considerate fashion. These projects tend to stem from smaller game-publishing houses, where the artistic and creative choices undertaken by the game developers are often well-researched, portraying the historical past and conflict in such a way that does not obscure the horrible realities of war while remaining instructive but considerate to the victims’ experience. Turkington and her team’s project, War Birds, provides an anthology of games about women in World War II and a fine example of how to approach Holocaust game designing issues.
Turkington’s latest publication (2021) addresses game-designing techniques to bypass serious issues in Holocaust-related historical role-playing games, such as the potential trivialisation of the Holocaust or players learning to blame the victims. Game design challenges are exemplified through the description of Rosenstrasse, a role-playing game in which players adopt the roles of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in mixed marriages in Berlin between 1933 and 1943. In our conversation, Turkington mentioned Rosenstrasse as an explicitly transformational game specifically designed to be a deep emotional experience. Testplays and qualitative research study with eighteen subjects proved it to be a highly effective experience (AJS Perspectives, 2019).
Historical Game Studies and Women
Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female (Guardian, 2020), which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women (Yee, 2017) and these women play games as well as men do (Shen et al., 2016).
Furthermore, there is an existing and serious concern about the toxicity of not only how and by whom games are developed but the player cultures as well, not to mention the marginalisation of whole groups of people (namely women, LGBTQA+, people of colour) (Wright, 2022: 177; Heron et al., 2014). Women often feel uncomfortable, maybe harassed or excluded from communal gaming spaces (Fishman, 2022). Gaming girls and women are more likely to hide their gender using voice-changing headsets than their male counterparts (Hetfeld, 2021). Abusive players face few consequences; female players are more prone to withdraw from playing certain games (Fox & Tang, 2016).
The gaming industry’s refusal and slow progress in addressing misogyny and extremism (Compton, 2019) have resulted in a dire report by the leading anti-hate organisation; ADL (2022). The latest survey shows gender was the most frequently cited reason for identity-based abuse. “In broader national movements, it is typically antisemitism that lies at the root of white supremacy movements; in games, it is misogyny” (ADL, 2022: 9). The concept of “geek masculinity and networked misogyny” (EGRN, 2021) shows similarities with populism as it is “being entrenched in heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality, and is threatened by the presence of those deemed to be ‘others’” (Peckford, 2020: 67). Pöhlmann (2021) coins the term ‘ludic populism’ while investigating video games that undermine their own populist aesthetic and argues that video games can both reinforce and challenge the idea of a unified group of “the people” by using populist imagination, often through implicit or explicit essentialist means.
Live-action role-playing games (LARPs) may also utilise populist imagination, as well as perpetuate and foster misogyny and antifeminist hate speech narratives. Karner (2019) and others (Moriarity, 2019, PuzzleNation, 2018) stress that inclusiveness and acceptance of female players are gradually moving in the right direction. However, it is only possible if change begins at the game development level. Games made by women include creative, political minds who “can help break the tide of prejudicial game design and writing” as well as may enable “roleplaying to become the next stage of feminist storytelling” (Cross, 2012: 84).
(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.
(*) Moyra Turkington is an award-winning Canadian larpwright, game designer and theorist with a background in Cultural Studies and Theatre. She is also the founder of the indie studio Unruly Designs and the leader of the War Birds Collective — an international community designing political games about women fighting on the front lines of history. Turkington is interested in immersive, transformative and political games, particularly in creating a multiplicity of media, design, representation and play.
ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project
Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.
The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.
Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.
ECPS has inaugurated a Case Competition Series in Populism Studies and held its first competition on March 7, 2023, in Brussels with the participation of ECPS Early Career Researchers Network (ECRN) and ECPS Youth Group members to provide a unique learning experience for students and young professionals and support them in learning how to transform their academic knowledge into feasible policy suggestions.
ECPS has inaugurated a Case Competition Series in Populism Studies and held its first competition on March 7, 2023, in Brussels with the participation of ECRN (ECPS Early Career Researchers Network) and ECPS Youth members. The competition focused on a pressing issue in contemporary democracies: The rise of far-right movements in Europe, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. In order to narrow our focus, we chose to situate our case in Germany, a key player in Europe’s political and economic landscape, and we expected participants to pay special attention to Russia’s role in this context. Please consult this document for detailed information.
While case competitions are widely used and popular in consulting, finance, and risk management, we firmly believe they can also be effective tools for putting theory into practice in the fields of political science and international relations. Thus, ECPS has decided to launch the ECPS Case Competition Series, which focuses on different topics in the framework of Populism Studies. Our research has highlighted the numerous potential benefits of designing and hosting a case competition in this field, and we are confident that this series will be a valuable experience for all involved, which has been the case for the event on the 7th of March.
Case competitions are a type of event in which teams of students or professionals compete against each other to develop and pitch solutions to a business, public administration or a political and/or international relations problem. Teams are given a limited amount of time to research, analyze, develop, and pitch their solutions.
Case competitions are based on contemporary and relevant real-world problems that challenge participants to analyze complex issues and craft innovative solutions. Participants are divided into teams to work together on solving the case, allowing them to enhance their teamwork skills. The proposals of the participants are evaluated based on criteria such as creativity, feasibility, and presentation by a panel of scholars and experts in the field.
Our main goal in carrying out a case competition in the field of political science/populism studies and international relations is to provide a platform for students and professionals to showcase their analytical and problem-solving skills while addressing real-world issues that are relevant to the field. The competition forces participants to think critically and creatively as they research and develop solutions to a complex political or international relations problem. It serves as a valuable learning experience for participants, helping them develop critical skills in high demand in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing political and international landscape.
By contributing to the competition, participants gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of global and European politics and international relations. They will be better prepared for their future careers. Participants are able to apply their knowledge and skills in a competitive setting and are evaluated by a panel of experts in the field. The panel of experts that assessed the case presentation on March 7, 2023, was formed by the scholars who contributed to the ECPS report on “The Impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe.”
Overall, our goal in launching this case competition series is to provide a unique and valuable learning experience for students and young professionals and support them in learning how to transform their academic knowledge into feasible policy suggestions.
Moderator:Aline BURNI(Policy Analyst on International Relations, Foundation for European Progressive Studies, Brussels.
“How international law enables great power domination and great power competition and what can be done about it,” by Mattias KUMM(S.J.D. Harvard, Research Professor for Global Constitutionalism, WZB Berlin Social Science Center).
“Mini-literalism in the Indo-Pacific as an alternative to multilateralism and bilateralism? The role of public support and populism,” by Werner PASCHA (Prof. of Economics, Duisburg-Essen University, Institute of East Asian Studies-IN-EAST).
“On the new paradigms of cooperation in the rising world of multiplexity in countering populism,” by Richard CLARK(Associated Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University).
Power Shift, Multiplex World, and Populism
16:00-17:30 (Central European Time)
Moderator: Emilia ZANKINA(Interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement, Dean, Temple University Rome).
“Cooperation regimes and hegemonic struggle: Opportunities and challenges for developing countries,” by Sara CARIA(Research Professor at The Center for Public Economics and Strategic Sectors at the Institute of Higher National Studies).
“The Chinese perspective of multilateralism, power transition, and the so-called new world order,” by ZHANG Xin (Associated Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Deputy Director/Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai).
“In pursuit of Xi Jinping’s dream world order: The case of the BRI,” by Ibrahim OZTURK (Professor of Economics, The ECPS Senior Researcher and the University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of East Asian Studies).
Day II (March 31, 2023)
13:00–17:30 (Central European Time)
“Saving multilateralism and democracy under global power transition and rising authoritarian populism,” by Věra JOUROVA (The Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency –Previously the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality).
The ‘New Globalization’ and Countering Populism
14:00-15:30 (Central European Time)
Moderator:Helmut WAGNER(Professor of Economics, Fern Universität in Hagen).
“Economic populism and sovereigntism: The rise of European radical right-wing populist parties,” by Oscar MAZZOLENI (Political Sciences, University of Lausanne).
“Populism or embedded plutocracy? The emerging world orders,” by Michael LEE (CUNY-Hunter College, New York).
“Chinese ‘hub and spoke’ – multilateralism and the notion of populist economic policy,” by Marcus TAUBE(Professor of East Asian Economics/China, Mercator School of Management, Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST), Duisburg-Essen University).
Closing Keynote Speech
15:30-16:30 (Central European Time)
“Multipolar globalization, learning curves and populism,” by Jan Nederveen PIETERSE(Mellichamp Chair and Distinguished Professor of Global Studies & Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA).
16:30-16:45 (Central European Time)
By Naim KAPUCU(Pegasus Professor, School of Public Administration & School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida).
How international law enables great power domination and great power competition and what can be done about it
By Mattias Kumm
After WWII the UN Charter established the obligation to resolve disputes peacefully, to prohibit the use of force and establish a system of collective security. In practice this system has failed in its core mission to prevent militarily organized great power competition. Instead, the system has evolved to effectively establish prerogative powers in favor of certain great powers, who compete with one another today over the question who and within what limits these powers are to be exercised. The presentation will analyze the specific features of international law, that effectively enable the United States, China and Russia to exercise prerogative power and addresses the question what might be done to curtail and eventually eliminate those powers and the dangerous competition it produces.
Minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific as an alternative to multilateralism and bilateralism? The role of public support and populism
By Werner Pascha
Minilateralism has spread considerably in recent years, and the Indo-Pacific has been a pivot for this development. The Quad group, encompassing Australia, India, Japan and the US, is but the most prominent example. The trend towards minilateral initiatives is usually explained by referring to issues on the level of international cooperation, namely certain deficiencies of multilateralism and bilateralism. Another argument is related to presumed organizational efficiency advantages. In this contribution, we explore the under-researched argument that minilateralism is also related to domestic political factors of the countries involved. Namely, we look into the argument that in many circumstances it may be easier and more promising for both populist governments and for governments that need to defend themselves against populist sentiments to engage in minilateral initiatives, rather than to focus on different levels of international cooperation.
On the new paradigms of cooperation in the rising world of multiplexity in countering populism
By Richard Clark
A nascent literature in international relations has identified a reticence by populist leaders to engage in good faith with international organizations (IOs), including international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is largely because such organizations are staffed by elites and experts, which populists position themselves against, and perceived by populists’ constituents as benefiting elites rather than the common people. As a result of this populist skepticism of IOs, resurgent populism in many parts of the world has corresponded to mounting attacks by populist leaders on IOs and the experts that staff them. Moreover, populists may take advantage of regime complexity, or the presence of multiple IOs in a given issue space, to select the forum that intrudes least on state sovereignty. I will specifically discuss how the IMF and its operations have been targeted by populist leaders in this way; how the Fund has reacted to the populist challenge; and the conditions under which populists may cooperate with rather than criticize the IMF.
Cooperation regimes and hegemonic struggle: Opportunities and challenges for developing countries
By Sara Caria
There is an increasing convergence in the international relations literature around the idea that changes in the world economy during the last decades are reshaping the international order; although the outcome of such a reconfiguration is yet unclear, many scholars argue that a dispute over global hegemony is already underway. At the same time, drawing on realist and neorealist approaches, international cooperation can be seen as a means to gain legitimacy and tighten alliances. In this framework, this article analyses three cooperation regimes as terrains of dispute to expand—or maintain—international leadership. The first, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, reflects mainly the attempt to maintain the legitimacy of the United Nations system and the multilateral institutions that make up the traditional cooperation regime. This framework still responds to Western interests, despite China’s efforts to contest and contain US influence. The second, South–South cooperation, wrapped up in the rhetoric of horizontality and common challenges, is the privileged terrain of middle powers and emerging countries, aiming at increasing regional influence. Finally, the third scheme, International Cooperation for Structural Transformation, is China’s new development doctrine and the fulcrum of its struggle to promote itself as a successful new model for global development. In my conclusions I reflect on the opportunities that the co-existence of different regimes offers for developing countries, as well as the challenges that they continue to face in their search for autonomous development paths.
Shifting Chinese perspectives on multilateralism and the “new world order”
By ZHANG Xin
The presentation first unpacks the multiple layers of connotations within Chinese state’s discourse on multilateralism and new world order, including multilateralism vs. isolation; multilateralism vs. multipolarity; multilateralism as institutions/rule binding behavior vs. non-institutionalized behavior; genuine multilateralism vs. fake multilateralism, etc. It then traces how Chinese state’s perceptions of multilateralism have shifted over time, partially driven by the ongoing power transition in international system. Last, it briefly matches such shifting perceptions and discursive mechanisms on multilateralism and new world order with China’s key policy choices and institutional building during the past two decades.
In pursuit of Xi Jinping’s dream world order: The case of the BRI
By Ibrahim Ozturk
The current multipolarity and power shifts make it essential to see what kind of world order the rising powers like China want. While some experts endeavor to grasp this concerning the long history of China, in this presentation, we will try to project the future by following the strategy, institutional governance quality, policy and practices that China has put forward since 2014 in BRI, the most important vision project put before the international community. China’s selective and dual approach towards the current “global order” is the most prominent hint about China’s world order. Namely, the communist party keeps silent in reforming the existing multilateral global system’s deficiencies in matters deemed appropriate for China’s interests. It also uses the opportunities of the liberal order abroad but denies the principle of reciprocity at home and tries to legitimize it with the so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. This presentation will argue that the Chinese perspective observed in the BRI can be interpreted as the reincarnation of China’s hierarchical “world systems approach”, which refers to its ancient investiture-tribute system.
Economic populism and sovereigntism: The rise of European radical right-wing populist parties
By Oscar Mazzoleni
The study of the ideological and policy stances of successful European radical right-wing populist parties represents important research topics in political science. Although cultural dimensions taken in a narrow sense are crucial (e.g. Norris & Inglehart 2019), scholarship has been increasingly interested to economic aspects, with a focus on welfare, redistribution and international trade. This contribution argues that the economic supply of radical right populist parties is characterized by a mix of economic populism and sovereignism, which forms the basis of a common mobilization frame. While economic populism refers to defense of the economic prosperity of the ‘heartland’ against its enemies, e.g. the elite and immigrants, economic sovereignism entails the message of “nostalgia of the old good times” by referring to an idealized or “gold” period when economic well-being was predominant among the people, and which needs to be restored” (Ivaldi & Mazzoleni 2021).
Populism or embedded plutocracy? The emerging world orders
By Michael Lee
What kind of foreign policy vision are populist governments likely to bring to the world stage? Conventional wisdom would suggest that populists are likely to oppose multilateral cooperation and the cosmopolitan global vision that has characterized much of the post-Cold War era. However, this does not mean that populists are intrinsically opposed to all forms of international interaction – particularly in a world order increasingly shaped by populist governments themselves. I argue that while populists are likely to oppose formal and technocratic intergovernmental organizations, populist leaders are likely to engage in bilateral cooperation with other leaders, and even in more broad-based cooperation when doing so is aligned with the divisions they would like to stoke domestically.
Chinese “hub and spoke”-multilateralism and the notion of populist economic policy
By Marcus Taube
Chinese leaders present themselves as advocators of a multilateral world order. As exemplified by the Belt & Road Initiative, however, China’s de facto (economic) external relations are modelled on a “hub-and-spoke” system, where China establishes a multitude of bilateral relations, which are then integrated in a larger (multilateral) setting in which China commands a central, leading role. The presentation discusses this phenomenon and outlines populist features of China’s external economic policies designed to promote further Chinese influence, economic leverage and soft-power in an international economic environment.
Multipolar globalization, learning curves and populism
By Jan Nederveen Pieterse
Right-wing populist parties move to the center (Italy, France, Sweden), repeat electoral rollercoasters (Netherlands), insert authoritarian nostalgia into the mainstream (Philippines), fail (Trump, Bolsonaro) or remain stuck in failure (Brexit, Freedom Caucus). Right of center parties move to the extreme right (Likud Israel, US Republicans), muddle on (UK) or nearly crater (UMNO Malaysia). Center parties may opt for ‘critical centrism’ (Macron). Other parties are in the phase of changing not just politics, phase one and policies, phase two, but laws and institutions, level three (BJP India, Likud, Erdogan Turkey, Fidesz Hungary, Justice Party Poland), a level that established authoritarian regimes have long achieved. These multi-directional trends involve crisscrossing learning curves, alongside Realpolitik, on the part of politicians, publics, media, think tanks, funders, foreign interests (Russian influencers) and so forth. For rightwing voters issue loyalty often matters more than party loyalty. Politics is constant learning, its nature changes as dynamics change and learning is multi-directional. Polycrisis focuses social attention on capable governance rather than ideological posturing. While much right-wing populism has been a response to economic setbacks, deindustrialization, 2008 crisis, austerity, immigration, now great power conflicts take the foreground and multipolar globalization takes a geopolitical turn, a shift that leaves less room at the table for right-wing populists. Overarching trends play a part in multi-directional movements, yet they are not linear and their implications are not uniform across settings. Generalizations about populism miss its diversity and diverse learning curves.
Dr Paul Kenny(Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University).
“Populism, Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the Philippines: From Past to Present,” by Dr Adele Webb (Research Fellow in Democracy and Citizen Engagement at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra).
“Duterte’s ‘violent populism’ in comparative and historical perspective,” by Dr Mark Richard Thompson (A Professor of Politics at Department of Asian and International Studies and director of Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong).
“Gendered Populism of Dutertismo and Hypermasculinity in the Philippine’s politics,” byDrJean S. Encinas-Franco (A Professor in the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman).
“Media Populism and Anti-Free Speech in Duterte’s Philippines,” by Dr. Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio (An Assistant Professor at the Department of Science Communication, College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines at Los Baños).
Dr Paul Kenny is Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University. He specializes in political economy and comparative politics. He received his PhD in political science from Yale University. Dr Kenny is the author of two previous books, Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2017), which won the American Political Science Association’s 2018 Robert A. Dahl Award, and Populism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2019). His research on populism, inequality, and other topics in comparative political economy has been published in the British Journal of Political Science, The Journal of Politics, and Political Research Quarterly among other leading journals.
Dr Adele Webb joined the University of Canberra’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance in 2023 as Research Fellow in Democracy and Citizen Engagement. She is an early career political sociologist (PhD University of Sydney 2019) researching how citizens think about democracy, when and why they hold ambivalent attitudes to democracy, and how subjectivities and the political unconscious affect their engagement with democratic processes. Adele’s work has been published in academic journals and edited books, including The Duterte Reader (2017), Democratic Theory(2018), and Populism Around the World (2019). Her first monograph, Chasing Freedom: The Philippines’ Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence, was published by Liverpool University Press and Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2022.
Dr Mark R. Thompson is Professor of Politics, Department of Asian and International Studies and director, Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). He is past president of the Hong Kong Political Science Association and the Asian Political and International Studies Association. Thompson is the author or editor of 10 books and over 200 articles – many in top journals- and book chapters, his research focuses on autocratization, presidentialism, authoritarian developmentlaism, and dynastic national leadership in East Asia (Northeast and Southeast Asia). His research has been cited over 3,600 times (according to Google Scholar) and has been featured in the popular media (e.g. Time Magazine, The Washington Post, CNBC, and Wired Magazine). He lends his expertise to government, public foundations, and non-government organizations in the areas of East Asian politics and development
Dr Jean Encinas-Franco is currently a Professor in the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman. Before she entered the academy, she worked for 15 years at the Senate of the Philippines, where she was Director III of the Senate Economic Planning Office. She also lectured at the International Studies Department of Miriam College from 1999 to 2009 and was a Faculty Associate of its Women and Gender Institute. Her research focuses on labor migration and gendered discourses of migrant workers. She teaches Gender and Politics and Feminist International Relations.
Dr Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Science Communication, College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines at Los Baños. His research focuses on media populism, journalism and digital politics. Trained in media studies, his recent work on populism and religion appeared in the International Communication Association and Oxford University Press’ journal Communication, Culture and Critique. He earned his PhD from the School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University.
Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia (Eds). (2023). The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0010
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets, and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused nearly eight million Ukrainian civilians to flee the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. Thus, the war in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world.
Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe. The economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics. It has also affected public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.
This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime, and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.
In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context and the impact it may have had on them. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.
By looking first at the “supply side” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, the report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. The report has also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.
Meanwhile, turning to the “demand side” of populism, the report’s country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The report has also sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.
While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and the Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.
In sum, by looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across 23 European countries, this cross-national analysis provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defense).
Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Pro-Russia or anti-Russia: Political dilemmas and dynamics in Bulgaria in the context of the war in Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0012
The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. Bulgaria shares historically strong ties with Russia, and at least a third, if not half, of Bulgarians harbour deeply rooted pro-Russian sentiments. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, sent humanitarian and military aid to Kyiv, and accepted Ukrainian refugees, key political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed such decisions. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, Bulgaria’s incumbent president, and at least one populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war. In the process, Revival and its leaders have managed to capitalize on the nationalist vote and pro-Russian attitudes in the country, almost entirely wiping out voter support for the more established Far Right parties.
The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. In the past two years, the country has struggled with political uncertainty and turmoil, having undergone four parliamentary elections (a fifth is scheduled for April 2023) and having been governed for the most part by caretaker governments.
Against the backdrop of domestic political instability, the war in Ukraine has required Bulgarian politicians and the public to address several complex questions at once, including whether Bulgaria should join the EU sanctions and whether it ought to send aid to Ukraine, and if so, what type: humanitarian, financial or military? Bulgarians have also had to decide whether or not to accept Ukrainian refugees and, if so, what type of support it should provide and for how long. In addition, the issue of energy security—and specifically whether the country ought to continue to count predominantly on Gazprom deliveries or diversify its supply of gas—has been front and centre. Finally, the government has had to grapple with the issue of Russian propaganda and intelligence activity in the country.
Such questions pose serious dilemmas in a country where 58% of the population reported positive attitudes towards Russia and Putin before the start of the war (see table 4). Given such public attitudes and the country’s seemingly endemic political instability, it is hardly surprising that public opinion and government policy on the war has been inconsistent and frequently changing or that political parties have been quick to exploit public sentiment to gain electoral advantage. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, dispatched humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, and accepted Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, prominent political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed these decisions and sought to leverage them for political gain. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, which ruled the country from 1946 until 1989, Rumen Radev, Bulgaria’s president, and the country’s newest populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war (Lavchiev, 2022).
The remainder of the report proceeds as follows. Next, I offer a brief outline of the political context in which the current debate on Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the war in Ukraine has taken place in Bulgaria. I then detail the constellation of populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria and their various reactions to the war. Finally, I detail public attitudes towards the conflict and how such attitudes appear to have shifted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The Russian “brothers” and their defenders
Bulgaria has a long history of close ties with Russia, and Russians are generally seen and referred to as “brothers” and “liberators”. Following five centuries of Ottoman rule, in the late nineteenth century, a period of national renewal started, which led to a series of national uprisings against the Ottomans, culminating in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. This paved the way to Bulgarian independence, which was finally achieved in 1908. During the war of 1877–78, Bulgarian and Russian soldiers fought side by side, and to this day, Bulgarians commemorate the Russian soldiers who fell as “liberators” in that conflict. In addition to Russia’s role in Bulgaria’s independence, ethnic Bulgarians and Russians share a common cultural heritage, including a Slavic language and origin and Orthodox Christian religion.
Following the war, a provisional administration was instituted under Russian control, whose aim was to assist Bulgaria in establishing state structures and institutions. While most Bulgarians saw Russia as a liberating force, not all political circles were happy with Russian control over the provisional administration. Consequently, ever since independence, a division has remained in Bulgarian society and among political elites between Russophiles and Russophobes. The latter have sought to distance Bulgaria from the Russian sphere of influence and orient the country toward Western Europe, including by soliciting two kings from European noble families to rule the country. In contrast, Russophiles have sought to nurture and preserve Bulgaria’s ties with Russia and defend Russian interests in the country.
The end of the Second World War brought a Soviet-imposed communist regime. In a few short years, Bulgaria instituted a Soviet-type regime of one-party rule, a fusion of party and state, a centrally planned economy, nationalization of property, collectivization of agriculture, control over cultural and social life, and repression (Zankina, 2022). Throughout nearly five decades of communist rule during the Cold War, Bulgaria was the most trusted Soviet ally. In fact, the country’s communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, twice requested that Bulgaria be admitted as the sixteenth republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Crampton, 2007). Communist rule and Zhivkov’s doctrine of “total integration” with the Soviet Union (Kolrova & Dimitrov, 1996, p. 179) ensured that anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments in the country were uprooted through whatever means necessary.
With the collapse of communism, Bulgaria once again faced the question of relations with Russia and whether it should remain close to Moscow or seek integration with the West. Although today Bulgaria is a member of both NATO and the European Union, such a trajectory was by no means assured when looking at political dynamics in the 1990s. As the successor of the vehemently pro-Soviet communist party, the BSP remained a bulwark of Russian interests in the country, strongly opposing a pro-Western geostrategic orientation and arguing for a dual foreign policy that would preserve close ties with Russia while also developing relations with the West. Leading four coalition governments since 1990 and being a junior coalition partner in one, the BSP has always sought to protect Russian interests in Bulgaria.
Although the BSP’s support has significantly decreased in the past two years (see table 1), for a long time, the BSP attracted at least a third of the votes, representing many of those pro-Russian voters. While today the BSP has embraced EU and NATO membership, it opposes every decision that might hurt Russian interests in the country, from advocating Russian technology for a controversial nuclear power plant and opposing the purchase of American weapons to protesting the NATO bases in the country and protecting reliance on Russian gas. As part of the short-lived coalition government of Kiril Petkov (December 2021–August 2022), the BSP did not support the government’s position and the vote in Parliament on joining the EU sanctions against Russia. It also refused to join the condemnation of the referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk and their illegal incorporation into the Russian Federation, and it has avidly opposed sending military aid to Ukraine. Instead, the BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova has been advocating for an end to the sanctions against Russia, as in her view, they hurt primarily Bulgarian and European households, and reinstating Gazprom gas deliveries (Veleva, 2022b).
In addition to the BSP, the Bulgarian president Roumen Radev – an independent candidate, general and former military pilot who was first elected to the post in 2016 with the BSP’s backing – has frequently taken a pro-Russian position, including declaring that Crimea is legitimately a Russian territory (Lavchiev, 2022). Within the context of the war in Ukraine, Radev has vehemently argued that sending military aid to Ukraine would effectively involve Bulgaria in the war. He has sided with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán in arguing that more weapons would only prolong the conflict and that what is needed instead is negotiation and diplomacy. In the absence of a stable government for most of the past two years, Radev has already appointed several caretaker governments, thus exercising a lot more power than envisioned in the Bulgarian constitution and having significant influence and opportunity to push his pro-Russian views. BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova, President Radev, and the leader of the populist Radical Right party, Revival, Kostadin Kostadinov, have been the most vehement pro-Russian voices in Bulgaria and strong opposition to any actions against Russia (Lavchiev, 2022).
The policy response to the war
At the time of the outbreak of the war, Bulgaria was administered by a coalition government that included four parties with different ideological orientations. Despite this ideological heterogeneity and the presence of the BSP in the governing coalition, the government of Kiril Petkov has taken a clear anti-Russian position and pushed several decisions in support of Ukraine through the Parliament. In March 2021, Bulgaria supported the EU sanctions on Russia, despite strong opposition from the BSP and Revival. In April, a Bulgarian delegation headed by Prime Minister Petkov visited Ukraine. In May, the Parliament voted for humanitarian, financial and military-technical assistance (including repair of military technology) to Ukraine but came short of approving the supply of weapons. This limited support reflected the BSP’s strong opposition to sending military aid and its ability to exercise influence within the coalition. In the meantime, Petkov fired the defence minister, Stefan Yanev (who had served as prime minister in a previous caretaker government), for parroting the Kremlin line that the invasion was a “special operation”, a move that was approved by a majority of the Bulgarian population (Alpha Research, 2022). In June, the Petkov government expelled 70 Russian diplomats from the country over espionage concerns. In contrast to the sacking of Tanev, this move drew strong public criticism.
One of the thorniest issues that Petkov has had to deal with is Russian gas supplies. Bulgaria has depended heavily on Russian gas, which supplied 77% of the country’s needs at the outset of the war (Popov, 2022). The rhetoric of the BSP and Revival highlighting the dire consequences of stopping Russian gas supplies instils understandable anxiety in large portions of the population. Despite continuing to meet its contractual obligations towards Gazprom, the Russian gas giant suddenly stopped deliveries to Bulgaria (and Poland) in April 2021. The EU decried this decision and labelled it blackmail. Consequently, Bulgaria was forced to rapidly diversify its gas supplies, and today receives gas from Azerbaijan through the Greek connector, Turkey, and other regional suppliers.
Despite fears of a change of direction, the current caretaker government of Galab Donev has renewed the commitment to bolster its humanitarian aid to Ukraine with new streams of assistance. In December, Parliament voted to provide Ukraine with weapons and other forms of lethal assistance, including military technology. The BSP and Revival requested a review of this decision before the Constitutional Court. As of December 2022, Bulgaria has provided €225 million in aid to Ukraine and has welcomed 150,000 Ukrainian refugees.
As Ivan Bedrov, head of the Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe, has recently outlined, one year after the start of the war, we can identify three main consequences of the war for the country. First, the war has shed light on Russian interests and influence in Bulgaria and the political actors supporting them. Second, the conflict has become one of the two main dividing lines in Bulgarian society, splitting political actors and the public once again into pro-Russian and anti-Russian camps (the other division concerns attitudes towards corruption and the mainstream parties). Finally, the conflict has proven that Bulgaria is not by default dependent on Russia, including for the supply of energy (Bedrov, 2023).
Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria
Since the 2005 elections, populist Radical Right parties have gained parliamentary representation and established a more or less permanent political presence. Before 2005, nationalist discourse was almost entirely monopolized by the BSP, a feature of many former communist countries in which nationalism is driven from the Left. Bulgaria’s sizeable ethnic Turkish and Roma minorities, as well as a string of migration crises in Europe, have provided fertile ground for nationalist rhetoric and mobilization. Some of those actors are clearly anti-elite, anti-West, and even anti-democracy, while others claim to represent small business, portraying ethnic minorities as a threat to these interests, but are not explicitly anti-EU or even anti-NATO. Kristen Ghodsee explains Bulgarian nationalism best when she describes it as “left wing, right wing, everything” (Ghodsee, 2008, p. 26). Like many other nationalist parties in Europe, some Bulgarian Radical Right parties are explicitly pro-Russian—a position that became even more evident with the war in Ukraine—and have relied on Russian support.
Thus, geopolitical issues have been intertwined with attacks on domestic minorities, welfare chauvinism, and patriotic appeals. Migration has remained secondary in this rhetoric and is discussed through the prism of national ethnic minorities (i.e., Muslim migrants radicalizing domestic Muslim minorities) (Rashkova & Zankina, 2017). Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria attract more than just the disenfranchised, with an average of 10% of the vote (see table 1 and figure 1) and appeal to left- as well as right-wing voters, a phenomenon typical of former communist countries that has been referred to as the “red‒brown” electorate (Ishiyama, 2009). In the last decade, we have witnessed overpopulation and crowding of the political space with parties from the national populist milieu (Krasteva, 2016, p. 170), resulting in the fragmentation of the nationalist vote.
This fragmentation has been coupled with the diversification of Radical Right actors and discourses (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176). While Radical Right parties have established a continuous presence in Bulgaria’s Parliament and beyond, no individual party has been impervious to threats from across the political spectrum, especially new parties. A range of populist Radical Right parties have been represented in Parliament and—between 2017 and 2021, even in government—including Ataka (“Attack”), the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (Vatreshna Makedonska Revolyuzionna Organizaciya, VMRO), the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (Nazionalen Front za Spasenie na Bulgaria, NSFB), and the aforementioned Revival. Revival is thus only the newest and currently the most preeminent of these populist outfits.
Ataka entered Parliament in 2005, the first populist Radical Right party to do so. Its eccentric leader, Volen Siderov, appealed to disenfranchised voters from across the political spectrum, but most importantly to those disillusioned with the transition to democracy and the elites who dominated politics in this period. Drawing on both neo-nationalist and neo-totalitarian elements, Ataka mixes welfare chauvinism and nostalgia for the communist past (Ghodsee, 2008) with clericalism and irredentism (Pirro, 2015). Ataka’s rhetoric is explicitly pro-Russian and xenophobic, openly attacking Bulgaria’s relations with its transatlantic partners and Turkey, in particular, while promoting close ties with Russia. At one point, Ataka was the fourth-largest party in Parliament, and its electoral support peaked in the 2007 European Parliament elections when it took 14.2% of the vote. However, the party has lost ground electorally in recent years (see table 1). Siderov’s pro-Russian interpretation of the war in Ukraine has not gained much attention, as another eccentric populist leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has managed to steal the limelight.
One of the oldest political organizations in Bulgarian history, the VMRO traces its origins back to 1893 and the struggle for Macedonian liberation from Ottoman rule. The organization has gone through numerous phases since then, including terrorist activities in the interwar period (Crampton, 2007), championing cultural preservation during communist rule, and electoral competition as a political party since the transition to democracy in 1989. In the 1990s, the VMRO supported the broad anti-communist coalition and sent representatives to Parliament. In the 2000s, its rhetoric became increasingly nationalistic, especially after Ataka burst onto the political stage. With each election, the VMRO has shifted its political alliances, and its coalition policies have been highly opportunistic and chaotic, while its political identity has remained ambiguous. Although claiming to be patriotic, it has allied itself with political actors with diverse views on nationalism, from those eschewing nationalist rhetoric altogether to moderate nationalists to those on the extreme nationalist end of the spectrum (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176).
The Radical Right formula has proved the most successful for the VMRO. In 2014, the party registered big successes, both in the European Parliament and national elections, sending one MEP to Brussels and 8 MPs to the national Parliament. In the 2017 governing coalition, VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence. While the VMRO’s MEP, Angel Dzambaski, has been criticized more than once for outrageous behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament (Gotev, 2022), Karakachanov has maintained a moderate tone. He has publicly condemned Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, supported Bulgaria acquiring F-16 fighter jets from the United States and criticized Europe for not doing enough to help Ukraine. Despite adopting such mainstream positions, the VMRO has been so far unable to claw back voter support.
The National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) split from Ataka in 2011. The NFSB adopts patriotic and exclusionary rhetoric, defending Bulgarian culture, traditions, language, and sovereignty, but it is less populist and leader-centred than Ataka. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, the NFSB and the VMRO campaigned together in the so-called Patriotic Front (PF). Due to its more constructive and less populist stance, the largest party, Citizens for European Development (GERB), reached out to the PF for a supply-and-confidence arrangement that gave the PF no ministerial posts but nonetheless significant parliamentary influence.
For the 2017 elections, the NFSB and the VMRO joined Ataka in the United Patriots (UP) electoral coalition. The UP took 9.3% of the vote (more or less the same as in 2014), which was a considerable disappointment, given their much higher expectations. However, the configuration of seats in the new Parliament meant the GERB had to appeal to the alliance in order to form a government. Consequently, for the first time in Bulgaria’s post-communist history, the government formally included a party of the Radical Right. The UP alliance were given five portfolios in the Council of Ministers, and VMRO and the NFSB were awarded deputy premierships.
By the April 2021 parliamentary elections, the former partners each thought they could do better on their own, and they ran individually, with none passing the 4% threshold. None of the parties has since recovered, and all have ceded their votes to Revival and other new parties. As the war has unfolded, NFSB’s leader Valeri Simeonov has focused on protecting the right of ethnic Bulgarians in Ukraine, advocating for self-governance and exemption from military service.
As the newest populist Radical Right party in Bulgaria, Revival has managed to attract a sizeable share of votes. Founded in 2017, the party and its controversial leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, have only adopted a nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russian discourse since 2022. Kostadinov is hardly new to politics. Indeed, he is something of a “serial party switcher” in Bulgaria, having sought a home wherever the opportunity has arisen. He has appeared on candidate lists or served in the party executive of all the major Radical Right parties – Ataka, the NSFB, and the VMRO. He has also appeared on the candidate lists of centre-right and centre-left parties. His rhetoric has similarly shifted in the same opportunistic manner.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a great opportunity for Kostadinov and his party to capitalize on widespread frustration and discontent. In this context, Revival took an anti-vaccine stand, denying the existence of the pandemic and mobilizing numerous protests (Veleva, 2022a). Government subsidies, as well as anti-vax, anti-NATO and anti-EU rhetoric, have helped the party gain momentum so that by the third parliamentary election in 2021, it passed the threshold and sent 11 MPs to Parliament (see table 1). Some of the factors outlined for this success include the political turmoil in 2021 and the inability of parliamentary parties to form a government, the incumbent government’s poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic (exacerbated by strong anti-vax and anti-restriction sentiment in the population), and the pronounced pro-Russian attitudes in Bulgaria that translate into anti-NATO and anti-EU positions (Cholakov, 2021).
The war in Ukraine has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Kostadinov to broadcast his pro-Russian views and stage eccentric performances. Shortly after the start of the war, Revival supporters staged an ugly protest action at the 2022 celebrations of Bulgaria’s independence, throwing snowballs in the face of the Bulgarian prime minister and waving Russian flags. In fact, Russian flags are an indispensable attribute to the frequent protests staged by Revival in the past couple of years. While older nationalist parties have all but lost parliamentary support, Revival and its controversial leader Kostadin Kostadinov grew its support from just over 1% in 2017 to over 10% in the most recent October 2022 election.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s energy politics have heightened divisions in Bulgarian society, given the strong historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia, and have fuelled support for Revival. Kostadinov has been repeatedly accused of links to Russia, which he has not denied. A brief overview of his public appearances and statements shows clear allegiance to Russian interests. Before him, Volen Siderov played such a role, defending Russia in many of his public statements. Social networks have further amplified Russian propaganda in Bulgaria, which has been taken at heart by supporters of Radical Right parties, as well as by many BSP voters. According to a report from the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia (HSSF), Russian online propaganda has increased ten-fold since the start of the war (Gigov, 2022).
Radical Right parties have established a strong presence in Bulgarian politics, with continuous representation in Parliament and frequent access to government positions both at the local and national levels. At the same time, there has not been a growth in the nationalist vote. On the contrary, in 2021, Radical Right parties lost a big chunk of their vote to various new parties of different ideological identification, and the latest success of Revival is a result of capitalizing on the votes of other Radical Right parties (see table 1 and figure 2). This development makes us pause and think about the stability of the nationalist vote in Bulgaria. This vote looks pretty volatile and not nationalist at its core, but rather anti-establishment and directed against mainstream parties. In the past couple of years, the Radical Right discovered that new political players could easily hijack its territory and discourse and that their support was based more on the mood of the day than on lasting nationalist attitudes.
Public attitudes towards the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has led to an immediate and radical change in public attitudes towards Russia and Putin. A study conducted by Alpha Research in late February 2022 concluded that the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in a drop in support for Putin and an increase in solidarity with European countries. The report indicates that Putin lost half of his popularity among Bulgarian citizens in the first four days of the war alone. Furthermore, 63% of respondents reported approval of EU-wide sanctions against Ukraine, 61% found the invasion unjustified, only 16% saw it as justified, 68% agreed that Bulgaria must accept Ukrainian refugees, and only 16% were against it (Alpha Research, 2022). Another study by Research Center Trend (2022) indicates that 40% of respondents report an adverse change in attitudes towards Russia. However, the same study finds a slight increase in support for Revival.
The protraction of the war conflict combined with worsening economic conditions led to a change in public attitudes by November 2022. A survey by Estat in November 2022 found 20.7% of Bulgarians sympathize with Russia (a decline from 23.6% in April 2022) and 23.1% with Ukraine (a decline from 32.4% in April) (Estat Research and Consultancy, 2022). Furthermore, 67.5% of respondents think Bulgarian should have a neutral position in the conflict, and 19% have a negative attitude towards Ukrainian refugees, whereas those with a positive view have decreased from 38% in April 2022 to 25.8% in October 2022 (ibid.).
At the same time, there are signs of hope. Despite the rise in nationalist sentiments and pro-Russian attitudes, nationalist and anti-EU parties have but marginal support. If anything became evident in the numerous recent elections, it is that Bulgarians are mostly pro-European. While voters are divided on the party of their particular choice, the majority harbour pro-EU attitudes and support Ukraine in the war conflict. Even the divided 48th Parliament (October 2022–February 2023), which could not agree on a government, has taken several important, clearly pro-European decisions, voting to send arms to Ukraine, purchase F-16 fighter jets, and confirm Bulgaria’s entry into the Eurozone in January 2024.
Similarly, Bulgarians came in large numbers to commemorate one year since the start of the war and to express their support for Ukraine. While the war has strengthened the ever-present divide between Russophiles and Russophobes, it has also helped reaffirm democratic values and support for the Euro-Atlantic alliance. If anything, the reactions and the effects of the war are diverse and not unidirectional.
(*) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
Kolorova, R., & Dimitrov, D. (1996). The roundtable talks in Bulgaria. In J. Elster (Ed.), The roundtable talks and the breakdown of communism (pp. 178–212). University of Chicago Press.
Krasteva. A. (2016). The post-communist rise of national populism: Bulgarian paradoxes. In G. Lazaridis, G. Campani, & A. Benveniste (Eds.), The rise of the Far Right in Europe: Populist shifts and “Othering” (pp. 161–200). Palgrave McMillan.
Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Conclusion for the report on the impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. . https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0035
This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric. Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism.
THE WAR in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world. The war has cost tens of thousands of lives of Ukrainian civilians and caused tremendous devastation to the country’s infrastructure, housing and industrial sector, causing interruptions in the water and electricity supply across many Ukrainian cities, with dire consequences for the population. In addition, millions of Ukrainians have been internally displaced, and nearly eight million have fled the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe.
Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe.
The many economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics, both among the individual states and at the supranational level. It has changed public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.
This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.
In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context produced by the war and the impact it may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.
By looking first at the “supply” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, this report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. Many of these parties have had to shift their positions on Russia to avoid being too closely associated with Putin’s regime. They have also toned down their nativism to adapt to changes in public opinion concerning asylum seekers from Ukraine. Others, in contrast, have strengthened their pro-Russian rhetoric and criticism of the EU and NATO. We have also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.
Concerning the voters, the report has examined public opinion on the war in Ukraine, how it has affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, and the impact the war has had on party support in the electorate. Finally, we have sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.
In the remainder of this conclusion to the report, we summarize the key findings of the country reports and present the implications for the future of the populist Radical Right from a comparative perspective.
The security and defence agenda of the Radical Right before February 2022
The findings indicate a tremendous variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe before the war in Ukraine. Contrary to the conventional view, Radical Right parties and movements adopted a range of positions on foreign policy, security and defence, as well as toward NATO, the EU, and Russia.
While many radical right-wing populist parties have ties with Russia, we see some nuances across Europe, which reflect different foreign policy and international agendas among these parties, particularly concerning NATO, and what is deemed American influence and the cultural and economically liberal agenda emanating from the United States. In the West, the most pro-Russian parties include the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, the Freedom Party (PVV) and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, and the Rassemblement National (RN) and Reconquête! in France. These parties illustrate the populist Radical Right’s admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberal politics, as well as his forceful defence of Christian values and opposition to Islam, positions that Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has enshrined in party manifestos. Moreover, individual populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Éric Zemmour have professed their admiration for Putin’s style of leadership, describing him as “a true patriot”.
Despite the long history of Russian imperialism in Central and Eastern Europe, zealous Putin admirers can be found in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. In Bulgaria, the Far Right ultranationalist party Revival has become explicit in its support for Russia, staging a series of protests over the past year in which prominent displays of the national flag of the Russian Federation have become an indispensable part of the party’s performative politics. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has been more moderate but firmly opposes sanctions against Russia. In the Czech Republic, the Freedom and Democracy Party (SPD) has returned to its traditional pro-Russian positioning (for example, the party backed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as legitimate) after adopting a more neutral tone at the beginning of the war. In Hungary, Orbán and his party Fidesz have consistently argued against Western sanctions (although condemning the invasion at the outset) and continue to parrot the Kremlin’s talking points about Moscow’s “legitimate” security concerns and Kyiv’s “provocations”.
On the other hand, despite their ideological affinities with the Putin regime, we see weaker ties to the Kremlin in parties such as VOX in Spain, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI) in Italy, and Chega in Portugal. These parties may share Putin’s support for “traditional” family values, opposition to LGBTQ rights and what they call leftist “gender ideology”, but they stop well short of backing the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Radical Right populists in Romania have also toned down their pro-Kremlin rhetoric and have condemned the Russian invasion in an effort to prevent further declines in support among voters, many of whom remember Moscow’s backing of the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), by contrast, has toned down its anti-Russian rhetoric and adopted a more moderate tone towards Russia since the start of the war in an attempt to attract Russian-speaking voters. Parties such as the Sweden Democrats have become increasingly critical of Russia in recent years, primarily as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, advocating sanctions against Putin’s regime. These examples illustrate the wide variety of reactions and positions towards the war, illustrating the diversity of Radical Right actors across Europe.
The NATO divide
To some extent, right-wing populists’ positions vis-à-vis Russia overlap with their attitudes towards transatlantic relations in general and NATO in particular. As the country chapters in this report suggest, populist Radical Right parties diverge in their positions on security and defence policy. Such variance reflects, for the most part, the regional divide in Europe that reflects the old Cold War blocs, the specificity of Nordic Europe, and the different historical experiences and legacies of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, the vision of world order promoted by many Far Right populists stresses multipolarityand strategic autonomy against a model of transatlantic relations that favours the United States through its dominant role in NATO. The RN and Reconquête! in France, the FPÖ, and the Dutch FvD are committed to fundamentally revising transatlantic relations. Both Le Pen and Zemmour have consistently affirmed they would again withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command structure, as was the case between 1966 and 2009. Other parties, such as the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, as well as Radical Right actors in Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia, are flexible and pragmatic, essentially deemphasizing foreign policy issues and advocating a neutral approach.
In Northern Europe, the Radical Right has generally embraced a mainstream position concerning transatlantic relations. In Norway, Finland, and Denmark, a consensus has arisen across the political spectrum supporting NATO membership. Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) is a strong NATO advocate, and the party advocates close relations with the United States. Next door in Finland, the executive council of the Far Right, anti-immigration Finns Party recently voted in favour of the country’s NATO application. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Danske Folkeparti, DF) has exhibited unwavering loyalty and support for the NATO alliance, which is a historical feature in Denmark. A notable departure from this broad Nordic support for NATO is the Sweden Democrats (SD). The latter has long opposed accession to NATO and has instead called for increased cooperation and coordination with its Nordic neighbours, including developing a joint Nordic defence force. Still, the SD is the exception that proves the Nordic rule: the Far Right in this region backs close ties with Western allies and sees the United States as a critical security guarantor.
In Eastern Europe, support for NATO among populist Radical Right parties varies. In Bulgaria, Revival and Ataka are vehemently opposed to NATO membership, while the BSP is acquiescent while expressing misgivings about the forward deployment of NATO forces on Bulgarian soil and support for military aid to Ukraine. The Czech SDP and Romania’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) openly trade in xenophobic, anti-American, anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. While Hungary has played an active role in NATO since joining in 1999 (it contributes, for example, to NATO Air Policing in the Baltics), Orbán has slow-walked approval of Finland and Sweden’s accession and is currently demanding the release of EU funds in return for a “yes” vote (Rettman, 2023). Turkey, which has expressed support for Ukraine’s NATO membership, has used its veto to press for concessions from Finland and Sweden. Estonia’s traditionally pro-NATO ERKE has declared the alliance to be in crisis. By contrast, Serbian and Slovak Radical Right parties blame the United States and NATO expansion for the conflict and argue for neutrality, a position also adopted by Austria’s FPÖ. Serbia’s position is particularly interesting, given memories of NATO bombings coupled with aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration.
Diversity in positions is found not only across countries but also within them. This is well exemplified by the Italian case, whose Radical Right populists take a range of positions on NATO. During the Cold War, the Italian Far Right adopted a broadly Atlanticist posture, although this coexisted with an impulse to promote a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, Giorgia Meloni, the FdI leader and current prime minister of Italy, has shown more inclination towards Russia and Putin, but her party remains more pro-NATO compared, for instance, with Salvini’s Lega. Similarly, in Croatia, Radical Right parties have taken divergent positions on NATO. While most have stated clear support for NATO in the context of the war, HSP 1861 has declared that “Croatia is in greater danger from its NATO membership than from Russian aggression” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2022).
Intra-party divisions over Russia
Finally, we find diverging views of Putin and Russia inside populist Radical Right parties themselves. Such divisions are seen, for instance, in the FrP in Norway, with individual party members, including former party leader Carl Hagen and parliamentarian Mika Niikko, taking more pro-Russian views. In Belgium, some VB members, such as Filip Dewinter, have expressed increasing support for the Kremlin over the past decade. Despite the war, voices within Spain’s VOX continue to speak in favour of Russia and Putin. In Denmark, prominent DF MPs MPs Søren Espersen and Marie Krarup have been criticized for supporting the Kremlin, in Krarup’s case, even after the Russian invasion. In the SD, individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russia views, although the party leadership has repeatedly criticized the Kremlin and condemned Moscow’s aggression. In Portugal, André Ventura’s condemnation of Russia has not been unanimous within his Chega party. Some influential members describe the Russian invasion as a legitimate reaction to “NATO encirclement of Russia” while accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of “siding with avowed Nazis”. The Bulgarian BSP has similarly been torn by divergent narratives on the causes of the war and the level of support Bulgaria should provide. The war in Ukraine has deepened divisions within the Romanian AUR, with one faction of the party strengthening its pro-Russian stance and another focusing on grassroots support and domestic issues.
Relations with the European Union
The populist Radical Right inclination towards Russia is also informed by the Euroscepticism of these parties who favour Putin’s Russia to symbolize their opposition to the centralized power of the “Brussels bubble”, grabbing power from the national level of governance (Carlotti, 2023). Many right-wing populist parties have adopted what has been recently described as a common “alt-European policy programme”, which can be defined as “a conservative, xenophobic intergovernmental vision of a European ‘community of sovereign states’, ‘strong nations’ or ‘fatherlands’, that abhors the EU’s ‘centralised’ United States of Europe” (McMahon, 2022, p. 10). While many of those parties have recently toned down their Eurosceptic stances (Taggart, 2019; Brack, 2020), essentially for strategic reasons, they still are the primary opponents to further European integration within the broader European political landscape.
Many parties of the populist Radical Right have instrumentalized anti-EU rhetoric during the war, using anti-elite and sovereigntist arguments. Italian Far Right populists share criticism towards the EU and other supranational bodies, which are said to weaken national sovereignty. In line with its traditional Euroscepticism, Austria’s FPÖ accuses the EU of adopting a Russia policy without consulting voters and blames it for rising prices and the deterioration of living standards. Juist Alternatief 2021 (JA21) in the Netherlands remains opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU, in line with their general opposition to further EU enlargement. In Finland, we find similar criticism and suspicion of supranational institutions in the Finns Party, which remains committed to a Finnish exit from the EU (“Fixit”) as a long-term goal of the party. In Denmark, the DF and New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) vigorously campaign against “more EU”. Such anti-EU rhetoric is less pronounced in countries like Portugal, where EU membership has traditionally been very popular. While Chega echoes the broader Far Right sovereigntist line supporting a “Europe of nations”, the party does not seek a Portuguese exit from the EU or the Eurozone.
Euroscepticism is also a significant feature of the populist Radical Right in Eastern Europe, again with some variation across countries. Estonia’s EKRE is broadly Eurosceptic, with the European Green Deal and the “woke” agenda of “Brussels elites” as major bugbears for the party. In Hungary, Fidesz has long toyed with Eurosceptic rhetoric and played the sovereigntist card in domestic politics, something Orbán has honed to a fine art, blaming Hungary’s government for “selling out” to Western interests before 2010. In the current crisis, Budapest lays the blame for spiking energy prices and economic dislocation squarely at Brussels’ feet. In Bulgaria, Revival is strongly against EU membership, advocating a referendum on leaving the EU and NATO. The Czech SDP has adopted a similar hard-Eurosceptic position calling for “Czexit”. By contrast, in countries like Lithuania and Serbia, the populist Radical Right does not target EU membership directly. Instead, it vilifies national political elites for prioritizing “foreign forces” over the will and interests of locals and lambasts Brussels for its “leftist” political and cultural dictates. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Serbia’s ruling party, is an exception to the Eurosceptic rule in the European Far Right, advocating (at least in all its public pronouncements) a pro-Brussels position as the government seeks to progress the country’s EU accession.
Finally, we must emphasize that Russian influence in Europe’s Radical Right milieu may be observed at different levels and across several domains. Over recent years, the Kremlin has cultivated individual leaders in parties such as the Belgian VB and the German AfD while also nurturing links with organizations gravitating around VOX in Spain, which have received funding from Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin. In addition, financial ties with Moscow have been suspected or established for parties such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Italian Lega, which have allegedly received financing from the Kremlin, and the French RN, whose predecessor party secured a loan of €9 million from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank in 2014.
The Finnish case also illustrates Russian influence on the fringes of the social media space through key influencers working in Finland and Russia who support the Russian cause (a phenomenon observed in Bulgaria as well). The ties between the European populist Radical Right and Russia are embedded in a broader media and social media infrastructure, which sees Russia using public diplomacy tools such as the international television channel Russia Today and social media activities to run disinformation campaigns to achieve global political influence, and interference in other countries’ domestic politics (Yablokov, 2022).
Lastly, the analysis in this report suggests that Russian influence may operate through individual ties across economic elites. For example, in Finland, Movement Now (Liike Nyt), which made its first significant breakthrough in the Finnish regional elections of 2021, has had connections to Russian oligarchs. In Italy, Forza Italia’s position on Russia is largely accounted for by the personal links and friendship that Silvio Berlusconi established with Vladimir Putin during the early 2000s. Similarly, the relationship between Salvini’s Lega and Russia is not only a matter of ideological proximity, but it has also materialized in a confidential cooperation agreement signed with Putin’s United Russia Party in 2017. In Hungary, Orbán prides himself in negotiating a favourable agreement with Putin for gas supplies when other countries, such as Bulgaria and Poland, were cut off from Russian supplies in April 2022.
The heterogeneity of Radical Right responses to the war
After the outbreak of the war, Far Right populists came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin. As a result, their responses and interpretations of the war varied. The cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion in an attempt to sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia. Some parties, on the contrary, have showcased their support for Russia and Putin, chasing fringe opinions and voters. Such variability is observed across countries, but also within them and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite their assumed highly centralized organization and strong leadership.
This can explain how parties that previously supported Putin adapted quickly to the situation by condemning the invasion and welcoming refugees while simultaneously using peace and national economic interests as discursive reasons for opposing measures against Russia. By contrast, we see more than one Radical Right party strengthening its pro-Russian rhetoric, a phenomenon witnessed in several East European countries.
Condemnation of Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Following the invasion, many European populist parties rapidly shifted their positions on Putin’s regime. At the outset, many, if not most, have condemned Russia’s invasion calling for solidarity while toning down their Euroscepticism further, although we see variation in terms of responses to the war and, in particular, the degree of distancing from the Kremlin. As recently suggested by Carlotti (2023), in the Italian case, the “position toward Russia is used in a strategic and opportunistic way” (p. 15), with populist Radical Right parties changing their communication styles and their political positions.
In France, Le Pen sought to distance herself from the Russian president, condemning the invasion and accusing Putin of “breaking the equilibrium of peace in Europe” (Le Pen, 2022). Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, used the war to gain credibility at the international level and to moderate her image with voters in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Meloni managed to distance the FdI from the positions of its electoral partners, Salvini and Berlusconi, who are known for their close ties with Putin. More importantly, she has thus far managed to maintain support for Ukraine without breaking the governing coalition. Portugal’s Chega, Germany’s AfD, the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch PVV and Belgium’s VB have similarly distanced themselves from Putin and openly criticized his actions.
To the East, Romania’s AUR, most Croatian Radical Right parties, as well as Lithuanian outfits, have taken critical positions toward Putin and the invasion. On the other hand, the Finns Party and the SD have not only condemned Putin’s aggression but have heartily cheered on NATO membership. Such reactions are not surprising given the phenomenon of “normalization” and the attempts by many Radical Right parties in Europe to appeal to an ever greater segment of voters.
However, other Radical Right parties across the continent have taken different stances. Unlike Le Pen, Zemmour took an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Russia, calling for a new “treaty to put an end to the expansion of NATO” in response to “Russian demands” (Johannès, 2022). Berlusconi instead has tried to avoid the topic altogether. The Dutch FvD remained highly supportive of Putin compared to other Dutch Radical Right parties. Croatia’s HSP 1861 has similarly stood in opposition to other Radical Right parties, maintaining strong pro-Russian rhetoric. Slovakia’s Radical Right parties have claimed that Slovakia’s support for Ukraine in the current effort to face Russia’s aggression is against the national interest of and a threat to the well-being of its people. Yet others, such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Czech SDP, have become even more avid defenders of Putin, maintaining or even growing their electoral support. Such varied responses illustrate that several parties have not opted for a strategy of normalization and mainstreaming but, quite the opposite, have chosen to differentiate themselves from the prevailing opinion, remaining true to the Radical Right’s anti-establishment traditions.
Toning down nativism
Given the 7.6 million people who have fled Ukraine to escape the war, right-wing populist parties across Europe have been challenged to adapt their traditionally xenophobic and highly restrictive migration policies. In line with public sentiment, these populist parties have shied away from the typical demonization of asylum seekers. Instead, Ukrainians are framed as “real refugees” rather than “economic migrants”, as those fleeing the civil war in Syria are often branded. This distinction between asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean and those fleeing war in Europe reflects a projection of local nativist ideology to the European level (Albertazzi et al., 2022; Farrell, 2022; Hadj-Abdou & Pettrachin, 2022). According to Albertazzi and colleagues (2022), this demonstrates populist parties’ fundamental skill in reading the room and quickly adapting according to the shifts in public opinion.
In line with the phenomenon of Far Right “normalization” (Mudde, 2022) and given an outpouring of public support for Ukraine across Europe, many populist Radical Right parties have been welcoming Ukrainian refugees. In so doing, they have deployed a rich repertoire of arguments in an attempt to justify the shift from established stances against migration and demonizing asylum seekers. Norway’s FrP has advocated a fast track for Ukrainian refugees and a pause to the resettlement of other migrants so that the former, whose Christian values the party argues, are likely to promote integration. The SD have been similarly welcoming, pointing to the religious and cultural similarities between Swedes and Ukrainians and the policy of favouring migrants from neighbouring countries. Spain’s VOX has supported taking refugees from and sending materiel to Ukraine while lambasting the slow EU response and pointing to the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) historical ties to Moscow. Meloni has been particularly supportive of Ukrainian refugees, and even Le Pen has managed to keep a lid on her reflexive demonization of asylum seekers. The Far Right in Lithuania has been very vocal about its support for Ukrainian refugees, volunteering to organize the settlement process and distinguishing between the “real” Ukrainian refugees and other “illegal” economic migrants, a distinction also emphasized by Salvini and the PVV and JA21 in the Netherlands.
While many parties have selectively adjourned their nativism and welfare chauvinism in the face of Ukrainian refugee arrivals, others have cautioned against generous support and pointed to potential threats. Zemmour sparked controversy in France when he dubbed support for those fleeing the conflict as an “emotional response” to the war. Chega has argued that the large influx of Ukrainians might allow “criminals to blend with people who are actually running from a war” (Assembleia da República, 2022b). The Czech SPD has pointed to the substantial financial support for Ukrainian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening macroeconomic situation, and the destabilizing effect refugees would have on the Czech social, healthcare, and education systems, job market and public safety. Bulgaria’s Revival has argued that the well-being of Bulgarians is being put at risk in order to help Ukrainians who drive expensive cars and enjoy a much higher standard of living than many Bulgarians. Trying to appeal to both the Estonian and Russian-speaking audiences, EKRE has used a double-faced strategy. When communicating with their Russian-speaking audience, they play on their anti-Ukrainian sentiment, claiming that Ukrainian refugees are jeopardizing local Russians’ jobs. Such sceptical views are likely to become more popular with the growing number of Ukrainian refugees and decreasing prospects for an end to the war.
Support for sanctions
Support for sanctions against Russia correlates with each party’s position on the war and attitudes towards Putin. Consequently, we observe variation in positions ranging from decisive support for sanctions and military aid to strong opposition to sanctions and arguments about the high domestic cost and ultimate inefficiency of sanctions. However, we notice that populist Radical Right parties are more hesitant to support sanctions than to condemn the invasion.
Several populist Radical Right parties, mainly in Western Europe, have expressed strong support for sanctions against Russia. Ventura from Portugal’s Chega called for harsher sanctions and demanded their imposition on the whole economy rather than only on individuals. Jussi Halla-aho from the Finns Party argued that “intervention of the West will be inevitable”, and thus it should take action against Russia sooner rather than later. Meloni’s FdI firmly supported government initiatives in favour of Ukraine, including sanctions and the supply of weapons, even when FdI was in opposition. Although they expressed scepticism about these measures, Salvini and Berlusconi voted in favour of sanctions and the sending of weapons as part of both the Draghi and Meloni governments. The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP) has expressed frustrations at the EU for “responding to Russia’s aggression only with economic sanctions and not with more drastic and urgently required measures” (Hrvatske Čiste Stranke Prava, n.d.), while the NB in Denmark lambasts Brussels for allowing Russia to “develop into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Arctic region, and ultimately Denmark”.
Hesitancy and scepticism, if not outright criticism, towards the sanctions against Russia, seem to be the more common response by populist Radical Right parties. Belgium’s VB is sceptical of the “poorly thought out” and harsh sanctions against Russia. Le Pen also criticized some of the sanctions imposed on Russia because such measures would primarily hurt French businesses and workers. The Austrian FPÖ has directed its ire not at Moscow but at the EU’s sanctions against Russia, claiming these have harmed the Austrian population and are the cause of high inflation and possible shortages in energy and consumer goods. Orbán has similarly put the blame for all economic difficulties on the EU, claiming that the sanctions against Russia are responsible for high inflation, volatile markets, and weak output. The Czech SPD rejected the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, the United States, and other countries as “ineffective” and criticized the military supplies for Ukraine as potentially escalating the conflict and threatening Czech security. SMER and the Slovak Radical Right have rejected the sanctions and linked them to higher energy prices, as shown, for example, by Republika’s billboard campaign slogan, “We will cancel the sanctions and make energy cheaper”. Serbia has resisted pressures to impose sanctions, although it voted for the UN resolution that demanded the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on March 2, 2022. Turkey similarly did not join the sanctions against Russia, claiming that would allow it to act as a mediator and peace broker. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have both vehemently opposed sanctions against Russia, even if the BSP was part of the governing coalition that recommended and pushed through parliament the approval of sanctions and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Turning to domestic socioeconomic issues
The widespread economic insecurity caused by supply chain issues will likely increase dissatisfaction with national governments and motivate citizens to look for an alternative. In addition, the worrying increases in inflation, affecting food and energy costs, have caused parts of society to become more susceptible to radical political solutions. This context has been conducive for populist parties in the past (for example, the 2008 financial crisis, the war in Syria and the 2015 refugee crisis) as they have used these sources of frustration to gain popular support (Docquier & Morelli, 2022). Similarly, in the current situation, many populist Radical Right parties have exploited domestic socioeconomic issues, linking them to the war and the sanctions and emphasizing the cost of the war to domestic constituencies. On the other hand, parties that have explicitly condemned Putin still do not miss the opportunity to highlight domestic concerns and prioritize the national interest. Moreover, as the war drags on, popular support and enthusiasm give way to domestic discontent, making voters more susceptible to populist Far Right rhetoric.
In Germany, AfD’s co-chair, Alice Weidel, claimed that the “main loser” of the conflict was “neither Russia nor Ukraine but Germany”, which she called the victim of an “economic war”, urging the government to reinstate the supply of Russian natural gas to safeguard Germany’s economy. In Portugal, Ventura questioned Portuguese financial support to Ukraine, saying the money should be spent on pensioners and demanded government intervention to control gas prices. The FrP in Norway has been largely silent in debates regarding handling the war in terms of international politics but has taken the opportunity to exploit war-related issues such as energy prices, fossil fuel production and farming. The DF, the NB and the Denmark Democrats have also stirred fears of economic insecurity, arguing the situation is much worse than the 2008 financial crisis. In debates about the war, the Dutch PVV has repeatedly emphasized protecting people’s material interests. The Czech SDP has used overarching socioeconomic framing of the war combined with nativism and welfare chauvinism. Romania’s AUR has similarly focused more on economic protectionism, particularly regarding exploding energy prices. The Croatian populist Radical Right has also placed a disproportionally higher emphasis on domestic politics than on the developments in Ukraine. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have emphasized the domestic cost of the war and the sanctions next to pro-Russian rhetoric. Le Pen, in turn, has focused her campaign on socioeconomic issues in an attempt to steer attention away from her Russian links (Ivaldi, 2022). Le Pen’s social populist agenda resonated with the French population’s many economic fears, particularly amongst the lower social strata most severely hit by the economic repercussions of the war, and faced with the rising cost of living, especially in rural areas (Perrineau, 2022).
By shifting the debate to domestic socioeconomic issues, populist Radical Right parties have managed to maintain their anti-elite and anti-establishment stances, appealing to frustrated voters while also avoiding uncomfortable questions about past relations with the Kremlin. Thus, the war has proved another fruitful arena for forwarding populist Far Right arguments and playing on voters’ fears and frustrations.
The return of national sovereignty
The attack on Ukrainian sovereignty has legitimized populist parties’ long-standing nationalist rhetoric. The invasion of Ukraine has put the defence of the nation-state back at the top of the political agenda (Farrell, 2022). Right-wing populist parties have long prioritized nationalism and sovereignty. Claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty are central to radical right-wing populism in Europe (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). The idea of “taking back control” is at the core of the concept of sovereignism, which is often associated with populist rhetoric in which claims to regain control are made on behalf of the community of the “people” against the political establishment and supranational institutions (Mazzoleni & Ivaldi, 2022).
The invasion of Ukraine has returned the idea of defending the nation-state to political discourse in more than one country (Fiott, 2022). The FPÖ has been particularly vocal about the need for Austria to maintain neutrality, as this would safeguard the country’s wealth and guarantee security in the current crisis and in an uncertain world – an argument also forwarded by the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party. The Bulgarian and Slovak Far Right have also called for neutrality and defined the war as a conflict between Russia and the US, in which small countries have nothing to gain. On the other hand, Chega has used the opportunity to display militarism, repeatedly calling for increased spending on armed forces, equating the “love for country” of the Portuguese people with the “positive nationalism leading Ukrainians to defend themselves fearlessly from Russian aggression” (Assembleia da República, 2022b).
. The Croatian Far Right has taken this rhetoric a step further, equating the war in Ukraine to the Homeland war of the 1990s and seeking to draw a tentative linkage between the ongoing developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War. Such a parallel is then used to call for the need to defend the nation and criticize the government for ceding sovereignty to supranational bodies.
Mainstream party counter strategies
The war in Ukraine has affected not only populist Radical Right parties but the way mainstream parties relate to and react to the Radical Right. On the one hand, the war has provided the opportunity to criticize the Radical Right for its veneration of Putin and the ever-stronger connections with Russia, including Russian financing for several Radical Right parties across Europe. In the presidential run-off, Macron accused Le Pen of being “dependent on Russian power”, telling her: “You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power […]. When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker” (Débat présidentiel, 2022).
In Sweden, the SD’s links to Russia became an important issue in the debate on foreign and security policy during the 2022 electoral campaign. In Romania, mainstream parties adopted a strategy of isolation towards AUR, which pushed the party to tone down its rhetoric and present itself as a mainstream conservative party. In Latvia, where about one-quarter of voters are Russian speakers, mainstream parties have long drawn a “red line” around parties representing the Russian minority, arguing that they pose a threat to Latvia’s Western-oriented political trajectory. The war reinforced this trend. At the EU level, the European People’s Party finally expelled Fidesz, a move long called for by numerous MPs. Orbán’s position on the war has helped illustrate the growing ideological schism between Fidesz and other EPP members.
Some reactions give room for pause and caution. For example, in Lithuania, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen Latvia’s political centre move to the right and the mainstreaming of many of the core policy positions of the dominant National Alliance(NA), such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, and demolishing Soviet-era monuments. This example illustrates the threat of becoming what one fights against and the danger that any war poses in radicalizing and militarizing the political discourse.
The factors accounting for different populist Radical Right responses to the war
Both external and internal factors account for the different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war.
Externally, we first find country-specific factors related to different histories and foreign policy traditions, as well as economic factors, among which each particular country’s level of dependence on Russia’s oil and gas. Before the war, over half of the EU’s gas supplies came from Russia. One of the significant results of the war has been the diversification of gas imports in the EU, with Russia accounting for just 12.9% as of September 2022, a decrease from 51.3% in January 2019 (General Secretariat, 2023). Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Serbia were all highly dependent on Russian gas before the war. Hungary has preserved such dependence, and Orbán prides himself in negotiating relatively cheap Russian oil and gas before and after the war with Putin. Austria, which continues to depend greatly on Russian energy supplies, especially natural gas, views Moscow as an important economic partner. Despite diversification efforts in the past year, Bulgaria still heavily depends on Russian gas supplies, receives a lot of Russian tourists, and many Russian firms operate there. There is also a strong cultural affinity—both are Orthodox countries and speak Slavic languages—with strong historical ties given Russia’s liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth century.
In the Baltic countries such as Estonia and Lithuania, the party politics of Russia has traditionally been strongly influenced by the history of annexation by the Soviet Union. In Norway, the fact that Russia is a neighbouring country has complicated the political disapproval of all things Russian.
In Italy, one of the main reasons why right-wing populists support Putin’s Russia is a matter of economic self-interest and the fact that Italy imports large quantities of Russian oil. Back in 2005, Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government had prepared, for instance, an agreement that would have allowed the Russian company Gazprom to resell Russian gas directly to Italian consumers. In the Northern part of the country, which has traditionally been the electoral stronghold of the Lega, Salvini’s admiration for Putin is also linked with commercial interests, especially those of industrial firms in the region with significant Russian business. In Hungary, the ties with Russia are also explained by the relatively cheap Russian oil and gas and the multi-billion-euro extension of the Paks nuclear power station, which Orbán traded with Putin, which he has been able to use both economically and politically.
In the Netherlands, we find a country-specific feature: the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-controlled forces in the area, killing over 190 Dutch citizens. This dramatic event prompted the government to call for tough sanctions against Russia, making it more difficult for Dutch populists to exhibit public support for Putin.
Together with country-level contextual factors, we also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, most notably concerning the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters, and to broaden their electoral appeal. The literature on the Far Right has emphasized the importance of agency and the ability of Far Right parties to build a “reputational shield” to fend off accusations of racism and extremism (de Lange & Art, 2011; Art, 2011). Many of these parties in Western Europe have used their agency and changed their platforms, personnel, and appearance to distance themselves from the legacy of Far Right extremist ideology and to be tolerated by a larger share of the public (Akkerman et al., 2016; Bjånesøy, 2021). On the other hand, new Far Right actors may take a more radical course to differentiate themselves from their “moderating” counterparts. This trend has been observed in Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, and Slovakia.
We can discern a relationship between such strategies of normalization and the populist Radical Right’s response to the war in Ukraine across a number of the countries studied in this report. Italy is the most obvious example, where FdI has a much broader appeal than its coalition partner, Lega. In the Netherlands, for instance, this is reflected in the competition between the PVV and the FvD, with the former strategically situating itself closer to the mainstream, while the latter would continue on a more radical anti-system course, as revealed in its recent efforts to create an alternative social space for its supporters.
We see a similar split of the populist Radical Right in the French case, whereby Le Pen has striven to detoxify her party to take it into the political mainstream in recent years. In contrast, Zemmour has adopted a hardline strategy, endorsing themes and rhetoric of the Extreme Right while continuing to implicitly lend support to Russia and Putin even after the outbreak of the war. In Portugal, Chega and André Ventura’s discourses on Ukraine were deployed instrumentally, allowing Chega to continue to trail a path towards normalization as a regular player in the political system.
Since shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland has seen a surge of new marginal Far Right parties advocating a Finnish exit from the European Union and going against Finland joining NATO, which contrasted with the more moderate positions taken by the more established Finns Party. In Croatia, we have seen HSP 1861 take a radically different stance on Putin, sanctions, and the war than other Radical Right parties closer to the mainstream. Similarly, in Latvia, S! maintained a pro-Russian stance to differentiate itself from the SSD. In Bulgaria, the two pro-Russian parties, BSP and Revival, have adopted different strategies, with the former maintaining a moderate position, despite opposing sanctions, whereas the latter radicalizing its pro-Russian rhetoric even more and managing to steal votes from the BSP.
Finally, different strategic responses to the Ukraine war may reflect the different geometry of pan-European alliances of populist Radical Right parties in the European Parliament, as some of these parties may need to seek support from other like-minded parties across the continent. Populist Radical Right parties currently distribute themselves across the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups in the European Parliament, which show different policy orientations and strategic positioning in the broader European political landscape. The ECR group traditionally shows moderate Euroscepticism compared with the more radical stances in the ID cluster of populist Radical Right parties around Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. The positions on Russia by parties such as the Italian FdI and the SD may thus reflect their membership in the ECR group.
In the Swedish case, support for the Russian regime among some of the other Radical Right parties has been seen as one reason why the Sweden Democrats chose not to join the ID party group together with the RN and Lega in the European Parliament (McDonnell & Werner, 2019). Similarly, the DF has navigated the war by trying to distance itself from its allies in the ID group and the potentially damaging effect of pro-Putin stances of parties such as the RN and Lega on the DF in domestic politics. The ECR group also has members from Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Latvian, Romanian and Slovak parties, where we notice a mix of Far Right to conservative parties. Although the ECR appears more moderate than the ID group, some MEPs have demonstrated extremist behaviour, such as Bulgarian MEP from IMRO, Angel Dzambaski, have been accused more than once of scandalous remarks and behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in a session of the EU Parliament.
In the ID group, Salvini’s connections to Marine Le Pen reflect a distinct network of populist Radical Right shared hostility to the EU and ties to Putin’s regime inside the European Parliament, including other relevant radical right-wing populist parties such as the FPÖ in Austria, the German AfD, the Flemish VB, the Estonian EKRE, and the SPD in the Czech Republic. Moreover, the ID cluster of parties has established links with parties currently outside the formal EP group, such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary. Such transnational cooperation was revealed in the two-day summit organized by VOX in Madrid in January 2022, which was attended by Orbán, Mateusz Morawiecki from Poland’s PiS, and Le Pen, together with representatives of the populist Radical Right from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and the Netherlands.
Internally, the different responses to the war by the Far Right populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideology and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition.
Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of “their” people, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Such divides may also overlap with the primary socioeconomic orientation of those parties. The literature has found heterogeneity in the socioeconomic policies of populist Radical Right parties across countries and over time (Michel, 2020). While some parties have embraced neoliberalism, others have turned to neo-Keynesian policies, emphasizing social protection and redistribution (Otjes et al., 2018).
In the European context, the current inflation crisis is making socioeconomic issues much more salient, and this may provide incentives for Far Right parties to change and adjust their socioeconomic salience and positions concerning such matters, not only to respond to growing voter demand for redistribution but also to shift attention from their pro-Russian positions to their economic demands in favour of “the people”.
Such a response was visible across several populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In Norway, the energy crisis has opened a window of opportunity for the FrP to reclaim its populist roots, try and mobilize on petro-friendly politics, and campaign against the high prices and VAT on fossil fuels, electricity, and food. In the Netherlands, the PVV has emphasized the cost of the war for the Dutch people, linking high inflation and gas prices to sanctions on Russia, consistent with its welfare chauvinist economic positions. In Portugal, Chega quickly moved from emphasizing the need to support the Ukrainian people to claiming that the war money should be spent on Portuguese pensioners. Marine Le Pen in France well illustrated a welfare chauvinist orientation. Her 2022 campaign used social populist arguments combined with a generous redistributive package, resonating with the French’s many economic fears. Radical Right parties in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia have similarly honed in on the consequences of the war for domestic constituencies and the worsening economic conditions.
In contrast, other populist radical parties have adopted a more cultural approach, basing their support to Russia on civilizational arguments and somewhat ignoring the socioeconomic anxieties of the war. This is illustrated by the Bulgarian Revival and the Dutch FvD, which have continued emphasizing the cultural dimension and the larger global narrative to justify their support of Putin. In France, Zemmour’s focus on immigration and Islam, and his market liberal economic agenda, may have come at odds with the interests and increasingly pro-redistribution preferences of middle-class and working-class voters in 2022.
Voters in the Ukraine war
Turning to the “demand” side of populism, the country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Instead of “ending populism”, the war and the resulting populist discourse have coincided with populist electoral successes in many countries.
We have observed this all year with victories for populists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Sweden, France, and Italy (Lika, 2022). In Austria, public opinion support for Ukraine among Austrians has remained tenuous and lower than elsewhere in the EU, and the FPÖ is currently topping voting intention polls at about 28%. In Belgium, domestic issues have taken the forefront of the political agenda, and the war does not seem to have harmed the VB, which, according to the latest opinion poll, would be the largest Flemish party gaining up to 25.5% of the popular vote. We also see an increase in support for the Czech SDP since the war, which is correlated with decreasing public support for Ukraine and growing discontent with the Czech government’s handling of the war. In Hungary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine also played a role in reinforcing Fidesz’s dominant political position in the electoral campaign. Fidesz’s strategy successfully portrayed the united democratic opposition as a pro-Ukraine camp that would drag Hungary into war with Russia. We see something similar, albeit of a much smaller magnitude, in Serbia, where many commentators have argued that the invasion may have helped populist Radical Right parties to surpass the 3% threshold, whereas none of those parties had entered government in 2020. In Bulgaria, Revival doubled its support in the early elections of 2022 compared to the early elections in 2021.
Elsewhere in Europe, we find no clear evidence that the war in Ukraine may have significantly depressed support for radical right-wing populism. In Slovakia, the outbreak of the war did not bring any substantial shifts in popular support for the populist Radical Right. In Portugal, Chega’s strategy was moderately successful, showing minor gains in public opinion polls. In Germany, the AfD has not benefited from the dramatic developments as much as one could have assumed. There has been only a four percentage points increase in support for the party in polls, and the AfD so far remains below its peak of 17–18% public support recorded in 2018. In Bulgaria, by default, at least a third of Bulgarians are very pro-Russian, and the increase in support for Revival can be explained by shifting votes from the other pro-Russian party, the BSP. Support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees was strong initially, but it steadily declined by November 2022. Currently, most voters do not take a side in the war and do not defend Ukraine or Russia. Only in Lithuania do we see a potentially adverse effect of the war on right-wing populist politics, first and foremost reflecting a very high level of support for Ukraine and traditionally deep anti-Russian sentiments in the mass public.
Other populists and the war
While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.
A brief overview of the positions and strategies of non-Radical Right populist parties suggests that parties such as the French France Insoumise (LFI) and the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) have taken pro-Russian stances in the past, essentially based on anti-Americanism, pacifism, and the opposition to NATO. But, like with the populist Radical Right, we see some differences in those parties’ responses to the Ukraine war.
In Portugal, parties on the Left, especially the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), have traditionally used sovereigntist anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. The PCP has adopted an ambiguous position regarding the invasion of Ukraine, calling for “a stop to escalating political, economic, and military confrontation by NATO, the USA, and the EU towards Russia, and relying on its contribution towards a negotiated political, peaceful, resolution” (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 10). In Germany, The Left (die Linke), which is considered a populist party, is a self-professed pacifist party, and it has long campaigned for the dissolution of NATO, frequently taken a pro-Russian stance and is highly suspicious of the United States, the EU, and Germany’s security apparatus. However, the party has unambiguously condemned Russia’s attack as a violation of international law, portraying Ukraine as the victim of a power struggle between the West and Russia and calling for Western countries to spearhead de-escalation.
In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI has taken pro-Russian stances predicated on Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views and based on the concept of a “non-aligned” France. LFI’s sympathy for Russia essentially reflects the traditional Radical Left’s hostility toward the United States, neoliberalism and American imperialism, and the party has advocated that France should leave NATO’s integrated military command. Nevertheless, Mélenchon continued to show an ambiguous stance during the few weeks before the invasion, calling for “de-escalation” while simultaneously pointing to the threat of NATO moving closer to Russia’s borders. However, he dramatically shifted his position immediately after the beginning of the war to avoid too severe damage to his party’s credibility in the context of the April 2022 presidential election. In the first round, Mélenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote.
In Italy, the positions of the M5S have changed over time, with the party moving towards a more pro-Russian position and showing ambiguous stances after the invasion. Like other populist parties, Russia exemplifies a robust opposition to the United States and the EU, both described by the M5S as harmful to Italy’s national interests. While Beppe Grillo, the founder of the M5S, made no public statement after the February 2022 invasion, Giuseppe Conte, leader of the party, condemned it. As part of the Draghi government, the M5S also voted in favour of sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine, however, expressing doubts about the efficacy and effect on Italy. In the summer of 2022, a split occurred in the party after an internal campaign to push for an end to Italian weapons supplies to Ukraine, which was supported by Conte, who opposed Luigi Di Maio, the more Atlanticist minister of foreign affairs at the time, who left the party. Such internal struggle over the war may have weakened the M5S in the September 2022 elections, where its vote share declined from 32.7 to 15.4% compared with 2018.
Discussion and perspectives
A critical takeaway from this report is the diversity of populist politics across regions, countries and parties. Even limiting our inquiry to the populist Radical Right, we have seen a great diversity of positions and reactions. If our expectations at the outset were to find patterns that distinguish the East from the West, we have found significant variance within regions and countries. Such heterogeneity has already been observed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In their recent analysis of the fourth wave of Far Right parties in Europe, Wondreys and Mudde (2022) emphasize substantial internal heterogeneity, showing different responses to current socioeconomic and cultural issues and different effects of such issues on the electoral support for those parties.
Our findings reinforce the thesis that populism should by no means be considered a uniform phenomenon as it can take many different forms across contexts and actors while also showing change over time. Previous research has emphasized such diversity of contemporary populism (Ivaldi et al., 2017). In this respect, Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2016) argue that
populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related with other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. (p. 9)
With regards to the Far Right, more specifically, Pirro (2022) similarly underlines the complexity of contemporary Far Right politics and argues that its current developments “reflect various forms of ideological and/or organisational osmosis” (p. 2).
Looking more broadly at anti-establishment politics in Europe, Pytlas (2022) notes that we need more studies to “assess the diversity of ‘thin’ anti-establishment supply and explore how these messages play into electoral strategies of different parties” (p. 2). Yet another approach views populism as a strategy to gain voter support (Weyland, 1999). Jones (2007), for example, views populist leaders as “political entrepreneurs” competing for voters. Such an approach portrays populists as strategic actors who adapt to changing environments. It further accounts for a dynamics-based component which helps understand the rise and evolution of populist parties and changes in their positions, behaviour and voter support, further linking them to changes in the political and economic context (Zankina, 2016). Indeed, the case studies in this report confirm prevailing heterogeneity and varied strategic responses to a fast-changing political environment.
Honing in on strategy, many parties across the continent have attempted to move towards more moderate positions in terms of foreign policy in response to the initial overwhelming public support for Ukraine by citizens across Europe. In some cases, such a move was part of an already existing strategy of mainstreaming and normalization aiming to appeal to a broader segment of voters. In other cases, the move was triggered by the war and criticisms these parties faced regarding their attitudes and links with Russia. However, we witnessed that this change in position was also dynamic. As the war has dragged on and economic costs have started affecting more voters across the continent, some parties have returned to more extreme rhetoric, albeit with a greater focus on domestic issues than on foreign policy and geostrategic alignment.
Framing the war in terms of domestic socioeconomic issues was another strategy adopted by many of the parties examined. In fact, many parties muted their positions on the war and instead emphasized domestic concerns and the economic costs of sanctions, refugees, and military and financial support to Ukraine. Hence, the war was used as an arena to criticize supranational institutions or current governments for their neglect of domestic issues and ineffective policies, allowing populist Radical Right parties to forward their traditional populist Radical Right discourse that appeals to voter frustrations and emotions. Moreover, the populist politics of the war in Ukraine illustrates how populists may ‘perform’ a crisis. As Moffit (2015) argues,
populist actors actively participate in the “spectacularization of failure” that underlies crisis, allowing them to pit “the people” against a dangerous other, radically simplify the terms and terrain of political debate and advocate strong leadership and quick political action to stave off or solve the impending crisis. (p. 190)
This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric.
Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. Many parties drew parallels between the heroism and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people in defending their nation and nationalist attitudes and devotion to the nation at home. Many parties further portrayed the war as an existential threat to the nation, calling for a strong and immediate response, including strengthening military capability. At least in one case, this renewed nationalist discourse drew mainstream parties to the right and into support for nationalist policies.
The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism. Changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristic (Taggart, 2000), suggesting a good deal of adaptability and those parties’ capacity to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi et al., 2022). Most Radical Right populist parties have adapted their discourse due to the war in Ukraine, with more remarkable successes than ever in Europe. The circumstances surrounding the Ukraine war serve to once again demonstrate the ability of populism to adapt quickly to different contexts and to make use of “calculated ambivalence” (Wodak, 2015). If anything, cases of some of the oldest European populist parties such as the Austrian FPÖ, the French RN and the Italian Lega attest not only to the ability of these parties to successfully navigate the recent period of the war in Ukraine but also demonstrate the political longevity and resilience of populism since the mid-1980s.
In policy terms, the malleability of these parties poses one of the main challenges to countering the success of such parties. One may argue that we can counter populism by addressing the issues that populists raise. However, populists are very quick to move on and radicalize another issue, making policy solutions short-lived in electoral terms. This is possible because populist Radical Right parties are, in essence, not programmatic and ideological but rather strategic in being quick to adapt to public sentiments, forward emotional appeals, and establish a direct link with voters (Jones, 2007; Weyland, 1999; Zankina, 2016). This aligns with the scholarship that more generally emphasizes how populist parties may deliberately blur their positions (Rovny, 2013) or adopt ambiguous stances to sustain or increase their electoral support (Jordan, 2022; Lefevere, 2023; Lorimer, 2021). Such use of strategic ambiguity by populists makes it even more difficult for parties in the mainstream to confront and counter their populist challengers programmatically.
Such challenges notwithstanding, the war and the various responses and strategies adopted by Radical Right parties have not led to a boost in their support. While there has been an increase in voter support for some populist Radical Right parties in the past year, it is not uniform. In many cases, the war has not led to a significant change in voter support for Radical Right parties. Despite the continued success of populist Radical Right parties across Europe, we must acknowledge that one of the main consequences of the war has been to unite Europeans in their support for Ukraine and strengthen overall support for democracy and democratic institutions. Except for countries such as Hungary, Serbia, and Turkey (none characterized as functioning democracies), the populist Far Right does not have a dominant position in politics.
(*) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.
(**) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
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Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war.
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused hundreds of thousands more to flee while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. However, the consequences of Russia’s aggression have been felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders. The financial sanctions on Russia, disruptions to supply chains, and general economic insecurity have destabilized global energy markets and supply chains, causing food prices to soar (Boungou & Yatié, 2022). Furthermore, the urgency of the Russia–Ukraine conflict has stalled critical international cooperation in addressing the climate crisis (Ali et al., 2022; Liadze et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Orhan, 2022; Pereira et al., 2022; Rawtani et al., 2022).
The fallout of the conflict has hit certain territories harder than others, depending on the region’s proximity to the competition and reliance on Russian and Ukrainian exports. In Europe, this has meant an asymmetric impact on domestic economies relative to their dependence on Russian gas and Ukrainian grain. This has triggered a significant slowdown in economic growth in the Eurozone and an energy crisis over the winter (Celi et al., 2022; International Monetary Fund, 2022; Smit et al., 2022). Furthermore, European countries have used considerable resources to provide welfare assistance, temporary housing, and organizations to welcome refugees fleeing the conflict (Liadze et al., 2022). The economic repercussions of the war have resulted in a looming recession due to the interconnected nature of the global economy (Smit et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2022; Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2022).
Through its many economic, cultural and political ramifications, the war in Ukraine has dramatically impacted Europe both on the individual member states and at the European Union level, creating new constraints and opportunities for political actors in the different parts of the bloc. While parties across the political spectrum—both within and outside the mainstream—may have been affected by the war, this report focused closely on the pan-European populist Radical Right, which is a party family that has long enjoyed close ties with Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. With the Kremlin now an international pariah, questions arise about how the Ukraine war has affected such parties across Europe.
In this introduction, we briefly explain the rationale for this focus on the European populist Radical Right party family and the questions that all our national experts and contributors to the report have addressed. We then chart the topography of contemporary radical right-wing populism in Europe and briefly outline the cases included in the analysis. The findings of this cross-national examination and the main takeaways of the analysis are summarized and discussed in the conclusion.
A cross-national study of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war
Defined as a “thin ideology” (Mudde, 2004), populism in Europe has manifested across the political spectrum and can be found in a range of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist-technocratic variants (Ivaldi et al., 2017; Ivaldi, 2020). Its most dominant and persistent strain in the past decades has been the populist Radical Right, which is marked by a commitment to nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
The contemporary wave of the populist Radical Right has been characterized by the mainstreaming and, increasingly, the political normalization of these parties (Mudde 2022), as more and more populist Radical Right parties are represented in parliaments, even forming governments. As a result, these parties have become a well-established political force in many European party systems. Moreover, they currently represent the most electorally successful “brand” of populism, enjoying substantial levels of popular support across Europe.
Moreover, these parties are widely considered the principal agents of illiberal politics, supporting discriminatory nativist and authoritarian policies, while rejecting the fundamental European liberal values of minority rights and the rule of law. Nativism has traditionally represented a core ideological feature of the European Radical Right. It includes a combination of nationalism and xenophobia, which “comes in a number of guises, from the mobilization of socioeconomic anxieties to the appeal to racial prejudices” (Betz, 2017, p. 347). Welfare chauvinism is another typical characteristic of this party family and follows logically from nativism, xenophobia, the rejection of minority rights, and support for excluding migrants and domestic minorities from accessing national welfare systems (Greve, 2019). Far Right parties frame immigration as a threat to the welfare and cultural fabric of Western societies (Mudde, 2022).
Most parties of the populist Radical Right are also strong opponents of European integration and supranationalism more generally (Vasilopoulou, 2011, 2018). They often manipulate Eurosceptic frames to mobilize voters (Gómez-Reino & Llamazares, 2013; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2016). However, many of those parties have recently toned down their Euroscepticism. Looking at the recent period, Taggart (2019) notes that most Eurosceptic parties have moderated their position vis-à-vis the European Union (EU), switching to a more reformist rhetoric, and arguing that they would change the EU from within. As suggested by Brack (2020), “against the background of the difficult and unclear Brexit negotiations, most parties softened their position, and few of them still openly advocate for their country’s exit from the EU” (p. 6). An empirical study by Braun et al. (2019) demonstrates that such changes in the tone of Far Right parties toward the EU are primarily determined by the EU-related evaluation – the polity mood – of the national citizenry and the level of public support for EU integration at the domestic level.
In contemporary Far Right politics, Eurosceptic stances are associated with the idea of protecting the nation, which is expressed in claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). Populist Radical Right parties such as the Rassemblement National in France and Lega in Italy portray themselves as champions of national values and defenders of national interests against supranational institutions, and they all assume the primacy of the nation-state as a means of re-establishing the people’s sovereignty (Ivaldi & Mazzoleni, 2020).
Finally, most populist Radical Right parties have been admirers of Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. The relationship between radical right-wing populist parties and Russia has been amply documented in the literature (Shekhovtsov, 2018). As early as the 1990s, there were some attempts at cooperation between populist right-wing parties in Europe and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed at the time by Far Right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Futàk-Campbell, 2020). More recently, there have been growing links between Russian actors and Radical Right activists, publicists, ideologues, and politicians in the West. Such ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right have grown stronger over the last decade, reflecting what has been deemed a “marriage of convenience” based on converging interests (Makarychev, 2018). As Shekhovtsov (2018) suggests, Moscow has begun to support particular populist radical right political forces to gain leverage on European politics and undermine the liberal democratic consensus in the West.
Overall, then, European radical right-wing populists are generally “admirers” of Putin’s regime based on their shared nativism, authoritarianism, and, increasingly, illiberal politics, as well as, for some of those parties, their rejection of NATO and what is deemed American imperialism. Additionally, Moscow and radical right-wing populist actors converge on their shared opposition to the EU (Makarychev & Terry, 2020). Many European populist Radical Right parties have also established formal links with Russia, and some of these parties, such as the French Rassemblement and Italian Lega, have even received funding from the Kremlin (Futàk-Campbell, 2020).
In 2014, most European populist radical right-wing parties justified the annexation of Crimea by Russia by adopting the Kremlin’s rhetoric and strong criticism of the Ukrainian state. In so doing, they parroted Kremlin talking points about the so-called “reunification” of Crimea with Russia through the supposed self-determination of the “people of Crimea”, as expressed in the Crimean referendum of March 16, 2014.
The war in Ukraine has cast into sharp relief Russia’s hybrid war for control and influence over Europe and the so-called “fifth column”, the network of Far Right political parties and movements in Europe that Russia has been cultivating and explicitly supporting. These Far Right parties, Guide (2017) argues, “are capitalizing on economic and security crises in Europe to build popular support and now operate as a fifth column that is undermining the Western liberal order from within” (pp. 1–2). Russia’s objective in this “war” is ultimately to establish a new world order that, in the words of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “is multipolar, just, and democratic” (France24, 2022).
At a more practical level, Russia aims to undermine the unity of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and within the EU and establish bilateral relations with individual countries (the same strategy China has been using with its Belt and Road Initiative). Doing so would give Russia much more leverage in bilateral negotiations but also in dealing with the EU, where individual countries (such as Hungary) could be creating obstacles to any decisions not favourable to Russia.
In its hybrid war, Russia has utilized several tactics: 1) gas dependencies (over 40% for the EU, but over 60% for some EU member states such as Italy, and over 90% of countries such as Bulgaria and North Macedonia); 2) investments and oligarchs (the UK has been the prime destination for Russian oligarchs and investments and those seeking “golden passports”, but other European countries have also been welcoming); 3) disinformation (through social media and paid trolls); 4) intelligence and spies (poisoning cases), and, last but not least; 5) the funding of nationalist parties. These tactics can be traced in many European countries, from France and Britain to Bulgaria.
Russia has long been accused of funding populist Radical Right parties in Europe, from the Front National and Lega to Austria’s FPÖ and Hungary’s Jobbik (Pabst, 2014; Rettman, 2017; Weiss, 2020). Russia has also created some open ties with anti-EU parties, inviting their leaders to various conferences and symposia organized by Kremlin’s close associates (Futàk-Campbell, 2020; Rettman, 2017). One such forum in 2015 proved the biggest gathering of Europe’s Far Right parties, with representatives of Radical Right parties from several European countries, including Golden Dawn (Greece), the National Democratic Party (Germany), Ataka (Bulgaria), the Lombardy League (Italy), the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (EU-wide), New Force (Italy), the British National Party (United Kingdom), National Democracy (Spain), the Party of the Swedes (Sweden), and the Danish Party (Denmark). Indeed, Far Right parties have been good allies to the Kremlin, voting in ways favourable to Russia both at home and in the European Parliament on issues such as Ukraine, human rights in Russia, Association Agreements with post-Soviet states, and more (Wesslau, 2016).
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, on the other hand, presented new challenges for Kremlin-backed radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain for their association with Russia and admiration of Putin’s regime and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war in Ukraine, thus raising specific concerns about how such parties have navigated this new context and the impact that the war may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level.
Questions addressed in the report
This report examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the populist Radical Right in Europe. Country experts were asked to tackle different questions in relation to radical right-wing populist parties and the Ukrainian crisis. More specifically, special attention was paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties.
Let us note here that while the report focuses primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country where deemed relevant. The scholarship on populism and foreign policy suggests that populist parties and leaders generally adopt anti-American and pro-Russian positions (Chryssogelos, 2010, 2011; Balfour et al., 2016). This makes such analysis of the broader group of non-Radical Right populist actors also relevant to this report, most notably in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia where mainstream parties have had traditionally strong pro-Russian views and positions.
By looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across over 20 European countries, this reports provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defence). As Moffit (2015) suggests, crises such as the Ukraine war are never “neutral” phenomena but are mediated and “performed” by populist parties. In return, while many of these parties have sought to evade accusations of sympathy for Russia since the outbreak of the war, their political opponents have used their previous ties with Moscow, which is another significant aspect of the analysis in this report.
Turning to the “demand” side, we ask how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders in the mass public, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Far from the heralded end of the “Age of Populism” (Douthat, 2022), some radical right-wing populist parties have succeeded more than ever in Europe.
Recent elections in France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, and Sweden have attested to the electoral vitality of the Far Right parties. In the 2022 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, won 41.5% of the second-round runoff against incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, which marked a new culmination of the Far Right in France. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán reasserted the dominance of Fidesz and his ever-more authoritarian rule, gaining even more seats in parliament. In Latvia, two new populist Radical Right parties gained 20 seats in the 100-seat parliament. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy have topped the 2022 general election, making Meloni the country’s new (and first female) prime minister. In Sweden, a former extreme right party with links with neo-Nazi movements, the Sweden Democrats, won over 20% of the vote in the 2022 elections, and the party has officially become part of the right-wing governing coalition.
Finally, each country chapter assesses the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics, allowing for the broader conclusions discussed in this report’s final section.
The topography of European radical right-wing populist parties
According to Pirro (2022), the Far Right refers to “all those ultranationalist collective actors sharing a common exclusionary and authoritarian worldview—predominantly determined on sociocultural criteria—yet varying allegiances to democracy” (p. 3). The “populist Radical Right” refers to a specific subset of parties within the wider “Far Right” party family, in which typical Far Right features are associated with a populist ideology and illiberal rather than anti-democratic tendencies (Mudde, 2019; Pirro, 2022). Pirro notes that populism is primarily associated with the Radical Right. Through their anti-establishment profile, such parties “glorify ‘the people’ and consider it the linchpin of any rightful political goal and decision, at the same time criticizing ‘the elite’ as responsible for all the ills of the world” (Pirro, 2022, p. 6).
While any taxonomy of political parties may be the subject of disagreement among scholars, there is a relatively sizeable academic consensus about which parties may be included in the broad European ‘Far Right’ party family and, more specifically, in the populist Radical Right cluster of parties (Mudde, 2022; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
In this report, the relevant cases of populist Radical Right parties were identified by the national experts based on their extensive knowledge of radical right-wing populism in their country, including the more recent developments in a somewhat fluid and rapidly evolving political phenomenon – see for instance the recent rise of new Far Right actors in Bulgaria, France, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland, and not necessarily yet considered in the comparative literature on the topic.
Table 1 below shows the main parties included in the analysis. As already noted, experts have sometimes included populist parties that may not strictly fall within the Radical Right category, but whose reactions to the war are relevant to the focus of this research.
Table 1. A summary of populist Radical Right parties included in the report
% of votes last general election
Date of last general election
Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)
Vlaams Belang (VB)
Danish People’s Party (DF)New Right (NB)
Finns PartyBlue Reform
Rassemblement National (RN)Reconquête!
Alternative for Germany (AfD)
Brothers of Italy (FdI)LegaForza Italia (FI)
Progress Party (FrP)
Sweden Democrats (SD)
Freedom Party (PVV)Forum for Democracy (FvD)Juist Alternative 2021 (JA21)
AtakaInternal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO)National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB)Revival (Vazrazhdane)
0.30 0.81 0.1410.18
The Croatian Party of Rights (HSF) The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP)The Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP)The Croatian Party of Rights 1861 (HSP 1861)
Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD)
Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE)
For Each and Everyone (KuK)For Stability (S!)Latvia First (LPV)National Alliance (NA)
Lithuanian Family Movement (LŠS)The National Alliance (NA)Union for Nation and Justice (TTS)
Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR)
DSSDveriSovereignistsSerbian Progressive Party (SNS)SRSZavetnici
Justice and Development Party (AKP)
Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. This report is divided into 23 country chapters. Their principal findings are discussed comparatively in the conclusion.
Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war. Moreover, the cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion to try and sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia or, in some cases, by showcasing their support for Russia. Such variability is observed across countries but also within them (Carlotti, 2023) and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite what is often deemed a highly centralized organization and strong leadership.
Both external and internal factors may account for different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war. Externally, we find country-specific factors related to different histories, foreign policy traditions, and economic factors. Among these, we can count each particular country’s level of dependence on Russian oil and gas, as well as trade relations. We also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, particularly regarding the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters and to broaden their electoral appeal.
Internally, the different responses to the war by radical right-wing populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideologies and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition. Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of their “people”, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Finally, the changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristics, suggesting a good deal of adaptability and the capacity of these parties to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi, 2022; Carlotti, 2023).
(*) The Editors would like to thank Azize Sargin, Ivan Escobar Fernández and Martin Galland at the ECPS for their support and assistance in preparing this report.
(**) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.
(***) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
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The right-wing, populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has viewed Putin’s Russia as an effective constraint on what the Radical Right regards as a liberal cultural and economic agenda pursued by the European Union and the United States. The FPÖ remained a supporter of Kremlin policies, even after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and even signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in 2016. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the FPÖ has been careful not to be seen defending Moscow’s aggression. Instead, it has resorted to populist framing that casts the Austrian people as victims of national and Western political elites. Concretely, the party leadership claims that the country’s policies toward Russia are counterproductive and have been decided without the consent of the people. This approach is an extension of the FPÖ’s traditional Euroscepticism and anti-establishment positioning. It also appeals to Austrians’ longstanding preference for neutrality. According to polling data, the FPÖ is well positioned to outperform all other parties in the current issue environment.
The Austrian Radical Right has its roots in pan-Germanic nationalism and has traditionally been anti-Slavic (in general) and anti-Russian (in particular). Especially after the Second World War, the populist Radical Right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) held strong anti-Soviet and anti-communist positions. But as the FPÖ has grown increasingly concerned with the progressive cultural and liberal economic agenda of Washington and Brussels, it has come to view Putin’s Russia as an effective curb on Western liberalism. The FPÖ signed a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia in 2016 and became a defender of Kremlin policy. It has generally blamed Western political elites for the deterioration of international relations and the conflict in the region, including Ukraine. The FPÖ has repeatedly called on the Austrian government to adopt a neutral stance, criticized Western sanctions on Russia, and labelled Ukraine a corrupt state. Especially on the Radical Right, the current conflict is seen as part of a broader contest between liberal and anti-liberal agendas.
Why the Austrian case matters
The Austrian case is particularly illuminating as it differs from other European countries in three important respects. First, Austria enjoys a close relationship with Russia. The FPÖ’s ties with the Kremlin are particularly strong. The second is Austria’s traditional neutral foreign policy, enshrined in the 1955 State Treaty ending the Four Power occupation. Indeed, Austria stayed outside the European Union (EU) until after the end of the Cold War and is not a NATO member. A third factor is Austria’s considerable dependence on Russian energy supplies, especially natural gas, and the extensive commercial ties between the two countries. Indeed, President Putin received a warm welcome in Vienna from Austrian political and economic elites in June 2014, just a few months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Thus, while all major political parties in Austria have supported maintaining good relations with Russia, the FPÖ has stood out in seeking closer political ties with the Kremlin for ideological reasons.
The political positioning of the populist Radical Right Freedom Party
A closer look at the Freedom Party’s electoral performance since 1956 reveals a clear pattern (see Figure 1). For decades, the party’s vote share languished at around 5%, and it played only a marginal role in Austria’s de facto two-party system, in which the Christian conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) dominated. Until the 1980s, the FPÖ primarily recruited from pan-German nationalists, former Nazis, and war veterans. Then, in the mid-1980s, it transformed into a populist Radical Right party under the leadership of its flamboyant young leader, Jörg Haider, and began to actively court working-class and socioeconomically disadvantaged voters. It appealed to people fed up with the existing political arrangements and frustrated by being left behind in Austria’s economic development.
Under Haider’s leadership, the party embraced an “Austria-first” agenda that included opposition to immigration and globalization, as well as Euroscepticism and populist anti-elitism. While the FPÖ vowed to defend Christian civilization against Islam in sociocultural terms, its socioeconomic positions increasingly drifted leftward. Another appeal of the party was the strong and charismatic leadership displayed by Haider and his successors Heinz-Christian Strache and later Herbert Kickl (Heinisch, 2017; Belafi, 2017).
On two occasions, in 2000 and 2017, the FPÖ formed governing coalitions with the ÖVP. In both instances, the party failed in public office due to massive internal problems, subsequently losing large shares of its electorate (Heinisch, 2003; Heinisch, 2017; Belafi, 2017). In 2005 a party split saw a smaller, more moderate Haider-led faction called Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) break away from the FPÖ. While competing directly with the FPÖ, the BZÖ did not survive long as a successful populist alternative after Haider’s unexpected death in 2008 (Belafi, 2017). Figure 1 shows the electoral support for the BZÖ as well as the combined vote share of the FPÖ and BZÖ before most of the latter’s members gravitated back to the FPÖ after 2013.
Figure 1. National vote share of the FPÖ and BZÖ (1956–2019)
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (n.d.).
After the second ÖVP–FPÖ government failed in 2019, the Freedom Party suffered significant electoral losses. Figures 2 and 3 present the general election results (vote shares of the major parties) in 2017 and 2019, respectively, indicating a decline in voter support of about ten percentage points for the FPÖ in the space of just two years.
Figure 2. National election results in 2017
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (2017).
Figure 3. National election results in 2019
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (2019).
Moreover, the political scandal that forced the FPÖ out of government in 2019 implicated not only its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache but also Johann Gudenus, the party’s point man for relations with Russia (Baumgärtner et al., 2019). With Strache and Gedenus leaving the field, Herbert Kickl —an ideological hardliner — was able to take the reins of the party in 2021 and push it once again further to the anti-establishment Right.
The Freedom Party and Austrian–Russian relations
The 1955 State Treaty between Austria and the so-called Four Powers, including the Soviet Union, enabled Austria to regain full sovereignty after the Second World War and served as the basis for relations between Austria and Russia (Weiss, 2020). An associated voluntary commitment to permanent neutrality in military conflicts has been a cornerstone of Austrian foreign policy ever since. As a result of close economic ties dating back to the Cold War, Austria’s dependence on Russian energy supplies has steadily increased. It is far above the level of other Western countries (APA, 2022; Weiss, 2020).
Before the invasion, the FPÖ maintained close political relations with Russia and President Putin based on shared anti-liberal ideological positions (Weiss 2020, Weidinger et al. 2017). Members of the FPÖ openly praised and admired the Russian regime for its aversion to western liberal principles and shared Moscow’s criticism of Brussels during the refugee crisis. The FPÖ condemned the EU’s sanctions against Moscow and defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This position was reinforced by a formal partnership agreement between Putin’s party, United Russia and the FPÖ in 2016 (Weiss, 2020; Cede & Mangott, 2023). Although the FPÖ under Kickl publicly distanced themselves from this agreement, the party let the deadline for terminating the accord pass, thereby allowing it to be renewed until 2026 (Die Presse, 2021). Nevertheless, as Cede and Mangott (2023) note, no Austrian government opposed extending sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, including the one in which the FPÖ was a coalition partner from 2017 to 2019. Moreover, the FPÖ has been careful not to be seen as defending Moscow’s conduct of the war but rather reframe the conflict in ways that fit the party’s political narrative.
Reframing the conflict to fit the political agenda
On social media, the FPÖ frames the Ukraine conflict differently from the other Austrian parties (and official Austrian policy). In the FPÖ’s narrative, the conflict is a struggle between opposing sides in pursuit of clashing agendas rather than as a war of aggression launched by a large state against its smaller neighbour. According to this view, Austria would do well to remain neutral. The party directs its ire not at Moscow but at Brussels’ sanctions against Russia, emphasizing how these have damaged the Austrian economy. High inflation, spikes in energy prices, and bottlenecks are attributed to the actions of the EU and the West more broadly (FPÖ, 2022d, 2022b, 2022d).
Overall, the party directs its criticism at the United States and the Biden administration by claiming that Washington stands to gain the most from the conflict. The party insinuates that the “true goal” is to weaken Russia and make Europe more dependent on Washington. This sentiment was clearly expressed in a speech given in the Austrian parliament by Susanne Fürst, a Freedom Party member of the Australian parliament, in July 2022:
[The government] fails to recognize or understand […] that there are different interests between the EU and the US, that the US is not playing it entirely straight, that it naturally has interests in weakening Russia, in weakening Russia’s economy. So it’s good [for them] if the war lasts a little longer than necessary. They want to disrupt coexistence and, above all, economic cooperation between Russia and Europe. (Applause from the FPÖ). (Parlament Österreich, 2022a).
Similarly, the FPÖ spokesperson on foreign policy Axel Kassegger described President Biden’s policy as follows:
Just yesterday, Biden reiterated that he does not want to talk to Putin. His only response to Russia is to make ineffective threatening gestures, as can be seen in the current developments in Ukraine, which are causing great suffering to the Ukrainian people. (Heute, 2022)
Kasserger also hinted that the United States might be behind the attacks on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (OTS, 2022a). The FPÖ studiously avoids denying that Russia is an aggressor or that the Ukrainian people are not also suffering. But its framing feeds into a traditional scepticism toward Brussels and Washington, whose motives are routinely questioned by mainstream political actors. Not surprisingly, the header on the FPÖ’s Facebook page shown in Figure 4 depicts party leader Kickl in front of an Austrian flag, claiming that “[s]ecuring wealth means defending neutrality!”
Figure 4: Banner from the Freedom Party’s Facebook page
Source: FPÖ (n.d., a)
Instead of sanctioning Russia, Austria should stay true to its tradition of neutrality (FPÖ, n.d. a, FPÖ, 2022b), as this would safeguard the country’s wealth and guarantee security in the current crisis and an uncertain world. The FPÖ disparages the sanctions as “Knieschuss-Sanktionen”, meaning that by imposing them, the EU is shooting itself in the foot (FPÖ, 2022e). This discourse implies that Austria is forced to bear the consequences of decisions made by others and is thus another victim of the conflict. The perpetrator, in this case, is not Moscow but rather the political elites in Brussels (or the West in general). This underscores the populist framing of “the people” versus “the elite” that the Freedom Party applies to this conflict. A telling example are the party’s frequent references to the “US armaments industry” that seeks to extend the war (OTS, 2022b). This also forms the basis for the FPÖ’s calls for a referendum on the sanctions against Russia (FPÖ, 2022a).
The FPÖ also supports other actors in the EU who challenge the bloc’s common foreign policy toward Russia, especially the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as shown in Figure 5. The FPÖ applauded him on Facebook for blocking an EU aid package for Ukraine: “Bravo Viktor Orbán! Put an end to this EU warmongering!” (FPÖ, 2022c). Thus, the sanctions against Russia and aid packages for Ukraine are both framed as breaches of Austrian neutrality. Herbert Kickl and other leading FPO officials have repeated these lines of criticism in parliamentary speeches (Parlament Österreich, 2022b). However, despite the FPÖ’s stance on neutrality
Figure 5: FPÖ Facebook post about Orbán’s blocking an EU aid package for Ukraine
Source: FPÖ (2022c)
Voter preferences and support for the Freedom Party
Since the FPÖ has called for both early elections and a referendum on sanctions against Russia, the question remains about how relevant this stance is for voters. In August 2022, the Austrian daily Der Standard reported that the public is split along party lines — supporters of the mainstream and centrist parties back sanctions on Russia, while FPÖ sympathizers are overwhelmingly opposed. However, the overall majority in support was small and thus vulnerable to further adverse developments, such as new spikes in energy prices or even energy shortages and power outages (Seidl, 2022b). In addition, political circles in Austria feared that a severe winter would significantly erode public support.
This view is confirmed by polling data in Figure 6, showing that the central concerns for many Austrians are rising prices and the widening gap between poor and rich, followed by climate change and the war in Ukraine (SORA, 2022). These sentiments are closely connected with expressions of anger about the current political situation, which is often directed against those in power (ibid.).
Figure 6: Important issues for Austrian voters, 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from SORA (2022, p. 8).
As Figure 7 shows, growing geopolitical insecurity has also not shaken the traditional preference for Austria’s policy of neutrality (Seidl, 2022a), which, according to a survey by the Austrian Institute for European Politics (ÖGfE), is favoured by 9 out of 10 Austrians (ÖGfE 2022a). Similarly, most respondents reject the idea of joining NATO or even participating in a common European security system (Seidl, 2022a).
In fact, FPÖ voters and those of the small populist anti-vaccination party (MFG) are most in favour of neutrality over participating in a Europe-wide security system. Still, neutrality is also preferred by a large number of ÖVP and SPÖ voters. Only Greens and NEOs voters, who presumably support the internationalist outlook of those parties, oppose neutrality in large numbers. Nonetheless, there is no overall majority in Austria for abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the European security system. This isolationist streak among Austrians makes the FPÖ’s position potentially attractive beyond its core constituency (i.e., ÖVP and SPÖ supporters).
Figure 7: Austrian voters’ attitudes towards neutrality in 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from Seidl (2022a)
Additionally, polling commissioned by Der Standard in December 2022 suggested that the FPÖ would either share first place with the SPÖ or win outright if an election were held the following week (Seidl, 2022c). In fact, as Figure 8 indicates, the FPÖ had 29% of support — ahead of the SPÖ and all centrist parties (Seidl, 2022c) — a 13 percentage-point increase in the space of three years.
Figure 8: Party support among Austrian voters, December 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from Seidel (2022c).
The Austrian Freedom Party has avoided defending Russia’s war of aggression outright but applies populist framing that presents Austrians as victims of the policy machinations of unaccountable national and Western political elites. These policy decisions vis-à-vis Russia are portrayed as ineffective and counterproductive and blamed for contributing to the escalation of the conflict. The FPÖ accuses the EU of adopting its Russia policy without popular consent and lays the blame on Brussels for rising prices and deteriorating living standards (FPÖ, 2022a, 2022e). This approach is an extension of the FPÖ’s traditional Euroscepticism (Heinisch et al., 2021) and anti-establishment positioning, which has underpinned the party’s traditional support base of about one-quarter of the electorate.
The FPÖ seeks to further broaden this appeal by emphasizing Austria’s traditional policy orientation of neutrality in military conflicts and recalling the benefits of close economic relations with Russia. Moreover, by attributing negative economic news to the EU sanctions, the FPÖ can distinguish itself from all other parties in parliament and deflect criticism for its historical pro-Putin positioning.
Support for Ukraine among Austrians has remained lower than elsewhere in the EU (Mory, 2022). Nonetheless, Russian atrocities, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the frequent military setbacks of the Russian army, and the Kremlin’s general ineptitude in conducting the war, have left their mark on Austrians. As a result, the FPÖ must be careful not to appear too extreme in its positions. The FPÖ has worked tirelessly to overcome its erstwhile Nazi image; it has little desire to be seen all too obviously as Moscow’s stooge.
(*) Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and currently serves as head of the Department of Political Science. His research on comparative populism, political parties, the Radical Right, and democracy has appeared in journals such as the European Journal of Political Research, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, Party Politics, Democratization, and West European Politics, among others. He recently completed a Horizon 2020 project on populism and democracy. Relevant book publications include Understanding Populist Party Organization: The Radical Right in Western Europe (Palgrave, 2016), The People and the Nation: Populism and Ethno-Territorial Politics (Routledge, 2019) and Political Populism. A Handbook (Nomos, 2021). He is an affiliated faculty member of the European Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh and is a regular visiting scholar at Renmin University of China in Beijing. Email: email@example.com
(**) Diana Hofmann is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Salzburg. Her research focuses on the effects of populist and nationalist attitudes on political participation and voting behaviour. Drawing on her expertise in quantitative research methods, she is also a researcher in the project on populism and conspiracy theories funded by the Austrian Science Fund. Moreover, she is currently involved in a project to help secondary school students across Austria better understand the concepts of populism and democracy from a political science perspective. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heinisch, R. (2003). Success in opposition–failure in government: Exploring the performance of the Austrian Freedom Party and other European right-wing populist parties in public office. West European Politics, 26(3), 91–130.
Heinisch, R. (2017). Demokratiekritik und (Rechts) Populismus: Modellfall Öster. In L. Helms & D. M. Wineroither (Eds.), Die österreichische Demokratie im Vergleich (pp. 449-477). Nomos Verlag.
Heinisch, R., McDonnell, D., & Werner, A. (2021). Equivocal Euroscepticism: How populist Radical Right parties can have their EU cake and eat it. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies,59(2), 189–205.
Mory, F. (2022, December 14). Unterstützung für Ukraine in Österreich geringer als EU-weit. Der Standard. https://www.derstandard.at/jetzt/livebericht/2000141776822/redcontent/1000291371?responsive=false
Pauwels, Teun. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on ties between the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Putin regime.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0013
The populist Radical Right party, Vlaams Belang (VB), has consistently proved itself a successful electoral competitor in Belgian politics. Already in 2004, the party obtained 24% of the vote in Flanders, focusing on issues such as immigration, Flemish nationalism, crime and law and order. As of 2007, however, the party faced increasing competition from the Flemish nationalist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which has been able to present itself as a democratic alternative to the populist VB. In recent years, the VB has tended to radicalize rather than moderate its tone to differentiate itself from competitors. While foreign policy has not been a salient issue within VB ideology, various party members have developed close ties to the Putin regime since 2010. For example, Filip Dewinter, a prominent member of the VB, has met Russian officials and appeared in Russian media. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. The current leader, Tom Van Grieken, has admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter has strongly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about sanctions against Russia.
The Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB) has consistently been one of the most successful populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In its early years, the VB was a real fringe party focusing almost exclusively on the goal of an autonomous Flemish state. As a result, only its leader Karel Dillen, who previously had shown sympathy towards the collaboration movement during German occupation, managed to gain representation in the national parliament when he was elected in 1978. However, after ideological and organizational changes, the party made its electoral breakthrough at the 1991 general elections (also known in Belgium as “Black Sunday” due to the VB’s success), gaining more than 10 % of the votes in Flanders.
In the south of Belgium, the Front National (FN) tried to reproduce the success of its French counterpart led by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite some occasional successes, the Belgian FN failed to break through. Led by the erratic Daniel Féret, who was unable to organize the party in a coherent way, the Belgian FN is no longer represented in the national parliament. Using evidence from interviews with media practitioners, De Jonge (2019) suggests that in the absence of a credible right-wing populist challenger, media practitioners in Wallonia adhere to a strict demarcation, whereas the Flemish media have become gradually more accommodating to the populist Radical Right. Since the populist Radical Right has been only successful in the Flemish part of Belgium, this report will focus entirely on the VB.
The structure of this report is as follows. First, we will briefly provide an overview of the ideology of the VB before turning to the organizational and electoral development of the party over time. The final section explores the relationship with the Putin regime and the impact of the war with Ukraine on VB’s ties with the Kremlin.
The ideology of the Vlaams Belang
The VB can be considered a textbook example of a populist Radical Right party focusing on nativism, populism and authoritarianism. Therefore, it is worth briefly outlining what each of these themes means and how they apply in the case of the VB.
Nativism is an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (“the nation”) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state (Mudde, 2007). Since the Flemish “nation” does not coincide with the state (Belgium), it has been evident to the VB that the artificial Belgian state should cease to exist and that the Flemish and the Walloons should go their separate ways. An independent Flemish republic has always been the principal goal of the VB. With the challenge of immigration, the VB has come to further underscore the need for internal homogenization. In 1992, Filip Dewinter developed a seventy-point programme, which provided an operational plan for the guided repatriation of non-European foreigners to their countries of origin (Mudde, 2000). These harsh stances have been softened throughout the years, and by 2003, Dewinter admitted that the plan was no longer realistic. Today the VB sees non-European immigrants and particularly Muslims, as one of the main threats to the nation. The party stresses the fundamental and irreconcilable antagonism between Islam and Western values and argues that Muslims increasingly impose their values upon the Flemings.
Even though the party featured elitist viewpoints in its early phase, the VB has increasingly presented itself as populist since the 1990s. The “pure people” is the equivalent of the common Fleming, who is honest, works hard and pays taxes but is politically quiescent. These people, the VB alleges, have been betrayed by a corrupt political class, which is willing to sell the Flemish cause due to self-interest. This corrupt mechanism is reinforced by the media, which is dependent upon subsidies (and is hence biased). Like other populist parties, the VB favours direct democracy to remove power from the establishment and give it back to the people.
Consistent with its nationalist–populist ideology, the VB thinks the individual cannot be separated from tradition and can only develop within his ethnic community. The traditional family, consisting of a heterosexual couple whose duty is to contribute to the continuity of the Flemish people, is considered the smallest unit of a harmonious, organic society. The party favours the promotion of traditional values to combat what it sees as an ongoing process of moral decay. In line with traditional ethics, it is argued that human life is only possible in a well-ordered community focusing on law and order (authoritarianism).
The development of the party over time
Figure 1 shows the electoral results of the VB in national and regional elections from 1978 until 2019. It reveals that the party has gone through roughly four phases: (1) party development at the margin of the Belgian party system (1978–1990); (2) electoral breakthrough (1991–2004); (3) new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014); and (4) renewal and electoral comeback (2015-present).
Figure 1: Electoral results for the Vlaams Belang in regional (Flemish) and national (Belgian) elections, 1978–2019
Source: Pauwels, 2014; Vlaams Parlement, 2019; Note: Figures represent the share of the vote the VB achieved in Flanders at each election (national and regional)
Phase I: Early developments at the margin of the party system (1978–1990)
The Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) emerged in 1978 following rising dissatisfaction with the Flemish nationalist Volksunie (VU). In the second half of the 1970s, the VU’s perceived overly moderate and left-leaning stances drew increasing criticism from the Flemish movement. This frustration peaked when the VU signed the so-called Egmont Pact, which envisioned a reform of the Belgian state leading to autonomy for the regions while also granting the French-speaking population in the periphery of Brussels some privileges. As a result, one VU member, Lode Claes, quit the party and established the Vlaamse Vokspartij (VVP). At the same time, Karel Dillen founded the Vlaams-Nationale Partij (VNP). The two parties decided to participate in the federal elections of 1978 under the name Vlaams Blok (VB). Against expectations, Dillen, and not Claes, was elected. The latter decided to leave politics, and Dillen absorbed the nationalist wing of the VVP. In May 1979, the VNP was dissolved, and the VB was officially established. The VB remained a small fringe party dominated by Dillen in its early years. Its programmatic focus was almost entirely directed against the Egmont Pact while striving for an independent Flemish state.
Phase II: Cordon sanitiare, breakthrough and electoral peak (1991–2004)
At the end of the 1980s, Dillen started a project to “rejuvenate” the party, promoting several young VB members within the party. As a result, a youth organization called Vlaams Blok Jongeren (VBJ) was established by, among others, Dewinter and Frank Vanhecke. However, these changes provoked internal tensions as a group of committed VB members accused the VBJ group of sidelining the Flemish cause in favour of the anti-immigrant issue in 1988. Dillen supported the VBJ, leading to the exit of the dissatisfied VB members and strengthening Dewinter’s position (Mudde, 2000). As a result, the VB gradually started to evolve into a modern populist Radical Right party.
The ideological and organizational changes started to pay off at the end of the 1980s. At local elections in 1987, the VB showed its electoral potential by gaining 17.7% of the vote in the city of Antwerp. The party’s national breakthrough came in 1991 when it secured 10.3% of the Flemish vote in the general election (corresponding to 6.6% of the national vote) (see Figure 1). “Black Sunday”, as the election came to be known, alarmed all the other Belgian parties, who agreed to construct a cordon sanitaire around the VB by pledging not to cooperate with it under any circumstances and on any political level. In 1996, Vanhecke — widely considered a consensus figure between the Flemish nationalist wing (symbolized by Gerolf Annemans) and the anti-immigrant wing (represented by Dewinter) — replaced Dillen as VB leader.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal in Ghent condemned several VB organizations for violating Belgium’s Anti-Racism Law, passed in 1981. Consequently, the party changed its name from Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang. The party also moderated its discourse somewhat, indicated by Dewinter’s admission that his infamous seventy-point plan was no longer realistic. Still, the changes were acknowledged as more about tone than substance. At the 2004 party conference, Vanhecke confirmed that the VB changed its name but not its identity. Still, the court’s ruling significantly increased the party’s visibility in the media and enabled the VB to present itself as the “victim” of the established parties. A few months after the 2004 conference, the VB polled its best result ever, taking 24% of the vote at regional and European elections in June (Pauwels, 2014).
Phase III: new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014)
The party faced its first electoral setbacks in the elections of 2007 and 2009. This setback cannot be explained by demand-side theories such as shifting public opinion on immigration or political trust, which remained static. Instead, the VB’s declining fortunes reflected a shrinking ideological niche for the populist Radical Right (Pauwels, 2011). On the one hand, the party faced competition from the newly established Lijst Dedecker (LDD), a neoliberal populist party that campaigned on a platform of defending hard-working people against corrupt elites and big government. On the other hand, a new party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (Flemish Nationalist Alliance or N-VA), gained momentum. The party was formed in 2001 as the successor of the VU, which had split because of internal tensions.
After the VU’s implosion, the N-VA had a hard time proving its relevance to Belgian voters. Therefore, the party chose an electoral alliance with the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, CD&V) in 2004. Following the 2007 elections, the CD&V–N-VA alliance promised meaningful state reform but failed to achieve much due to the formidable resistance of most francophone parties. Consequently, the N-VA left the coalition, claiming the Christian Democrats were insufficiently bold in defending Flemish autonomy. As a result, in 2009, the N-VA reprised its traditional role as the anti-establishment party in Belgium. Due to a broadening of its ideological profile and the emergence of Bart De Wever, a wildly popular party member, the N-VA was able to revive its Flemish nationalist credentials among voters at the expense of the VB.
A post-electoral analysis in 2009 showed that the LDD and the N-VA had siphoned off 8 and 15% of VB voters, respectively (Pauwels, 2011: 72). Plagued by internal tensions, the LDD disintegrated rapidly. In contrast, as of 2010, the N-VA had become the largest Flemish party and continued to be successful afterwards. Post-electoral research suggested that at the national elections of 2010, the N-VA picked up 32% of those who had voted for the VB in 2007 (Swyngedouw et al., 2012: 13). At the elections of May 2014, the VB achieved its worst result since 1987. Five months later, the 28-year-old Tom Van Grieken, was elected as party president.
Phase IV: renewal and electoral comeback (2015-current)
After 2015, the VB sought to pursue two opposing strategies. The first was party mainstreaming, as advocated by the new party leadership; the second was radicalization pushed by a faction led by Dewinter (Van Haute & Pauwels, 2016). The mainstreaming strategy aims to polish the sharp edges of the party programme in an attempt to get closer to power and overcome the cordon sanitaire. On the other hand, Dewinter’s strategy to restore the VB’s electoral relevance differs as he believes breaking the cordon is unrealistic. Instead, for Dewinter, the VB should acquire policy influence by putting pressure on the mainstream parties (the so-called “whip party” doctrine). A good illustration of the tensions inherent in this dual strategy occurred in 2016 when Dewinter and Anke Vandermeersch held a speech for the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn after which party president Van Grieken openly criticized and sanctioned them (Pauwels and van Haute, 2017).
Despite internal tensions, the VB performed well in the 2019 elections. And according to an opinion poll conducted in November 2022, the VB could secure 26% of the votes making it potentially the largest Flemish party (Knack, 2022). While it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about why the VB gained momentum, two elements might play a role. First, the issues of immigration and terrorism have become more salient. The ongoing refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016 sparked extensive debate on immigration and multiculturalism. Eurobarometer data from 2019 suggest these issues are salient all over Europe; indeed, immigration is the most important concern at the EU level, as mentioned by more than a third of Europeans (European Union, 2019). Second, the N-VA has been part of the governing coalition at the regional (Flemish) level for almost two decades while the VB remained in permanent opposition. It is possible that voters who hold more (radical) right-wing ideas think the N-VA has become too moderate and consensus-seeking and have thus given thought to again voting for the VB.
Ties between the VB and the Putin regime and the impact of the war in Ukraine
Foreign policy has not been a salient part of the VB’s ideology. For instance, the party manifestos of 2007 and 2019 devoted just 3.5% and 6.3% of space to the issue, respectively. However, within the foreign policy debate, the EU has become an issue of growing importance. On the one hand, the EU has been recognized as a virtue, creating welfare and peace while providing an opportunity for a “Flemish nation” within a confederal “Europe of fatherlands”. At the same time, the VB has a Eurosceptic side that denounces the current European “superstate” for undermining national sovereignty, particularly concerning immigration policy. The bureaucratic nature of the EU and financial transfers within Europe are other targets of party criticism (Abts et al., 2015).
Regarding defence policy, the VB’s position could be summarized as “pragmatic” and “neutral”, in order to guarantee national security. This pragmatism is illustrated by its stance concerning NATO. Given the lack of a European alternative, the VB supports Belgium’s NATO membership at a time of increasing security threats. At the same time, the party is sceptical towards NATO because it makes Europe overly dependent on the United States. The VB, therefore, calls for more military investments and cooperation with Belgium’s European allies to create a credible alternative to NATO and gain leverage in the international community. The recent invasion of Ukraine is explicitly mentioned as an illustration of the powerlessness of Europe in this respect (De Wachter, 2022).
While Russia has hardly been an issue in the VB’s official party literature, some VB members such as Frank Creyelman, Jan Penris, and Dewinter have been increasingly vocal in their support for the Putin regime, at least before the war in Ukraine. These more radical thinkers inside the party see Russia as an ally against globalization and Islam. For example, Dewinter has applauded Putin for promoting national sovereignty while defending Russia’s identity and conservative Christian values. He furthermore stated that “the only good thing about the Iron Curtain is that it has saved Eastern Europe from political correctness, multiculturalism and ‘wokeness’”, while embracing the dream of an “independent Europe from Vladivostok to the North Sea, separate from America, China and certainly the Arab world” (Verbergt, 2022).
In 2014, three VB members (Creyelmans, Penris and Christian Verougstraete) travelled to Crimea as “observers” of the referendum on Russia’s annexation of the region. It should be added that the party president at that time (Annemans) distanced himself from this action and stated that the VB “has no business in Ukraine” (Van Thillo, 2014). For his part, Dewinter has had meetings with, among others, Russia’s deputy prime minister and the president of the Russian parliament. He has also appeared several times in Russian media. Nevertheless, whether there are financial links between the VB and Russia has never been substantiated. However, this question has become increasingly relevant, as shown by the liberal Flemish Open VLD party’s recent call for an investigation into potential foreign influence and undermining of democracy. In doing so, the liberals focus, among other things, on the foreign financing of political parties and individual politicians (De Boeck, 2022).
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. Tom Van Grieken has claimed that the party initially considered Russia an ally against multiculturalism but admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter strongly condemned Putin as a dictator who had “totally lost it”. Political opponents have used Russia’s invasion to attack the VB. In April 2022, Russian consul general Georgy Kuznetsov was reportedly asked to leave Belgium on suspicion of espionage. Dewinter has been publicly seen with Kuznetsov several times and even invited him to the Flemish parliament. When it became known that Kuznetsov was potentially involved in espionage, the socialist party Vooruit (Forward) called on Dewinter to resign as first vice president of the Flemish parliament (which did not happen).
Since February 2022, the VB has distanced itself from Putin, noting that Russia’s invasion is a flagrant violation of international law. At the same time, the party remains sceptical about the harsh and “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia. This scepticism toward sanctions is informed, for the most part, by pragmatic economic arguments. There is the fear that “the Russian bear” might “claw back” in response to the sanctions with severely adverse consequences for already “exploding energy costs” (De Wachter, 2022). This might be surprising given the relatively high support for the current actions taken to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Belgium as well as in most other European countries (European Union, 2022). In November 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. While this resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of MEPs, the three from the VB chose to abstain.
Despite its ups and downs, the VB has been consistently successful in Belgian politics for over four decades. Foreign policy has not been a significant concern for the party, and when addressing international issues, it has called for a pragmatic or neutral approach to secure national interests. Yet some prominent VB members have developed ties with the Putin regime over time. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the party leadership and pro-Russian voices inside the party clearly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia because of the potential (economic) backfiring.
As explained earlier, the VB is doing very well in the polls, and it appears the party’s “position switch” on Russia has not harmed it in electoral terms. This is probably because the VB has never been focusing on foreign policy much and is also not associated with this issue by the voters. Instead, the VB remains the issue owner on topics like immigration, which remains a highly visible and contested subject. Combined with a very long governing period at the regional level of its rival N-VA, it seems that the populist Radical Right remains an attractive electoral alternative in the Flemish part of Belgium.
(*) Teun Pauwels holds a PhD in political science (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and is currently working as a policy analyst for the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training. He is the author of Populism in Western Europe. Comparing Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands (2014, Routledge).
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