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

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

Spasojević, Dušan. (2023). “Balancing on a pin: Serbian populists, the European Union and Russia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0028

 

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Abstract

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

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

 

 

By Dušan Spasojević* (University of Belgrade)

Background

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

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

The Serbian party system – an overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The demand side of right-wing populism

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Republic Electoral Commission

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

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

Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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


References

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

CRTA. (2022a). Media monitoring: The war in Ukraine cast a shadow over all other topics. Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability. https://crta.rs/en/media-monitoring-the-war-in-ukraine-cast-a-shadow-over-all-other-topics/

CRTA (2022b). Survey: Democracy on the Margin of the War. Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability. https://crta.rs/en/survey-democracy-on-the-margin-of-the-war/

Euronews Srbija. (2022, November 26). Nova istraživanja, stari odgovori: Većina građana protiv sankcija Rusiji, ali nekoliko faktora može da poljulja taj stav. https://www.euronews.rs/srbija/politika/66756/nova-istrazivanja-stari-odgovori-vecina-gradana-protiv-sankcija-rusiji-ali-nekoliko-faktora-moze-da-poljulja-taj-stav/vest

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

Miletić, M. (2022, November 25). U Srbiji raste podrška uvođenju sankcija protiv. Rusije Radija Slobodna Evropa. https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/srbija-podrska-sankcijama-protiv-rusije/32149039.html

Republic electoral commission  https://www.rik.parlament.gov.rs/

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

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

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

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

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

Učeň, Peter. (2023). “The Russia–Ukraine War and the Radicalization of Political Discourse in Slovakia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0029

 

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Abstract

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

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

 

By Peter Učeň*

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

A brief historical outline of (suspected) populists in Slovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From among these, the most frequent were:

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

Marcos-Marne, Hugo. (2023). “The Spanish Radical Right under the shadow of the invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0030

 

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Abstract

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

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

 

 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The Radical Right parties and Russia after the invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voters of the Radical Right and Russia after the invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final remarks

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

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

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


References

Abascal, S. [@Santi_ABASCAL]. (2022a, February 27). La soberbia de Putin avanza gracias al silencio de muchos líderes cobardes y al apoyo de tiranos de todo el mundo [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/santi_abascal/status/
1498023264354025474?lang=es

Abascal, S. [@Santi_ABASCAL]. (2022b, April 6). Hilo: Celebro que el presidente ucraniano recibiera el apoyo de las Cortes Generales [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/santi_abascal/status/1511621442428940289

Albin, D. (2022, February 24). Así se posiciona la ultraderecha española en el conflicto entre Rusia y Ucrania. Publico. https://www.publico.es/internacional/posiciona-ultraderecha-espanola-conflicto-rusia-ucrania.html

Alonso, S., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2015). Spain: No country for the populist Radical Right? South European Society and Politics, 20(1), 21–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/
13608746.2014.985448

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

Center for Sociological Research (n.d.). Barometers. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.cis.es/cis/opencm/ES/11_barometros/index.jsp

Congreso de los Diputados (2022a, March 2). Plenary Session 156. Cortes Generales. https://www.congreso.es/public_oficiales/L14/CONG/DS/PL/DSCD-14-PL-163.PDF

Congreso de los Diputados (2022b, July 14). Extraordinary Plenary Session 195. Cortes Generales. https://www.congreso.es/public_oficiales/L14/CONG/DS/PL/DSCD-14-PL-202.PDF

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

Dunaev, A. (2018, March 5). Why Spain doesn’t fear the “Russian threat”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/75698

Féas, E. (2022, March 2). Los efectos de la invasión de Ucrania sobre la economía española. Elcano Royal Institute. https://media.realinstitutoelcano.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/comentario-feas-los-efectos-de-la-invasion-de-ucrania-sobre-la-economia-espanola.pdf

Ferreira, C. (2019). Vox como representante de la derecha radical en España: un estudio sobre su ideología. Revista Española de Ciencia Política; Número 51, Noviembre 2019. https://recyt.fecyt.es/index.php/recp/article/view/72190

González, M. (2019, March 29). Abascal dice que rechazó reunirse con Putin “por prudencia”. El País. https://elpais.com/politica/2019/03/29/actualidad/
1553857495_047024.html

González, M. (2022, August 26). Los vínculos de Vox con Dugin, el ideólogo de cabecera de Putin. El País. https://elpais.com/espana/2022-08-26/los-vinculos-de-vox-con-dugin-el-ideologo-de-cabecera-de-putin.html

Marcos-Marne, H., Plaza-Colodro, C., & Hawkins, K. A. (2020). Is populism the third dimension? The quest for political alliances in post-crisis Spain. Electoral Studies, 63, 102–112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2019.102112

Marcos-Marne, H., Plaza-Colodro, C., & O’Flynn, C. (2021). Populism and new Radical-Right parties: The case of VOX. Politics, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/
10.1177/02633957211019587

Morillo, I. (2022). Vox rechaza que Andalucía acoja refugiados o niños de la guerra de Ucrania. El Confidencial. https://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/andalucia/2022-03-02/vox-rechaza-que-andalucia-acoja-refugiados-o-ninos-de-la-guerra-de-ucrania_3384598/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=ECDiarioManual

Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 541–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

Ramiro, L., & Gomez, R. (2016). Radical-Left populism during the Great Recession: Podemos and its competition with the established Radical Left. Political Studies, 65(1_suppl), 108–126. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032321716647400

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

Testa, G. (2022). Los líderes de Vox en Ceuta, con Putin. El Faro de Ceuta. https://elfarodeceuta.es/lideres-vox-ceuta-putin/

Turnbull-Dugarte, S. J., Rama, J., & Santana, A. (2020). The Baskerville’s dog suddenly started barking: Voting for VOX in the 2019 Spanish general elections. Political Research Exchange, 2(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/2474736X.2020.1781543

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

VOX [@vox_es] (2022, February 25). Lastra, Enrique Santiago, Irene Montero… Los aliados de Putin están en el Gobierno y Pedro Sánchez debe expulsarlos inmediatamente [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/vox_es/status/
1497185372467568663

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolin, Niklas. (2023). “The repercussions of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the populist Radical Right in Sweden.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0031

 

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Abstract

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

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

 

By Niklas Bolin* (Mid Sweden University) 

Introduction

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

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

The Radical Right scene in Sweden

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

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

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

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

The Sweden Democrats and Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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


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Arenander, I., & Nilsson, E. (2022, April 9). Åkessons besked om Nato: ”Har svängt”. Svenska Dagbladethttps://www.svd.se/a/PoG8v5/jimmie-akesson-svanger-om-nato-nar-finland-gor-det

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

Aylott, N., & Bolin, N. (2023). A new right: The Swedish parliamentary election of September 2022. West European Politics. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2022.2156199

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

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

Christodoulou, L. (2014, September 16). Sweden Democrats voted against EU–Ukraine agreement. Sveriges Radiohttps://sverigesradio.se/artikel/5966926

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

Esaiasson, P., Sohlberg, J., Ghersetti, M., & Johansson, B. (2021). How the coronavirus crisis affects citizen trust in institutions and in unknown others: Evidence from “the Swedish experiment”. European Journal of Political Research60(3), 748–760. https://doi.org/
10.1111/1475-6765.12419

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

Johansson Heinö, A., Melin, C., Oksanen, P., Poohl, D., Silberstein, W., Schenström, U., & Scherman, J. (2023, January 31). SD:s rysskopplingar är en akut säkerhetsrisk. Aftonbladethttps://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/a/jlKMyn/sd-s-ryska-kopplingar-ar-en-akut-sakerhetsrisk

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

Lindberg, A. (2023, February 4). Jomshof skojar inte om att bränna 100 koraner. Tack SD! Hälsar Vladimir Putin. Aftonbladet. https://www.aftonbladet.se/ledare/a/P4jAk7/
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Odmalm, P. (2022). Ombytta roller i valet 2022 – när nationalismen blev viktig igen för den radikala populististhögern. In N. Bolin, K. Falasca, M. Grusell, & L. Nord (Eds.), Snabbtänkt 2.0 22. Reflektioner från valet 2022 av ledande forskare (p. 29). Demicom, Mittuniversitetet.

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

Rankin, J. (2023, January 27). Burning of Qur’an in Stockholm funded by journalist with Kremlin ties. The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/27/
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Rydgren, J. (2002). Radical Right populism in Sweden: Still a failure, but for how long? Scandinavian Political Studies25(1), 27–56. doi:10.1111/1467-9477.00062

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

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

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VoteWatch. (2022). EU–Russia: latest trends among EU political partieshttps://drive.google.com/file/d/1P-QOpOHZS9p_ZcwHoRDp8rcG9b57b5_j/view

Wieslander, A. (2022). “The Hultqvist doctrine”–Swedish security and defence policy after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Defence Studies22(1), 35–59. doi:10.1080/
14702436.2021.1955619

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

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

Nijhuis, Chris; Verbeek, Bertjan & Zaslove, Andrej. (2023). “Disagreement among populists in the Netherlands: The diverging rhetorical and policy positions of Dutch populist Radical Right parties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0032

 

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Abstract

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

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

 

 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Why the Netherlands?

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

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

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

Dutch right-wing populist narratives of Russia

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining position diversity on the Dutch populist Radical Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequences

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

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

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

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

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


References

Baudet, T. (2022). Tom-Jan Meeus (NRC): Columnist van de onderbuik. Forum voor Democratie. https://fvd.nl/nieuws/tom-jan-meeus-columnist-van-de-onderbuik

Coticchia, F. & Verbeek, B. (in press). When populist friends abroad hurt you at home: How populist leaders in Italy and the Netherlands coped with the Russo-Ukrainian war. In C. Lacatus, G. Löfflmann, & G. Meibauer (Eds.), Vox populi: Populism, political communication and performative leadership in international politics. Palgrave.

de Jong, P. H. (2018, March 2). Wilders herkent in Putin een ‘echte patriot.’ Nederlands Dagbladhttps://www.nd.nl/nieuws/politiek/580031/wilders-herkent-in-putin-een-echte-patriot-

de Jonge, L. (2021). Is the (mass) party really over? The case of the Dutch Forum for Democracy. Politics and Governance9(4), 286–295. https://doi.org/10.17645/
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Houtkamp, C., van der Laan, T., Sie Dhian Ho, M., & Deen, B. (2022). Nederlanders kijken meer door een geopolitieke bril. Clingendael. https://www.clingendael.org/sites/
default/files/2022-11/Barometer_Ruslandbeeld%20in%20Nederland.pdf

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JA21. (2021). Het Juiste Antwoord. JA21 Verkiezingsprogramma 2021–2025https://dnpprepo.ub.rug.nl/86186/1/JA21%20verkiezingsprogramma%20TK%202021%20definitief.pdf

Lee, J. R. (1977). Rallying around the flag: Foreign policy events and presidential popularity. Presidential Studies Quarterly7(4), 252–256.

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Meijers, M. J., & Zaslove, A. (2021). Measuring populism in political parties: Appraisal of a new approach. Comparative Political Studies54(2), 372–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414020938081

Mudde, C. (2004). The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition39(4), 541–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

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Sterling, T. (2022, July 7). Energy minister says Dutch braced for Russian gas cutoff, Groningen is last resort. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/energy-minister-says-dutch-braced-russian-gas-cutoff-groningen-is-last-resort-2022-07-07/

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the opening of the Natural Gas Pipeline (Turkstream) in Istanbul, Turkey on November 19, 2018.

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

Erdoğan, Emre. (2023). “A foreign policy litmus test: How the war in Ukraine has fuelled populist rhetoric in Erdoğan’s Turkey.” 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/rp0033

 

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Abstract

The war in Ukraine is a defining historical moment that demonstrates the limitations of contemporary politics. Even the most pessimistic scholars did not conceive of a direct military conflict in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, this conflict has exposed the limitations of populism in foreign policy. Despite rare instances of rhetorical cooperation with Russia, the populist politicians of Europe remained committed to Atlanticist foreign policies. Turkey, a textbook example of populist governance, offers a superb illustration of how the international zeitgeist constrains populist politicians’ goals. The “balanced” approach of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is dictated by its asymmetrical interdependence with Russia, aims to strengthen Turkey’s role as a regional force through mediation. In the meantime, the pressure of upcoming presidential elections and the country’s economic position are additional obstacles. An examination of Erdoğan’s speeches over the past year reveals that he has replicated this balanced approach in his discourse as the leader of Turkey.

Keywords: Turkey; Ukraine–Russia war; foreign policy; populism.

 

 

By Emre Erdoğan* (Istanbul Bilgi University)

Introduction

The war in Ukraine has become a litmus test for European politicians. The unexpected conflict in Europe has prompted a revaluation of the capabilities of nation-states and international organizations. The same war has also served as a stage on which political leaders from several nations can perform for various audiences, domestic and international. Contrary to expectations, the Russians did not conquer Kyiv in a few days, and Ukraine’s resistance to unprovoked aggression has become a model for the world. The swift and decisive response of NATO and the European Union (EU) was equally unexpected, transforming the situation into a battle of attrition.

Among the numerous unanswered questions the war has brought to the fore, the responses of populist leaders’ have received significant attention. First, the working assumption has been that all populist leaders at least sympathized with Putin’s regime, if not directly under Russian influence. Second, the war has been framed and presented as a conflict between autocracy and democracy and between East and West, forcing us to consider which camp populists would favour. Third, the war generated an influx of refugees into parts of Europe that have exhibited fiercely anti-immigrant sentiments for some time. The question has thus been whether populist leaders would take advantage of this opportunity to garner support. Lastly, it is unknown whether the economic challenges caused by rising energy costs and the disruption to global trade will favour populist parties at the polls. A series of crucial elections in 2023 will shed light on these unanswered questions and the effects of the Ukraine conflict as it enters its second year.

Turkey, like Ukraine, a Black Sea country, now enters its second decade with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm. Erdoğan—a textbook example of a twenty-first-century populist politician—has been characterized as Russia’s “Trojan Horse” in NATO. Turkey’s leadership has strong authoritarian tendencies, and the country hosts more than 4 million refugees, contributing to social tension. In addition, the Ukraine conflict erupted as Turkey confronts two roiling crises — a war against militants along its long border with Syria and an ongoing economic crisis. As a NATO member, Turkey is central to the Western response to the war.

In this report, I will detail the reaction of Turkey’s populist leadership to the crisis, beginning with a brief review of populist foreign policy and concluding with a summary of Turkish foreign policy throughout the war. I will conclude by discussing Erdoğan’s speeches about the war and demonstrating how he has leveraged the conflict to reinforce his position as a strong leader.

Populist foreign policy

The global rise of populist leaders attracted the attention of experts to policy differences. Although there is no consensus on the definition of populism, Mudde’s minimalist definition is the most widely accepted. According to Mudde (2004), populism is

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the “volonté Générale” (general will) of the people. (p. 543)

 Another group of scholars define populism as a style that includes “an appeal to ‘the people’ as both the audience and the subject embodied; a resort to ‘bad manners’ and coarsened political rhetoric; and a representation and performance of crisis, breakdown, and threat” (Moffitt, 2016, p. 46). Populism has also been perceived as a strategy, a set of methods or instruments mobilized by politicians in political competition. Weyland defines this strategy as “direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganised followers” (Weyland, 2001, p. 14). A newly developed synthesis presents populism in an ideational form integrating ideological and discursive approaches and excluding strategy or tactics. This approach’s essential set of ideas or beliefs is defined as the belief in the sovereignty and the moral superiority of people, presented as a homogenous unit.

All of these definitions share similarities that provide hints about the foreign policy populists pursue when they attain power. Nonetheless, I must emphasize that the influence of populists on foreign policy may be limited. If a nation’s foreign policy is institutionalized and based on the consensus of several societal actors, the influence of politicians may be somewhat constrained. Foreign policy provides politicians with less space for flexibility than other policy sectors. Ideology is another aspect that influences the foreign policy practices of populist parties in government. Several studies demonstrated that the standing of populist political parties is determined by whether they are right- or left-wing (Verbeek & Zaslove, 2017). Finally, we must consider the structural aspects of a country that influence the foreign policy practices of populists, such as geography, economic development, and established commitments or alliances (Destradi et al., 2021).

Due to populists’ Manichean worldview, which sets the people and elite at opposite ends of the spectrum, their foreign policy preferences are expected, in the first instance, to reflect their anti-elite orientation. This elite may be identified at the national level as capitalists, bankers, and bureaucrats, while foreign elites, such as international organizations and bureaucrats, may serve as useful scapegoats. Consequently, we expect populist leaders to be opposed to international institutions and counter-majoritarian entities (such as courts) at home or abroad.

Second, the notion of the “pure people” may influence populist international policies. A homogenous “us” is always positioned against “them” in populist discourse. Consistent with the nationalist perspective, the nation is the primary component of “us”. In the context of foreign policy, however, “the people” may encompass or draw on transnational elements such as religion, race, ethnicity, and social class. Populists thus define “the Other” automatically in contradistinction to the “pure people”.

As populist leaders position themselves as the authentic representation of the will of the people, this strategy will contribute to the concentration of governance in the hands of the populist leader. In conjunction with an antipathy to national elites, populist politicians favour de-institutionalizing and politicizing foreign policy. The ontological grounds of populist policies are incompatible with the notion that foreign policy is a technocratic arena ideally administered by a rational bureaucracy. Thus, a desire to displace foreign policy bureaucracies and personalize foreign policy decisions under populist governance is foreseeable (Destradi et al., 2021).

Scholars have posited that the individual characteristics of populist leaders may influence their foreign policy orientations in office. For example, it is often pointed out that populist leaders exhibit a very direct style of communication, eagerly assuming the role of “drunken dinner guest” in global forums and “agent provocateur” when confronting the distant policy prescriptions of international bureaucrats. Certainly, quantitative and qualitative studies have demonstrated that populists have distinct personality traits. However, it remains difficult to connect these traits directly to the foreign policies of countries led by populists (Nai & Martnez i Coma, 2019; Özdamar & Ceydilek, 2020).

In sum, researchers have concluded that the foreign policies of populist leaders are characterized by anti-elitism, the supremacy of the “pure people”, and the de-institutionalization and personalization of foreign policy-making. In addition, the discourse of populist politicians tends to emphasize victimization and nostalgia for an imagined glorious national past (Elçi, 2022).

Turkish foreign policy during the Ukraine war

During the Ukraine–Russia war, Turkey has adopted a “balanced” foreign policy approach to the conflict. In a broader context, this can be interpreted as a turning point in Turkey’s shifting foreign policy priorities. Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed office in 2002, Turkey has favoured a “transactional”, “active”, and “assertive” foreign policy, eschewing the more cautious approach of earlier eras (Mankoff, 2022). The country’s urgent need for export markets and energy dependence pushed the government to establish close ties with the Arab and Turkic worlds. Meanwhile, the ruling elite’s ideological orientation fostered a desire to take a leading role in the Muslim world and serve as a bridge between East and West. This “assertive” policy’s short-term success ended with the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

According to observers, 2016 marks a turning point in the Turkish government’s foreign policy. After the departure of Ahmet Davudoğlu, the architect of the new foreign policy, and the government’s growing security worries, the ruling class embraced more realistic foreign policy objectives. The soft power strategy that aimed to engage Arab societies in the region has been cancelled. Instead, the government envisioned an autonomous foreign policy based on the country’s military capabilities. Prior to the epidemic, Turkey supported the rebels in Syria’s civil war, while relations with Egypt and Israel were nearly frozen due to support for Hamas and the Muslim Brothers. Tensions remained with Greece over disputes in the Aegean Sea.

These shifts split the Arab world nearly in two. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were unequivocally opposed to Turkey’s aggressive participation in the domestic affairs of Arab countries and its aspirations for leadership. Turkey’s close relations with Qatar were insufficient to compensate for sour relations with the other Arab powers. In the meantime, Turkey and the United States were at odds due to Ankara’s conflict with the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), the United States’ closest partner in the region (Keating, 2022; Pierini, 2022; Tapia, 2022).

However, after the epidemic, Turkey followed a more “realistic” approach due to the changing international situation. First, the Biden administration was less tolerant of Ankara’s foreign policy adventurism in the Middle East. Second, the economic and political challenges in Turkey compelled the government to seek international backing and increase financial inflows. Turkey reached out to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, initiated discussions with Armenia and restored diplomatic relations with Israel. Third, Ankara’s preoccupation was keeping the Kurdish insurgent PKK and ISIS at bay and constructing a secure oil pipeline to offset rising energy expenses. Fourth, the approaching presidential elections have heightened economic and trade policy, not least the significance of Europe as Turkey’s principal export market (Tapia, 2022; Pierini, 2022).

The Ukraine–Russia war coincided with this “U-turn” in Turkey’s foreign policy, and Turkey sought to execute a “hedging” strategy navigating between Russia and the United States. Throughout history, Turkey’s ties with Russia have fluctuated between frigid antagonism (as in the Cold War), rivalry (mostly in Central Asia and the Caucasus), as well as indirect confrontation and forced cooperation (as in Syria since 2013). After 2016, Turkey was compelled to keep Moscow on side, as Ankara’s role in the conflict in Syria deepened and reliance on Russian energy (and tourism) grew. Despite being on the opposite side to Russia in crises in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (not to mention being a NATO member for seven decades), the Turkish government has not hesitated in playing the role of back channel to Moscow (Lesage et al., 2022).

On the other hand, relations between Turkey and Ukraine have traditionally been very close. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Turkey supported Kyiv and called on Moscow to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Turkey and Ukraine inked a strategic partnership agreement in 2020 and established free trade arrangements in 2021. Turkey has also provided Bayraktar TB2 drones (used by Ukraine’s armed forces against several high-profile targets since the invasion) and established solid military ties with Ukraine while signalling its support for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership. At the same time, Erdoğan has slow-walked approving the Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance in order to extract political concessions in the lead-up to elections in May. Despite Russia’s reservations, Turkey continues to send Ukraine military assistance, including the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which have become an emblem of resistance. As these drones are manufactured by the company owned by President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, this circumstance has caught the attention of experts and become a highly contentious subject in Turkey.

Ankara’s unique positioning “between” NATO and Russia and its middle power foreign policy aspirations have driven the Turkish government’s desire to act as a mediator (Üstün, 2022). At the beginning of the war, Turkey urged both sides to find a peaceful resolution and attempted to act as a regional peace broker by utilizing its links to both sides. Ankara initiated indirect communication between Ukraine and Russia and planned formal talks with relevant parties in Antalya and Istanbul in March 2022. President Erdoğan has also dispatched special envoys to facilitate a peaceful resolution. Notably, Turkey voted in favour of the UN Security Council condemning the invasion while choosing not to join sanctions against Russia, which caused some trepidation among Western allies.

Turkey has also provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine and accepted refugees while accepting thousands of Russian nationals fleeing to Turkey after the Kremlin cracked down on media and dissent after February 2022 and sought to call up reserves to fight in Ukraine. Erdoğan also brokered the deal permitting Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea under the supervision of the United Nations in July 2020. Ankara pushed several times to prevent Russia from reneging on the agreement. Turkey is one of the arrangement’s most significant beneficiaries of the deal. The Montreux Convention of 1936 handed Turkey control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, which connect the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This allows Turkey to limit the passage of naval warships and seal the straits to foreign warships during warfare or when threatened. Except for a few instances, Turkey has restricted the passage of all foreign warships since the war broke out.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric about the war

The aforementioned survey of Turkey’s recent foreign policy should not be read as a rationally planned sequence of actions aimed at leveraging the war’s gains and utilizing foreign policy to strengthen Erdoğan’s political fortunes. The most pressing challenge for Erdoğan is to win the upcoming elections, and his foreign policy of late reflects this imperative. He is an expert in winning tight elections against significant opposition, but his electoral “Midas touch” may no longer suffice against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy. The government has increasingly turned to populist boondoggles and “cash splashes” to stimulate economic growth, but it is unclear how these programmes will be supported. According to official estimates, inflation is running at 83% annually, and rising prices threaten Erdoğan’s chances of being elected because of the government’s unwillingness to hike interest rates. This is only exacerbated by rising energy costs during the war (Erlanger, 2022).

These concerns have a substantial international component, and it is impossible to distinguish clearly between domestic and international drivers when it comes to policy responses. Still, it is possible to analyse Erdoğan’s views regarding the war in Ukraine through the lens of his public pronouncements and discursive strategies. In order to do so, I have examined his speeches from January to December 2022, published on the Turkish presidency’s website and in various media reports across this period. I have calculated that in 123 of 224 public speeches during this period, Erdoğan discussed the war in Ukraine, although some references were brief and did not elaborate on the conflict in any great detail.

It is crucial to note that Erdoğan has a distinctive outlook on global politics and Turkey’s place in the world, which he sees as full of danger and knotty challenges. He has, paradoxically, long subscribed to the Turkish sense of “encirclement”, which sees Turkey as surrounded by hostile forces, whether it is Greece, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), the United States, Kurdish separatists, or neighbouring states in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Erdoğan places stock in ensuring the Turkish government is sufficiently strong in military and economic terms to meet these threats (Euronews, 2022).

In Erdoğan’s discourse, clear divisions between “us” and “them” are manifest. This can be the “us” of Turkey set against corrupt “global elites” (he often criticizes the “Big Five” countries that control the United Nations and render it ineffectual; “the globe is more than five” is a frequent refrain). At other times, his discourse employs an “us versus them” dichotomy regarding the Muslim ummah versus the Islamophobic rest. And on occasion, Erdoğan foregrounds Turkey as a champion of the world’s “forgotten” peoples and the need for solidarity among the “silent majority” of poor and downtrodden nations (Batrawy, 2022).

President Erdoğan’s discourse vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine has typically reflected his general outlook. First, in the early days of the war, Erdoğan emphasized the legitimacy of Ukraine and reiterated Turkey’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He framed the Ukrainian struggle as an issue of honour and independence. Over time, Erdoğan stopped repeating the same point in his presentations and adopted a more balanced stance.

Erdoğan has stated numerous times that peace is the final solution. However, the fighting parties were not to blame for the failure. The United Nations and the West hypocritically prevented the reestablishment of peace between the two countries, first due to their inability and secondly because there were actors who did not desire peace between them. In this speech, Erdoğan criticized the UN Security Council and repeated his slogan. Using this paradigm, Erdoğan pitted the West, the United Nations, and the permanent United Nations Security Council members against the world’s populace and legitimized his anti-establishment rhetoric (Batrawy, 2022).

As the West and big countries were hypocritical, Erdoğan argued that Turkey might be a facilitator (he emphasized that he did not prefer the term “mediator” for Turkey’s role). According to him, Turkey had deep historical ties with both nations, and his close relationships with their respective governments might help foster peace. He reiterated multiple times that he had direct conversations with President Zelenskyy or Vladimir Putin, as well as personal contacts. Using this story, Erdoğan portrayed himself as a world leader capable of resolving a significant catastrophe. In addition, he believed that the world’s leaders admired his efforts. Following the historical ties and his personal connections, Erdoğan emphasized Turkey’s diplomatic capacity and projected it as a regional force and the only nation capable of adopting a balanced approach (A-News, 2022).

Erdoğan emphasized his accomplishment in negotiating the grain deal. He argued that the balanced approach and friendly relations with Turkey made this agreement feasible, while Turkey’s presence fostered a climate of trust between the two parties. He represented the underprivileged by stating they had an immediate need for the food produced in Ukraine and Russia. He positioned himself as the ally of the impoverished Africans. Moreover, he emphasized that the General Secretary of the United Nations has praised this action (Batrawy, 2022).

Public opinion polls reflected Erdoğan’s balanced stance. In the early days of the conflict, surveys indicated that the Turkish public strongly supported Ukraine, with two-thirds of respondents deeming Russia’s action unjust and 78% favouring a neutral stance during the conflict. The majority of participants were concerned about the harmful effects of the war (Tahiroğlu, 2022). Some 44% of respondents supported Turkey’s role as a mediator in the war, while only 13% favoured an active engagement in the conflict. The remaining 40% of respondents favoured keeping neutral (Ünlühisarcıklı et al., 2022). Furthermore, 61% of Turkish residents were satisfied with the government’s response to the war in Ukraine, according to a study done in the summer of 2022; however, just 40% of respondents were satisfied with Brussels’ response, compared to the EU average of 57%. (European Commission, 2022). Transatlantic Trends of the German Marshall Fund revealed that just 43% of respondents supported sanctioning Russia, 30% advocated prohibiting gas and oil imports from Russia, and only 33% supported Ukraine’s NATO membership (Weber et al., 2022). In a study performed in the autumn of 2022, respondents expressed opposition to the sanctions against Russia (Henley, 2022).

Given the government’s low popularity, these numbers indicate that the Turkish public supported Erdoğan’s “balanced approach” to the Ukraine conflict. Of course, there may be cultural reasons for this favourable view of Russia, such as its historical legacy. Nonetheless, it appears that Turkish citizens are more pragmatic and that asymmetrical reliance benefits Russia. However, whether Erdoğan can convert this acceptance into electoral support is questionable, as economic hardships weigh more than foreign policy opinions.

Conclusion

The experience of Turkey during the war in Ukraine provides insight into populist politicians’ freedom for manoeuvre. The conflict has coincided with a U-turn after a period of “aggressive” foreign policy positioning and has given Erdoğan a chance to play the role of “bridge” and “mediator” once again. As a country with strong economic, political, and historical ties to both the West and Russia, Turkey nominated itself as a mediator in the conflict, aiming for a speedy restoration of peace in the region. To establish a back channel of communication between the warring parties and NATO, balanced activism of the Turkish government was needed. These efforts have been rewarded by praise from Western friends who have been increasingly dissatisfied with its democratic track record. Thus, Turkey strengthened its status as a bridge between East and West.

In the meantime, as presidential elections draw near, Erdoğan has not hesitated to utilize this changing role in the region. A seasoned politician, he has characterized the war as a result of the current global order. He has also preferred to place himself and Turkey in opposition to the West as the advocate and champion of impoverished non-Western countries. He has also used the opportunity to emphasize Turkey’s military, diplomatic, economic, and political strengths. For Erdoğan, Turkey’s success in maintaining a balance between the conflicting sides has been a distinguishing trait closely tied to his vision of the country’s role in the world.

Turkey’s experience demonstrated that populists in power have some leeway for flexibility in foreign policy but not enough to act as they like. However, these limits do not inhibit their determination to maximize the war’s opportunities.

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(*) Emre Erdoğan is a member of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. With a doctoral degree in Political Science from Boğaziçi University, he has served as a researcher and senior consultant in various projects in academia and civil society. His research focuses on political participation, foreign policy and public opinion, child and youth well-being, methodology and statistics. He extensively studies and publishes about youth in Turkey, integration of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey, othering, polarisation and populism.


References

A-News (2022, December 31). Turkish leader Erdoğan pursues global peace with busy diplomatic agendahttps://www.anews.com.tr/diplomacy/2022/12/31/Turkish-leader-erdogan-pursues-global-peace-with-busy-diplomatic-agenda

Batrawy, A. (2022, September 20). WATCH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the 2022 United Nations General Assembly. PBS Newshttps://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/watch-turkish-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-addresses-the-2022-united-nations-general-assembly

Destradi, S., Cadier, D., & Plagemann, J. (2021). Populism and foreign policy: A research agenda (Introduction). Comparative European Politics19(6), 663–682. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-021-00255-4

Elçi, E. (2022). Politics of nostalgia and populism: Evidence from Turkey. British Journal of Political Science52(2), 697–714. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123420000666

Erlanger, S. (2022, October 16). Elections approaching, Erdogan raises the heat again with Greece. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/16/world/europe/turkey-elections-erdogan-greece.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

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

Keating, J. (2022, June 8). How Turkey is turning the war in Ukraine to its own advantage. Grid Newshttps://www.grid.news/story/global/2022/06/08/how-turkey-is-turning-the-war-in-ukraine-to-its-own-advantage/

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ECPS-MEP7-Video

Mapping European Populism – Panel #7: Populist parties/actors and far-right movements in the Baltic countries and Belarus

Moderator

Dr Andres Kasekamp (Professor at Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy).

Speakers

“The legacy of the post-communist transformation in the agenda of Lithuanian populist parties,” by Dr Jogilė Ulinskaitė (Researcher at Institute of International Relations and Political Science).

“A blossoming tree: The origins and present-day of the Estonian populist radical right,” by Dr Mari-Liis Jakobson (Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University).

“What attracts people to populism in Latvia?” by Dr Aleksandra Kuczyńska-Zonik (Head of the Baltic Department at the Institute of Central Europe / Catholic University of Lublin). 

“Is populism in decline in Belarus?” by Dr Tatsiana Kulakevich (Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies).

ECPS-MEP6-Video

Mapping European Populism — Panel #6: Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in Benelux countries and Switzerland

Moderator

Dr Hans-Georg Betz (Professor of political science at the University of Zurich).

Speakers

“The state of the far right in Belgium: a contrasted situation” by Dr Benjamin Biard (Researcher at the Center for socio-political research and information (CRISP) and guest lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain).

Right-wing populism in Luxembourg: An exception to the rule?”  by Dr Paul Carls (Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research).

The mainstreaming of populism in the Netherlands,  by Dr Carola Schoor (Programme Leader for Public Affairs at the Centre for Professional Learning (CPL), Leiden University).

“Populist discourses in Switzerland,” by Dr Alina Dolea (Associate Professor in Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy, Bournemouth University).

Protesters hold flags of many European countries. International blockade by 1000 activists of the Austrian Identitarian Movement of the border crossing near Spielfeld, Austria on November 28, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch.

ECPS Symposium on the Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe

Date/Time/Place: March 8, 2023, 15:00-17:00 (CET), European Parliament in Brussels.

The symposium hosted by MEP Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS

The symposium is to mark one year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It aims to shed light on the challenges the war brought to the European political arena, particularly in the context of rising populism, and trigger a discussion on how to remedy these issues. To this end, ECPS prepared a report contributed by 30 scholars, reflecting the situation in 24 European countries. The conclusions of the report at the European level will be presented at this symposium.

AGENDA

Moderator

Dr Simon P. WATMOUGH (Research Fellow, ECPS).

Opening Remarks

Sir Graham WATSON (Honorary President of the ECPS — via video conferencing).

Welcome Remarks

MEP Petras AUŠTREVIČIUS (Renew Europe).

Keynote Address

His Excellency Chentsov VSEVOLOD (Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community).

Presenters of the Report

Dr Emilia ZANKINA (Editor of the Report, Temple University-Rome).

Dr Gilles IVALDI (Editor of the Report, Centre de Recherches Politiques de Sciences Po).

Closing Remarks

MEP Radan KANEV (EPP, Bulgaria).

Q&A Session

 

Please mark your calendar and follow the symposium via

ECPS YouTube Channel

 

People are attending a political rally and marching through the city streets of Melbourne with a police escort in Victoria, Australia on March 16, 2019. Photo: Adam Calaitzis.

Mapping Global Populism — Panel #1: Populism and Far Right in Australia

Date/Time: Thursday, March 23, 2023 — 09:00-11:00 (CET)

Click here to register!

Moderator

Dr John Pratt (Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

Panelists

“From past to present: The question of populism, extremism and the far right in Australia,” by Dr Imogen Richards (Lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia).

“Racism, white privilege and white supremacy in Australia,” by Dr Rachel Sharples (Lecturer of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University, Australia). 

“Masculinity, Populism and Religion in Australia,” by Dr Josh Roose (Political sociologist and Associate Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia).

Click here to register!

 

Brief Biographies

Dr John Pratt is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. His books include Penal Populism (2007), Contrasts in Punishment (2013) and Law, Insecurity and Risk Control: Neo-liberal governance and the populist revolt (2020). His writings have been translated in 12 languages and he has been invited to lecture on his research at universities in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Australia. The awards he has received for his work include the 2009 Radzinowicz Award by the Editorial Board of the British Journal of Criminology, an invitation to take up a one year Fellowship at the Straus Institute for Advanced Studies in Law and Justice, New York University, 2010-1, election to Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2012, and in 2013 he was awarded the Society’s Mason Durie Medal, given “to the nation’s pre-emiment social scientist.”

Dr Imogen Richards is a lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University. She researches in the areas of social, news, and alternative forms of online media, including the political economy of counter-terrorism and the performance of security in response to social crisis. She has books with Routledge and Manchester University Press exploring the political economy of neo-jihadist and counter-terrorist movements, and the public scholarly practices of criminologists. Her next book, Global Heating and the Australian Far right, will be published with Routledge in 2023.

Dr Rachel Sharples is a Lecturer of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University (WSU), Australia. She is a member of the Challenging Racism Project and the Diversity and Human Rights Research Centre (DHRRC) at WSU and the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS). Dr Sharples’ key areas of research include displaced persons, refugees and migrants in local and global settings; statelessness, citizenship and belonging; racism and anti-racism; and spaces of solidarity and resistance. Recent publications include anti-asylum seeker sentiment in the Australian population (Geopolitics), claims of anti-white racism in Australia (Journal of Sociology) and discrimination in sharing economy platforms (Geoforum). Sharples’’s manuscript, Spaces of Solidarity, was published by Berghahn Books in 2020.

Dr Josh Roose is a political sociologist and Associate Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, Melbourne. His research focuses primarily on political and religious extremism, populism and the intersection with citizenship, economies, masculinities, and the rule of law. He is currently a Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded study The Far Right: Intellectuals, Masculinity and Citizenship (2021-2024) and lead Chief Investigator of the ARC funded project Anti-Women online Movements; Pathways and Patterns of Participation (2022-2025).