Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia (Eds). (2023). The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0010
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets, and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused nearly eight million Ukrainian civilians to flee the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. Thus, the war in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world.
Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe. The economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics. It has also affected public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.
This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime, and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.
In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context and the impact it may have had on them. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.
By looking first at the “supply side” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, the report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. The report has also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.
Meanwhile, turning to the “demand side” of populism, the report’s country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The report has also sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.
While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and the Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.
In sum, by looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across 23 European countries, this cross-national analysis provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defense).
Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Pro-Russia or anti-Russia: Political dilemmas and dynamics in Bulgaria in the context of the war in Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0012
The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. Bulgaria shares historically strong ties with Russia, and at least a third, if not half, of Bulgarians harbour deeply rooted pro-Russian sentiments. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, sent humanitarian and military aid to Kyiv, and accepted Ukrainian refugees, key political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed such decisions. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, Bulgaria’s incumbent president, and at least one populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war. In the process, Revival and its leaders have managed to capitalize on the nationalist vote and pro-Russian attitudes in the country, almost entirely wiping out voter support for the more established Far Right parties.
The war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on Bulgaria, both politically and economically. In the past two years, the country has struggled with political uncertainty and turmoil, having undergone four parliamentary elections (a fifth is scheduled for April 2023) and having been governed for the most part by caretaker governments.
Against the backdrop of domestic political instability, the war in Ukraine has required Bulgarian politicians and the public to address several complex questions at once, including whether Bulgaria should join the EU sanctions and whether it ought to send aid to Ukraine, and if so, what type: humanitarian, financial or military? Bulgarians have also had to decide whether or not to accept Ukrainian refugees and, if so, what type of support it should provide and for how long. In addition, the issue of energy security—and specifically whether the country ought to continue to count predominantly on Gazprom deliveries or diversify its supply of gas—has been front and centre. Finally, the government has had to grapple with the issue of Russian propaganda and intelligence activity in the country.
Such questions pose serious dilemmas in a country where 58% of the population reported positive attitudes towards Russia and Putin before the start of the war (see table 4). Given such public attitudes and the country’s seemingly endemic political instability, it is hardly surprising that public opinion and government policy on the war has been inconsistent and frequently changing or that political parties have been quick to exploit public sentiment to gain electoral advantage. Although Sofia eventually supported sanctions against Moscow, dispatched humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, and accepted Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, prominent political actors in Bulgaria have vehemently opposed these decisions and sought to leverage them for political gain. Particular opposition has come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the communist party, which ruled the country from 1946 until 1989, Rumen Radev, Bulgaria’s president, and the country’s newest populist Radical Right party—Vazrazhdane or Revival—whose support has grown significantly since the start of the war (Lavchiev, 2022).
The remainder of the report proceeds as follows. Next, I offer a brief outline of the political context in which the current debate on Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the war in Ukraine has taken place in Bulgaria. I then detail the constellation of populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria and their various reactions to the war. Finally, I detail public attitudes towards the conflict and how such attitudes appear to have shifted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The Russian “brothers” and their defenders
Bulgaria has a long history of close ties with Russia, and Russians are generally seen and referred to as “brothers” and “liberators”. Following five centuries of Ottoman rule, in the late nineteenth century, a period of national renewal started, which led to a series of national uprisings against the Ottomans, culminating in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. This paved the way to Bulgarian independence, which was finally achieved in 1908. During the war of 1877–78, Bulgarian and Russian soldiers fought side by side, and to this day, Bulgarians commemorate the Russian soldiers who fell as “liberators” in that conflict. In addition to Russia’s role in Bulgaria’s independence, ethnic Bulgarians and Russians share a common cultural heritage, including a Slavic language and origin and Orthodox Christian religion.
Following the war, a provisional administration was instituted under Russian control, whose aim was to assist Bulgaria in establishing state structures and institutions. While most Bulgarians saw Russia as a liberating force, not all political circles were happy with Russian control over the provisional administration. Consequently, ever since independence, a division has remained in Bulgarian society and among political elites between Russophiles and Russophobes. The latter have sought to distance Bulgaria from the Russian sphere of influence and orient the country toward Western Europe, including by soliciting two kings from European noble families to rule the country. In contrast, Russophiles have sought to nurture and preserve Bulgaria’s ties with Russia and defend Russian interests in the country.
The end of the Second World War brought a Soviet-imposed communist regime. In a few short years, Bulgaria instituted a Soviet-type regime of one-party rule, a fusion of party and state, a centrally planned economy, nationalization of property, collectivization of agriculture, control over cultural and social life, and repression (Zankina, 2022). Throughout nearly five decades of communist rule during the Cold War, Bulgaria was the most trusted Soviet ally. In fact, the country’s communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, twice requested that Bulgaria be admitted as the sixteenth republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Crampton, 2007). Communist rule and Zhivkov’s doctrine of “total integration” with the Soviet Union (Kolrova & Dimitrov, 1996, p. 179) ensured that anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments in the country were uprooted through whatever means necessary.
With the collapse of communism, Bulgaria once again faced the question of relations with Russia and whether it should remain close to Moscow or seek integration with the West. Although today Bulgaria is a member of both NATO and the European Union, such a trajectory was by no means assured when looking at political dynamics in the 1990s. As the successor of the vehemently pro-Soviet communist party, the BSP remained a bulwark of Russian interests in the country, strongly opposing a pro-Western geostrategic orientation and arguing for a dual foreign policy that would preserve close ties with Russia while also developing relations with the West. Leading four coalition governments since 1990 and being a junior coalition partner in one, the BSP has always sought to protect Russian interests in Bulgaria.
Although the BSP’s support has significantly decreased in the past two years (see table 1), for a long time, the BSP attracted at least a third of the votes, representing many of those pro-Russian voters. While today the BSP has embraced EU and NATO membership, it opposes every decision that might hurt Russian interests in the country, from advocating Russian technology for a controversial nuclear power plant and opposing the purchase of American weapons to protesting the NATO bases in the country and protecting reliance on Russian gas. As part of the short-lived coalition government of Kiril Petkov (December 2021–August 2022), the BSP did not support the government’s position and the vote in Parliament on joining the EU sanctions against Russia. It also refused to join the condemnation of the referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk and their illegal incorporation into the Russian Federation, and it has avidly opposed sending military aid to Ukraine. Instead, the BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova has been advocating for an end to the sanctions against Russia, as in her view, they hurt primarily Bulgarian and European households, and reinstating Gazprom gas deliveries (Veleva, 2022b).
In addition to the BSP, the Bulgarian president Roumen Radev – an independent candidate, general and former military pilot who was first elected to the post in 2016 with the BSP’s backing – has frequently taken a pro-Russian position, including declaring that Crimea is legitimately a Russian territory (Lavchiev, 2022). Within the context of the war in Ukraine, Radev has vehemently argued that sending military aid to Ukraine would effectively involve Bulgaria in the war. He has sided with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán in arguing that more weapons would only prolong the conflict and that what is needed instead is negotiation and diplomacy. In the absence of a stable government for most of the past two years, Radev has already appointed several caretaker governments, thus exercising a lot more power than envisioned in the Bulgarian constitution and having significant influence and opportunity to push his pro-Russian views. BSP’s leader Kornelia Ninova, President Radev, and the leader of the populist Radical Right party, Revival, Kostadin Kostadinov, have been the most vehement pro-Russian voices in Bulgaria and strong opposition to any actions against Russia (Lavchiev, 2022).
The policy response to the war
At the time of the outbreak of the war, Bulgaria was administered by a coalition government that included four parties with different ideological orientations. Despite this ideological heterogeneity and the presence of the BSP in the governing coalition, the government of Kiril Petkov has taken a clear anti-Russian position and pushed several decisions in support of Ukraine through the Parliament. In March 2021, Bulgaria supported the EU sanctions on Russia, despite strong opposition from the BSP and Revival. In April, a Bulgarian delegation headed by Prime Minister Petkov visited Ukraine. In May, the Parliament voted for humanitarian, financial and military-technical assistance (including repair of military technology) to Ukraine but came short of approving the supply of weapons. This limited support reflected the BSP’s strong opposition to sending military aid and its ability to exercise influence within the coalition. In the meantime, Petkov fired the defence minister, Stefan Yanev (who had served as prime minister in a previous caretaker government), for parroting the Kremlin line that the invasion was a “special operation”, a move that was approved by a majority of the Bulgarian population (Alpha Research, 2022). In June, the Petkov government expelled 70 Russian diplomats from the country over espionage concerns. In contrast to the sacking of Tanev, this move drew strong public criticism.
One of the thorniest issues that Petkov has had to deal with is Russian gas supplies. Bulgaria has depended heavily on Russian gas, which supplied 77% of the country’s needs at the outset of the war (Popov, 2022). The rhetoric of the BSP and Revival highlighting the dire consequences of stopping Russian gas supplies instils understandable anxiety in large portions of the population. Despite continuing to meet its contractual obligations towards Gazprom, the Russian gas giant suddenly stopped deliveries to Bulgaria (and Poland) in April 2021. The EU decried this decision and labelled it blackmail. Consequently, Bulgaria was forced to rapidly diversify its gas supplies, and today receives gas from Azerbaijan through the Greek connector, Turkey, and other regional suppliers.
Despite fears of a change of direction, the current caretaker government of Galab Donev has renewed the commitment to bolster its humanitarian aid to Ukraine with new streams of assistance. In December, Parliament voted to provide Ukraine with weapons and other forms of lethal assistance, including military technology. The BSP and Revival requested a review of this decision before the Constitutional Court. As of December 2022, Bulgaria has provided €225 million in aid to Ukraine and has welcomed 150,000 Ukrainian refugees.
As Ivan Bedrov, head of the Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe, has recently outlined, one year after the start of the war, we can identify three main consequences of the war for the country. First, the war has shed light on Russian interests and influence in Bulgaria and the political actors supporting them. Second, the conflict has become one of the two main dividing lines in Bulgarian society, splitting political actors and the public once again into pro-Russian and anti-Russian camps (the other division concerns attitudes towards corruption and the mainstream parties). Finally, the conflict has proven that Bulgaria is not by default dependent on Russia, including for the supply of energy (Bedrov, 2023).
Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria
Since the 2005 elections, populist Radical Right parties have gained parliamentary representation and established a more or less permanent political presence. Before 2005, nationalist discourse was almost entirely monopolized by the BSP, a feature of many former communist countries in which nationalism is driven from the Left. Bulgaria’s sizeable ethnic Turkish and Roma minorities, as well as a string of migration crises in Europe, have provided fertile ground for nationalist rhetoric and mobilization. Some of those actors are clearly anti-elite, anti-West, and even anti-democracy, while others claim to represent small business, portraying ethnic minorities as a threat to these interests, but are not explicitly anti-EU or even anti-NATO. Kristen Ghodsee explains Bulgarian nationalism best when she describes it as “left wing, right wing, everything” (Ghodsee, 2008, p. 26). Like many other nationalist parties in Europe, some Bulgarian Radical Right parties are explicitly pro-Russian—a position that became even more evident with the war in Ukraine—and have relied on Russian support.
Thus, geopolitical issues have been intertwined with attacks on domestic minorities, welfare chauvinism, and patriotic appeals. Migration has remained secondary in this rhetoric and is discussed through the prism of national ethnic minorities (i.e., Muslim migrants radicalizing domestic Muslim minorities) (Rashkova & Zankina, 2017). Populist Radical Right parties in Bulgaria attract more than just the disenfranchised, with an average of 10% of the vote (see table 1 and figure 1) and appeal to left- as well as right-wing voters, a phenomenon typical of former communist countries that has been referred to as the “red‒brown” electorate (Ishiyama, 2009). In the last decade, we have witnessed overpopulation and crowding of the political space with parties from the national populist milieu (Krasteva, 2016, p. 170), resulting in the fragmentation of the nationalist vote.
This fragmentation has been coupled with the diversification of Radical Right actors and discourses (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176). While Radical Right parties have established a continuous presence in Bulgaria’s Parliament and beyond, no individual party has been impervious to threats from across the political spectrum, especially new parties. A range of populist Radical Right parties have been represented in Parliament and—between 2017 and 2021, even in government—including Ataka (“Attack”), the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (Vatreshna Makedonska Revolyuzionna Organizaciya, VMRO), the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (Nazionalen Front za Spasenie na Bulgaria, NSFB), and the aforementioned Revival. Revival is thus only the newest and currently the most preeminent of these populist outfits.
Ataka entered Parliament in 2005, the first populist Radical Right party to do so. Its eccentric leader, Volen Siderov, appealed to disenfranchised voters from across the political spectrum, but most importantly to those disillusioned with the transition to democracy and the elites who dominated politics in this period. Drawing on both neo-nationalist and neo-totalitarian elements, Ataka mixes welfare chauvinism and nostalgia for the communist past (Ghodsee, 2008) with clericalism and irredentism (Pirro, 2015). Ataka’s rhetoric is explicitly pro-Russian and xenophobic, openly attacking Bulgaria’s relations with its transatlantic partners and Turkey, in particular, while promoting close ties with Russia. At one point, Ataka was the fourth-largest party in Parliament, and its electoral support peaked in the 2007 European Parliament elections when it took 14.2% of the vote. However, the party has lost ground electorally in recent years (see table 1). Siderov’s pro-Russian interpretation of the war in Ukraine has not gained much attention, as another eccentric populist leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has managed to steal the limelight.
One of the oldest political organizations in Bulgarian history, the VMRO traces its origins back to 1893 and the struggle for Macedonian liberation from Ottoman rule. The organization has gone through numerous phases since then, including terrorist activities in the interwar period (Crampton, 2007), championing cultural preservation during communist rule, and electoral competition as a political party since the transition to democracy in 1989. In the 1990s, the VMRO supported the broad anti-communist coalition and sent representatives to Parliament. In the 2000s, its rhetoric became increasingly nationalistic, especially after Ataka burst onto the political stage. With each election, the VMRO has shifted its political alliances, and its coalition policies have been highly opportunistic and chaotic, while its political identity has remained ambiguous. Although claiming to be patriotic, it has allied itself with political actors with diverse views on nationalism, from those eschewing nationalist rhetoric altogether to moderate nationalists to those on the extreme nationalist end of the spectrum (Krasteva, 2016, p. 176).
The Radical Right formula has proved the most successful for the VMRO. In 2014, the party registered big successes, both in the European Parliament and national elections, sending one MEP to Brussels and 8 MPs to the national Parliament. In the 2017 governing coalition, VMRO leader Krasimir Karakachanov was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of defence. While the VMRO’s MEP, Angel Dzambaski, has been criticized more than once for outrageous behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament (Gotev, 2022), Karakachanov has maintained a moderate tone. He has publicly condemned Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, supported Bulgaria acquiring F-16 fighter jets from the United States and criticized Europe for not doing enough to help Ukraine. Despite adopting such mainstream positions, the VMRO has been so far unable to claw back voter support.
The National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) split from Ataka in 2011. The NFSB adopts patriotic and exclusionary rhetoric, defending Bulgarian culture, traditions, language, and sovereignty, but it is less populist and leader-centred than Ataka. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, the NFSB and the VMRO campaigned together in the so-called Patriotic Front (PF). Due to its more constructive and less populist stance, the largest party, Citizens for European Development (GERB), reached out to the PF for a supply-and-confidence arrangement that gave the PF no ministerial posts but nonetheless significant parliamentary influence.
For the 2017 elections, the NFSB and the VMRO joined Ataka in the United Patriots (UP) electoral coalition. The UP took 9.3% of the vote (more or less the same as in 2014), which was a considerable disappointment, given their much higher expectations. However, the configuration of seats in the new Parliament meant the GERB had to appeal to the alliance in order to form a government. Consequently, for the first time in Bulgaria’s post-communist history, the government formally included a party of the Radical Right. The UP alliance were given five portfolios in the Council of Ministers, and VMRO and the NFSB were awarded deputy premierships.
By the April 2021 parliamentary elections, the former partners each thought they could do better on their own, and they ran individually, with none passing the 4% threshold. None of the parties has since recovered, and all have ceded their votes to Revival and other new parties. As the war has unfolded, NFSB’s leader Valeri Simeonov has focused on protecting the right of ethnic Bulgarians in Ukraine, advocating for self-governance and exemption from military service.
As the newest populist Radical Right party in Bulgaria, Revival has managed to attract a sizeable share of votes. Founded in 2017, the party and its controversial leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, have only adopted a nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russian discourse since 2022. Kostadinov is hardly new to politics. Indeed, he is something of a “serial party switcher” in Bulgaria, having sought a home wherever the opportunity has arisen. He has appeared on candidate lists or served in the party executive of all the major Radical Right parties – Ataka, the NSFB, and the VMRO. He has also appeared on the candidate lists of centre-right and centre-left parties. His rhetoric has similarly shifted in the same opportunistic manner.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a great opportunity for Kostadinov and his party to capitalize on widespread frustration and discontent. In this context, Revival took an anti-vaccine stand, denying the existence of the pandemic and mobilizing numerous protests (Veleva, 2022a). Government subsidies, as well as anti-vax, anti-NATO and anti-EU rhetoric, have helped the party gain momentum so that by the third parliamentary election in 2021, it passed the threshold and sent 11 MPs to Parliament (see table 1). Some of the factors outlined for this success include the political turmoil in 2021 and the inability of parliamentary parties to form a government, the incumbent government’s poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic (exacerbated by strong anti-vax and anti-restriction sentiment in the population), and the pronounced pro-Russian attitudes in Bulgaria that translate into anti-NATO and anti-EU positions (Cholakov, 2021).
The war in Ukraine has provided an unprecedented opportunity for Kostadinov to broadcast his pro-Russian views and stage eccentric performances. Shortly after the start of the war, Revival supporters staged an ugly protest action at the 2022 celebrations of Bulgaria’s independence, throwing snowballs in the face of the Bulgarian prime minister and waving Russian flags. In fact, Russian flags are an indispensable attribute to the frequent protests staged by Revival in the past couple of years. While older nationalist parties have all but lost parliamentary support, Revival and its controversial leader Kostadin Kostadinov grew its support from just over 1% in 2017 to over 10% in the most recent October 2022 election.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s energy politics have heightened divisions in Bulgarian society, given the strong historical ties between Bulgaria and Russia, and have fuelled support for Revival. Kostadinov has been repeatedly accused of links to Russia, which he has not denied. A brief overview of his public appearances and statements shows clear allegiance to Russian interests. Before him, Volen Siderov played such a role, defending Russia in many of his public statements. Social networks have further amplified Russian propaganda in Bulgaria, which has been taken at heart by supporters of Radical Right parties, as well as by many BSP voters. According to a report from the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia (HSSF), Russian online propaganda has increased ten-fold since the start of the war (Gigov, 2022).
Radical Right parties have established a strong presence in Bulgarian politics, with continuous representation in Parliament and frequent access to government positions both at the local and national levels. At the same time, there has not been a growth in the nationalist vote. On the contrary, in 2021, Radical Right parties lost a big chunk of their vote to various new parties of different ideological identification, and the latest success of Revival is a result of capitalizing on the votes of other Radical Right parties (see table 1 and figure 2). This development makes us pause and think about the stability of the nationalist vote in Bulgaria. This vote looks pretty volatile and not nationalist at its core, but rather anti-establishment and directed against mainstream parties. In the past couple of years, the Radical Right discovered that new political players could easily hijack its territory and discourse and that their support was based more on the mood of the day than on lasting nationalist attitudes.
Public attitudes towards the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has led to an immediate and radical change in public attitudes towards Russia and Putin. A study conducted by Alpha Research in late February 2022 concluded that the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in a drop in support for Putin and an increase in solidarity with European countries. The report indicates that Putin lost half of his popularity among Bulgarian citizens in the first four days of the war alone. Furthermore, 63% of respondents reported approval of EU-wide sanctions against Ukraine, 61% found the invasion unjustified, only 16% saw it as justified, 68% agreed that Bulgaria must accept Ukrainian refugees, and only 16% were against it (Alpha Research, 2022). Another study by Research Center Trend (2022) indicates that 40% of respondents report an adverse change in attitudes towards Russia. However, the same study finds a slight increase in support for Revival.
The protraction of the war conflict combined with worsening economic conditions led to a change in public attitudes by November 2022. A survey by Estat in November 2022 found 20.7% of Bulgarians sympathize with Russia (a decline from 23.6% in April 2022) and 23.1% with Ukraine (a decline from 32.4% in April) (Estat Research and Consultancy, 2022). Furthermore, 67.5% of respondents think Bulgarian should have a neutral position in the conflict, and 19% have a negative attitude towards Ukrainian refugees, whereas those with a positive view have decreased from 38% in April 2022 to 25.8% in October 2022 (ibid.).
At the same time, there are signs of hope. Despite the rise in nationalist sentiments and pro-Russian attitudes, nationalist and anti-EU parties have but marginal support. If anything became evident in the numerous recent elections, it is that Bulgarians are mostly pro-European. While voters are divided on the party of their particular choice, the majority harbour pro-EU attitudes and support Ukraine in the war conflict. Even the divided 48th Parliament (October 2022–February 2023), which could not agree on a government, has taken several important, clearly pro-European decisions, voting to send arms to Ukraine, purchase F-16 fighter jets, and confirm Bulgaria’s entry into the Eurozone in January 2024.
Similarly, Bulgarians came in large numbers to commemorate one year since the start of the war and to express their support for Ukraine. While the war has strengthened the ever-present divide between Russophiles and Russophobes, it has also helped reaffirm democratic values and support for the Euro-Atlantic alliance. If anything, the reactions and the effects of the war are diverse and not unidirectional.
(*) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
Kolorova, R., & Dimitrov, D. (1996). The roundtable talks in Bulgaria. In J. Elster (Ed.), The roundtable talks and the breakdown of communism (pp. 178–212). University of Chicago Press.
Krasteva. A. (2016). The post-communist rise of national populism: Bulgarian paradoxes. In G. Lazaridis, G. Campani, & A. Benveniste (Eds.), The rise of the Far Right in Europe: Populist shifts and “Othering” (pp. 161–200). Palgrave McMillan.
Ivaldi, Giles & Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Conclusion for the report on the impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. . https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0035
This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric. Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism.
THE WAR in Ukraine has been a catastrophe for Ukraine and a crisis for Europe and the world. The war has cost tens of thousands of lives of Ukrainian civilians and caused tremendous devastation to the country’s infrastructure, housing and industrial sector, causing interruptions in the water and electricity supply across many Ukrainian cities, with dire consequences for the population. In addition, millions of Ukrainians have been internally displaced, and nearly eight million have fled the country to find shelter in the rest of Europe.
Beyond the borders of Ukraine, the global economy has been destabilized due to the war, and economic insecurity has become widespread. The effects of the war have hit the world as a second major shock following the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening economic recovery. In addition, the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia have caused a significant increase in prices for many raw materials, energy, intermediate goods, and transportation services, particularly affecting fuel and gas costs throughout Europe.
The many economic and international repercussions of the Ukraine war have dramatically changed European politics, both among the individual states and at the supranational level. It has changed public opinion and created new constraints and opportunities for political actors across the spectrum, both within and outside the mainstream.
This report has examined the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the pan-European populist Radical Right. Such parties are generally considered admirers of Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime and ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right parties have grown stronger over the last decade. Because of such ties, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented new challenges for radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.
In this report, we have asked how such parties have navigated the new context produced by the war and the impact it may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level. Special attention has been paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties. The analysis in this report includes a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey.
By looking first at the “supply” of radical right-wing populist politics in the context of the Ukraine war, this report has provided an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors’ positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war and the different arguments and rhetoric they have used to interpret the war. Many of these parties have had to shift their positions on Russia to avoid being too closely associated with Putin’s regime. They have also toned down their nativism to adapt to changes in public opinion concerning asylum seekers from Ukraine. Others, in contrast, have strengthened their pro-Russian rhetoric and criticism of the EU and NATO. We have also examined how populist Radical Right parties have sought to exploit war-related issues for electoral gain, turning to domestic socioeconomic issues or cultural and historical legacies, calling for national sovereignty while adopting anti-elite strategies against their political opponents.
Concerning the voters, the report has examined public opinion on the war in Ukraine, how it has affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, and the impact the war has had on party support in the electorate. Finally, we have sought to assess the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics.
In the remainder of this conclusion to the report, we summarize the key findings of the country reports and present the implications for the future of the populist Radical Right from a comparative perspective.
The security and defence agenda of the Radical Right before February 2022
The findings indicate a tremendous variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe before the war in Ukraine. Contrary to the conventional view, Radical Right parties and movements adopted a range of positions on foreign policy, security and defence, as well as toward NATO, the EU, and Russia.
While many radical right-wing populist parties have ties with Russia, we see some nuances across Europe, which reflect different foreign policy and international agendas among these parties, particularly concerning NATO, and what is deemed American influence and the cultural and economically liberal agenda emanating from the United States. In the West, the most pro-Russian parties include the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria, the Freedom Party (PVV) and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, and the Rassemblement National (RN) and Reconquête! in France. These parties illustrate the populist Radical Right’s admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberal politics, as well as his forceful defence of Christian values and opposition to Islam, positions that Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has enshrined in party manifestos. Moreover, individual populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Éric Zemmour have professed their admiration for Putin’s style of leadership, describing him as “a true patriot”.
Despite the long history of Russian imperialism in Central and Eastern Europe, zealous Putin admirers can be found in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. In Bulgaria, the Far Right ultranationalist party Revival has become explicit in its support for Russia, staging a series of protests over the past year in which prominent displays of the national flag of the Russian Federation have become an indispensable part of the party’s performative politics. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has been more moderate but firmly opposes sanctions against Russia. In the Czech Republic, the Freedom and Democracy Party (SPD) has returned to its traditional pro-Russian positioning (for example, the party backed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as legitimate) after adopting a more neutral tone at the beginning of the war. In Hungary, Orbán and his party Fidesz have consistently argued against Western sanctions (although condemning the invasion at the outset) and continue to parrot the Kremlin’s talking points about Moscow’s “legitimate” security concerns and Kyiv’s “provocations”.
On the other hand, despite their ideological affinities with the Putin regime, we see weaker ties to the Kremlin in parties such as VOX in Spain, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI) in Italy, and Chega in Portugal. These parties may share Putin’s support for “traditional” family values, opposition to LGBTQ rights and what they call leftist “gender ideology”, but they stop well short of backing the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Radical Right populists in Romania have also toned down their pro-Kremlin rhetoric and have condemned the Russian invasion in an effort to prevent further declines in support among voters, many of whom remember Moscow’s backing of the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), by contrast, has toned down its anti-Russian rhetoric and adopted a more moderate tone towards Russia since the start of the war in an attempt to attract Russian-speaking voters. Parties such as the Sweden Democrats have become increasingly critical of Russia in recent years, primarily as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, advocating sanctions against Putin’s regime. These examples illustrate the wide variety of reactions and positions towards the war, illustrating the diversity of Radical Right actors across Europe.
The NATO divide
To some extent, right-wing populists’ positions vis-à-vis Russia overlap with their attitudes towards transatlantic relations in general and NATO in particular. As the country chapters in this report suggest, populist Radical Right parties diverge in their positions on security and defence policy. Such variance reflects, for the most part, the regional divide in Europe that reflects the old Cold War blocs, the specificity of Nordic Europe, and the different historical experiences and legacies of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, the vision of world order promoted by many Far Right populists stresses multipolarityand strategic autonomy against a model of transatlantic relations that favours the United States through its dominant role in NATO. The RN and Reconquête! in France, the FPÖ, and the Dutch FvD are committed to fundamentally revising transatlantic relations. Both Le Pen and Zemmour have consistently affirmed they would again withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command structure, as was the case between 1966 and 2009. Other parties, such as the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, as well as Radical Right actors in Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia, are flexible and pragmatic, essentially deemphasizing foreign policy issues and advocating a neutral approach.
In Northern Europe, the Radical Right has generally embraced a mainstream position concerning transatlantic relations. In Norway, Finland, and Denmark, a consensus has arisen across the political spectrum supporting NATO membership. Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) is a strong NATO advocate, and the party advocates close relations with the United States. Next door in Finland, the executive council of the Far Right, anti-immigration Finns Party recently voted in favour of the country’s NATO application. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Danske Folkeparti, DF) has exhibited unwavering loyalty and support for the NATO alliance, which is a historical feature in Denmark. A notable departure from this broad Nordic support for NATO is the Sweden Democrats (SD). The latter has long opposed accession to NATO and has instead called for increased cooperation and coordination with its Nordic neighbours, including developing a joint Nordic defence force. Still, the SD is the exception that proves the Nordic rule: the Far Right in this region backs close ties with Western allies and sees the United States as a critical security guarantor.
In Eastern Europe, support for NATO among populist Radical Right parties varies. In Bulgaria, Revival and Ataka are vehemently opposed to NATO membership, while the BSP is acquiescent while expressing misgivings about the forward deployment of NATO forces on Bulgarian soil and support for military aid to Ukraine. The Czech SDP and Romania’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) openly trade in xenophobic, anti-American, anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. While Hungary has played an active role in NATO since joining in 1999 (it contributes, for example, to NATO Air Policing in the Baltics), Orbán has slow-walked approval of Finland and Sweden’s accession and is currently demanding the release of EU funds in return for a “yes” vote (Rettman, 2023). Turkey, which has expressed support for Ukraine’s NATO membership, has used its veto to press for concessions from Finland and Sweden. Estonia’s traditionally pro-NATO ERKE has declared the alliance to be in crisis. By contrast, Serbian and Slovak Radical Right parties blame the United States and NATO expansion for the conflict and argue for neutrality, a position also adopted by Austria’s FPÖ. Serbia’s position is particularly interesting, given memories of NATO bombings coupled with aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration.
Diversity in positions is found not only across countries but also within them. This is well exemplified by the Italian case, whose Radical Right populists take a range of positions on NATO. During the Cold War, the Italian Far Right adopted a broadly Atlanticist posture, although this coexisted with an impulse to promote a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, Giorgia Meloni, the FdI leader and current prime minister of Italy, has shown more inclination towards Russia and Putin, but her party remains more pro-NATO compared, for instance, with Salvini’s Lega. Similarly, in Croatia, Radical Right parties have taken divergent positions on NATO. While most have stated clear support for NATO in the context of the war, HSP 1861 has declared that “Croatia is in greater danger from its NATO membership than from Russian aggression” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2022).
Intra-party divisions over Russia
Finally, we find diverging views of Putin and Russia inside populist Radical Right parties themselves. Such divisions are seen, for instance, in the FrP in Norway, with individual party members, including former party leader Carl Hagen and parliamentarian Mika Niikko, taking more pro-Russian views. In Belgium, some VB members, such as Filip Dewinter, have expressed increasing support for the Kremlin over the past decade. Despite the war, voices within Spain’s VOX continue to speak in favour of Russia and Putin. In Denmark, prominent DF MPs MPs Søren Espersen and Marie Krarup have been criticized for supporting the Kremlin, in Krarup’s case, even after the Russian invasion. In the SD, individual politicians have openly expressed pro-Russia views, although the party leadership has repeatedly criticized the Kremlin and condemned Moscow’s aggression. In Portugal, André Ventura’s condemnation of Russia has not been unanimous within his Chega party. Some influential members describe the Russian invasion as a legitimate reaction to “NATO encirclement of Russia” while accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of “siding with avowed Nazis”. The Bulgarian BSP has similarly been torn by divergent narratives on the causes of the war and the level of support Bulgaria should provide. The war in Ukraine has deepened divisions within the Romanian AUR, with one faction of the party strengthening its pro-Russian stance and another focusing on grassroots support and domestic issues.
Relations with the European Union
The populist Radical Right inclination towards Russia is also informed by the Euroscepticism of these parties who favour Putin’s Russia to symbolize their opposition to the centralized power of the “Brussels bubble”, grabbing power from the national level of governance (Carlotti, 2023). Many right-wing populist parties have adopted what has been recently described as a common “alt-European policy programme”, which can be defined as “a conservative, xenophobic intergovernmental vision of a European ‘community of sovereign states’, ‘strong nations’ or ‘fatherlands’, that abhors the EU’s ‘centralised’ United States of Europe” (McMahon, 2022, p. 10). While many of those parties have recently toned down their Eurosceptic stances (Taggart, 2019; Brack, 2020), essentially for strategic reasons, they still are the primary opponents to further European integration within the broader European political landscape.
Many parties of the populist Radical Right have instrumentalized anti-EU rhetoric during the war, using anti-elite and sovereigntist arguments. Italian Far Right populists share criticism towards the EU and other supranational bodies, which are said to weaken national sovereignty. In line with its traditional Euroscepticism, Austria’s FPÖ accuses the EU of adopting a Russia policy without consulting voters and blames it for rising prices and the deterioration of living standards. Juist Alternatief 2021 (JA21) in the Netherlands remains opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU, in line with their general opposition to further EU enlargement. In Finland, we find similar criticism and suspicion of supranational institutions in the Finns Party, which remains committed to a Finnish exit from the EU (“Fixit”) as a long-term goal of the party. In Denmark, the DF and New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) vigorously campaign against “more EU”. Such anti-EU rhetoric is less pronounced in countries like Portugal, where EU membership has traditionally been very popular. While Chega echoes the broader Far Right sovereigntist line supporting a “Europe of nations”, the party does not seek a Portuguese exit from the EU or the Eurozone.
Euroscepticism is also a significant feature of the populist Radical Right in Eastern Europe, again with some variation across countries. Estonia’s EKRE is broadly Eurosceptic, with the European Green Deal and the “woke” agenda of “Brussels elites” as major bugbears for the party. In Hungary, Fidesz has long toyed with Eurosceptic rhetoric and played the sovereigntist card in domestic politics, something Orbán has honed to a fine art, blaming Hungary’s government for “selling out” to Western interests before 2010. In the current crisis, Budapest lays the blame for spiking energy prices and economic dislocation squarely at Brussels’ feet. In Bulgaria, Revival is strongly against EU membership, advocating a referendum on leaving the EU and NATO. The Czech SDP has adopted a similar hard-Eurosceptic position calling for “Czexit”. By contrast, in countries like Lithuania and Serbia, the populist Radical Right does not target EU membership directly. Instead, it vilifies national political elites for prioritizing “foreign forces” over the will and interests of locals and lambasts Brussels for its “leftist” political and cultural dictates. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Serbia’s ruling party, is an exception to the Eurosceptic rule in the European Far Right, advocating (at least in all its public pronouncements) a pro-Brussels position as the government seeks to progress the country’s EU accession.
Finally, we must emphasize that Russian influence in Europe’s Radical Right milieu may be observed at different levels and across several domains. Over recent years, the Kremlin has cultivated individual leaders in parties such as the Belgian VB and the German AfD while also nurturing links with organizations gravitating around VOX in Spain, which have received funding from Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin. In addition, financial ties with Moscow have been suspected or established for parties such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Italian Lega, which have allegedly received financing from the Kremlin, and the French RN, whose predecessor party secured a loan of €9 million from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank in 2014.
The Finnish case also illustrates Russian influence on the fringes of the social media space through key influencers working in Finland and Russia who support the Russian cause (a phenomenon observed in Bulgaria as well). The ties between the European populist Radical Right and Russia are embedded in a broader media and social media infrastructure, which sees Russia using public diplomacy tools such as the international television channel Russia Today and social media activities to run disinformation campaigns to achieve global political influence, and interference in other countries’ domestic politics (Yablokov, 2022).
Lastly, the analysis in this report suggests that Russian influence may operate through individual ties across economic elites. For example, in Finland, Movement Now (Liike Nyt), which made its first significant breakthrough in the Finnish regional elections of 2021, has had connections to Russian oligarchs. In Italy, Forza Italia’s position on Russia is largely accounted for by the personal links and friendship that Silvio Berlusconi established with Vladimir Putin during the early 2000s. Similarly, the relationship between Salvini’s Lega and Russia is not only a matter of ideological proximity, but it has also materialized in a confidential cooperation agreement signed with Putin’s United Russia Party in 2017. In Hungary, Orbán prides himself in negotiating a favourable agreement with Putin for gas supplies when other countries, such as Bulgaria and Poland, were cut off from Russian supplies in April 2022.
The heterogeneity of Radical Right responses to the war
After the outbreak of the war, Far Right populists came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin. As a result, their responses and interpretations of the war varied. The cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion in an attempt to sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia. Some parties, on the contrary, have showcased their support for Russia and Putin, chasing fringe opinions and voters. Such variability is observed across countries, but also within them and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite their assumed highly centralized organization and strong leadership.
This can explain how parties that previously supported Putin adapted quickly to the situation by condemning the invasion and welcoming refugees while simultaneously using peace and national economic interests as discursive reasons for opposing measures against Russia. By contrast, we see more than one Radical Right party strengthening its pro-Russian rhetoric, a phenomenon witnessed in several East European countries.
Condemnation of Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Following the invasion, many European populist parties rapidly shifted their positions on Putin’s regime. At the outset, many, if not most, have condemned Russia’s invasion calling for solidarity while toning down their Euroscepticism further, although we see variation in terms of responses to the war and, in particular, the degree of distancing from the Kremlin. As recently suggested by Carlotti (2023), in the Italian case, the “position toward Russia is used in a strategic and opportunistic way” (p. 15), with populist Radical Right parties changing their communication styles and their political positions.
In France, Le Pen sought to distance herself from the Russian president, condemning the invasion and accusing Putin of “breaking the equilibrium of peace in Europe” (Le Pen, 2022). Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, used the war to gain credibility at the international level and to moderate her image with voters in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Meloni managed to distance the FdI from the positions of its electoral partners, Salvini and Berlusconi, who are known for their close ties with Putin. More importantly, she has thus far managed to maintain support for Ukraine without breaking the governing coalition. Portugal’s Chega, Germany’s AfD, the Danish People’s Party, the Dutch PVV and Belgium’s VB have similarly distanced themselves from Putin and openly criticized his actions.
To the East, Romania’s AUR, most Croatian Radical Right parties, as well as Lithuanian outfits, have taken critical positions toward Putin and the invasion. On the other hand, the Finns Party and the SD have not only condemned Putin’s aggression but have heartily cheered on NATO membership. Such reactions are not surprising given the phenomenon of “normalization” and the attempts by many Radical Right parties in Europe to appeal to an ever greater segment of voters.
However, other Radical Right parties across the continent have taken different stances. Unlike Le Pen, Zemmour took an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Russia, calling for a new “treaty to put an end to the expansion of NATO” in response to “Russian demands” (Johannès, 2022). Berlusconi instead has tried to avoid the topic altogether. The Dutch FvD remained highly supportive of Putin compared to other Dutch Radical Right parties. Croatia’s HSP 1861 has similarly stood in opposition to other Radical Right parties, maintaining strong pro-Russian rhetoric. Slovakia’s Radical Right parties have claimed that Slovakia’s support for Ukraine in the current effort to face Russia’s aggression is against the national interest of and a threat to the well-being of its people. Yet others, such as Bulgaria’s Revival and the Czech SDP, have become even more avid defenders of Putin, maintaining or even growing their electoral support. Such varied responses illustrate that several parties have not opted for a strategy of normalization and mainstreaming but, quite the opposite, have chosen to differentiate themselves from the prevailing opinion, remaining true to the Radical Right’s anti-establishment traditions.
Toning down nativism
Given the 7.6 million people who have fled Ukraine to escape the war, right-wing populist parties across Europe have been challenged to adapt their traditionally xenophobic and highly restrictive migration policies. In line with public sentiment, these populist parties have shied away from the typical demonization of asylum seekers. Instead, Ukrainians are framed as “real refugees” rather than “economic migrants”, as those fleeing the civil war in Syria are often branded. This distinction between asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean and those fleeing war in Europe reflects a projection of local nativist ideology to the European level (Albertazzi et al., 2022; Farrell, 2022; Hadj-Abdou & Pettrachin, 2022). According to Albertazzi and colleagues (2022), this demonstrates populist parties’ fundamental skill in reading the room and quickly adapting according to the shifts in public opinion.
In line with the phenomenon of Far Right “normalization” (Mudde, 2022) and given an outpouring of public support for Ukraine across Europe, many populist Radical Right parties have been welcoming Ukrainian refugees. In so doing, they have deployed a rich repertoire of arguments in an attempt to justify the shift from established stances against migration and demonizing asylum seekers. Norway’s FrP has advocated a fast track for Ukrainian refugees and a pause to the resettlement of other migrants so that the former, whose Christian values the party argues, are likely to promote integration. The SD have been similarly welcoming, pointing to the religious and cultural similarities between Swedes and Ukrainians and the policy of favouring migrants from neighbouring countries. Spain’s VOX has supported taking refugees from and sending materiel to Ukraine while lambasting the slow EU response and pointing to the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party’s (PSOE) historical ties to Moscow. Meloni has been particularly supportive of Ukrainian refugees, and even Le Pen has managed to keep a lid on her reflexive demonization of asylum seekers. The Far Right in Lithuania has been very vocal about its support for Ukrainian refugees, volunteering to organize the settlement process and distinguishing between the “real” Ukrainian refugees and other “illegal” economic migrants, a distinction also emphasized by Salvini and the PVV and JA21 in the Netherlands.
While many parties have selectively adjourned their nativism and welfare chauvinism in the face of Ukrainian refugee arrivals, others have cautioned against generous support and pointed to potential threats. Zemmour sparked controversy in France when he dubbed support for those fleeing the conflict as an “emotional response” to the war. Chega has argued that the large influx of Ukrainians might allow “criminals to blend with people who are actually running from a war” (Assembleia da República, 2022b). The Czech SPD has pointed to the substantial financial support for Ukrainian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening macroeconomic situation, and the destabilizing effect refugees would have on the Czech social, healthcare, and education systems, job market and public safety. Bulgaria’s Revival has argued that the well-being of Bulgarians is being put at risk in order to help Ukrainians who drive expensive cars and enjoy a much higher standard of living than many Bulgarians. Trying to appeal to both the Estonian and Russian-speaking audiences, EKRE has used a double-faced strategy. When communicating with their Russian-speaking audience, they play on their anti-Ukrainian sentiment, claiming that Ukrainian refugees are jeopardizing local Russians’ jobs. Such sceptical views are likely to become more popular with the growing number of Ukrainian refugees and decreasing prospects for an end to the war.
Support for sanctions
Support for sanctions against Russia correlates with each party’s position on the war and attitudes towards Putin. Consequently, we observe variation in positions ranging from decisive support for sanctions and military aid to strong opposition to sanctions and arguments about the high domestic cost and ultimate inefficiency of sanctions. However, we notice that populist Radical Right parties are more hesitant to support sanctions than to condemn the invasion.
Several populist Radical Right parties, mainly in Western Europe, have expressed strong support for sanctions against Russia. Ventura from Portugal’s Chega called for harsher sanctions and demanded their imposition on the whole economy rather than only on individuals. Jussi Halla-aho from the Finns Party argued that “intervention of the West will be inevitable”, and thus it should take action against Russia sooner rather than later. Meloni’s FdI firmly supported government initiatives in favour of Ukraine, including sanctions and the supply of weapons, even when FdI was in opposition. Although they expressed scepticism about these measures, Salvini and Berlusconi voted in favour of sanctions and the sending of weapons as part of both the Draghi and Meloni governments. The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP) has expressed frustrations at the EU for “responding to Russia’s aggression only with economic sanctions and not with more drastic and urgently required measures” (Hrvatske Čiste Stranke Prava, n.d.), while the NB in Denmark lambasts Brussels for allowing Russia to “develop into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Arctic region, and ultimately Denmark”.
Hesitancy and scepticism, if not outright criticism, towards the sanctions against Russia, seem to be the more common response by populist Radical Right parties. Belgium’s VB is sceptical of the “poorly thought out” and harsh sanctions against Russia. Le Pen also criticized some of the sanctions imposed on Russia because such measures would primarily hurt French businesses and workers. The Austrian FPÖ has directed its ire not at Moscow but at the EU’s sanctions against Russia, claiming these have harmed the Austrian population and are the cause of high inflation and possible shortages in energy and consumer goods. Orbán has similarly put the blame for all economic difficulties on the EU, claiming that the sanctions against Russia are responsible for high inflation, volatile markets, and weak output. The Czech SPD rejected the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, the United States, and other countries as “ineffective” and criticized the military supplies for Ukraine as potentially escalating the conflict and threatening Czech security. SMER and the Slovak Radical Right have rejected the sanctions and linked them to higher energy prices, as shown, for example, by Republika’s billboard campaign slogan, “We will cancel the sanctions and make energy cheaper”. Serbia has resisted pressures to impose sanctions, although it voted for the UN resolution that demanded the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on March 2, 2022. Turkey similarly did not join the sanctions against Russia, claiming that would allow it to act as a mediator and peace broker. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have both vehemently opposed sanctions against Russia, even if the BSP was part of the governing coalition that recommended and pushed through parliament the approval of sanctions and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Turning to domestic socioeconomic issues
The widespread economic insecurity caused by supply chain issues will likely increase dissatisfaction with national governments and motivate citizens to look for an alternative. In addition, the worrying increases in inflation, affecting food and energy costs, have caused parts of society to become more susceptible to radical political solutions. This context has been conducive for populist parties in the past (for example, the 2008 financial crisis, the war in Syria and the 2015 refugee crisis) as they have used these sources of frustration to gain popular support (Docquier & Morelli, 2022). Similarly, in the current situation, many populist Radical Right parties have exploited domestic socioeconomic issues, linking them to the war and the sanctions and emphasizing the cost of the war to domestic constituencies. On the other hand, parties that have explicitly condemned Putin still do not miss the opportunity to highlight domestic concerns and prioritize the national interest. Moreover, as the war drags on, popular support and enthusiasm give way to domestic discontent, making voters more susceptible to populist Far Right rhetoric.
In Germany, AfD’s co-chair, Alice Weidel, claimed that the “main loser” of the conflict was “neither Russia nor Ukraine but Germany”, which she called the victim of an “economic war”, urging the government to reinstate the supply of Russian natural gas to safeguard Germany’s economy. In Portugal, Ventura questioned Portuguese financial support to Ukraine, saying the money should be spent on pensioners and demanded government intervention to control gas prices. The FrP in Norway has been largely silent in debates regarding handling the war in terms of international politics but has taken the opportunity to exploit war-related issues such as energy prices, fossil fuel production and farming. The DF, the NB and the Denmark Democrats have also stirred fears of economic insecurity, arguing the situation is much worse than the 2008 financial crisis. In debates about the war, the Dutch PVV has repeatedly emphasized protecting people’s material interests. The Czech SDP has used overarching socioeconomic framing of the war combined with nativism and welfare chauvinism. Romania’s AUR has similarly focused more on economic protectionism, particularly regarding exploding energy prices. The Croatian populist Radical Right has also placed a disproportionally higher emphasis on domestic politics than on the developments in Ukraine. Bulgaria’s BSP and Revival have emphasized the domestic cost of the war and the sanctions next to pro-Russian rhetoric. Le Pen, in turn, has focused her campaign on socioeconomic issues in an attempt to steer attention away from her Russian links (Ivaldi, 2022). Le Pen’s social populist agenda resonated with the French population’s many economic fears, particularly amongst the lower social strata most severely hit by the economic repercussions of the war, and faced with the rising cost of living, especially in rural areas (Perrineau, 2022).
By shifting the debate to domestic socioeconomic issues, populist Radical Right parties have managed to maintain their anti-elite and anti-establishment stances, appealing to frustrated voters while also avoiding uncomfortable questions about past relations with the Kremlin. Thus, the war has proved another fruitful arena for forwarding populist Far Right arguments and playing on voters’ fears and frustrations.
The return of national sovereignty
The attack on Ukrainian sovereignty has legitimized populist parties’ long-standing nationalist rhetoric. The invasion of Ukraine has put the defence of the nation-state back at the top of the political agenda (Farrell, 2022). Right-wing populist parties have long prioritized nationalism and sovereignty. Claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty are central to radical right-wing populism in Europe (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). The idea of “taking back control” is at the core of the concept of sovereignism, which is often associated with populist rhetoric in which claims to regain control are made on behalf of the community of the “people” against the political establishment and supranational institutions (Mazzoleni & Ivaldi, 2022).
The invasion of Ukraine has returned the idea of defending the nation-state to political discourse in more than one country (Fiott, 2022). The FPÖ has been particularly vocal about the need for Austria to maintain neutrality, as this would safeguard the country’s wealth and guarantee security in the current crisis and in an uncertain world – an argument also forwarded by the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party. The Bulgarian and Slovak Far Right have also called for neutrality and defined the war as a conflict between Russia and the US, in which small countries have nothing to gain. On the other hand, Chega has used the opportunity to display militarism, repeatedly calling for increased spending on armed forces, equating the “love for country” of the Portuguese people with the “positive nationalism leading Ukrainians to defend themselves fearlessly from Russian aggression” (Assembleia da República, 2022b).
. The Croatian Far Right has taken this rhetoric a step further, equating the war in Ukraine to the Homeland war of the 1990s and seeking to draw a tentative linkage between the ongoing developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War. Such a parallel is then used to call for the need to defend the nation and criticize the government for ceding sovereignty to supranational bodies.
Mainstream party counter strategies
The war in Ukraine has affected not only populist Radical Right parties but the way mainstream parties relate to and react to the Radical Right. On the one hand, the war has provided the opportunity to criticize the Radical Right for its veneration of Putin and the ever-stronger connections with Russia, including Russian financing for several Radical Right parties across Europe. In the presidential run-off, Macron accused Le Pen of being “dependent on Russian power”, telling her: “You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power […]. When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker” (Débat présidentiel, 2022).
In Sweden, the SD’s links to Russia became an important issue in the debate on foreign and security policy during the 2022 electoral campaign. In Romania, mainstream parties adopted a strategy of isolation towards AUR, which pushed the party to tone down its rhetoric and present itself as a mainstream conservative party. In Latvia, where about one-quarter of voters are Russian speakers, mainstream parties have long drawn a “red line” around parties representing the Russian minority, arguing that they pose a threat to Latvia’s Western-oriented political trajectory. The war reinforced this trend. At the EU level, the European People’s Party finally expelled Fidesz, a move long called for by numerous MPs. Orbán’s position on the war has helped illustrate the growing ideological schism between Fidesz and other EPP members.
Some reactions give room for pause and caution. For example, in Lithuania, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen Latvia’s political centre move to the right and the mainstreaming of many of the core policy positions of the dominant National Alliance(NA), such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, and demolishing Soviet-era monuments. This example illustrates the threat of becoming what one fights against and the danger that any war poses in radicalizing and militarizing the political discourse.
The factors accounting for different populist Radical Right responses to the war
Both external and internal factors account for the different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war.
Externally, we first find country-specific factors related to different histories and foreign policy traditions, as well as economic factors, among which each particular country’s level of dependence on Russia’s oil and gas. Before the war, over half of the EU’s gas supplies came from Russia. One of the significant results of the war has been the diversification of gas imports in the EU, with Russia accounting for just 12.9% as of September 2022, a decrease from 51.3% in January 2019 (General Secretariat, 2023). Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Serbia were all highly dependent on Russian gas before the war. Hungary has preserved such dependence, and Orbán prides himself in negotiating relatively cheap Russian oil and gas before and after the war with Putin. Austria, which continues to depend greatly on Russian energy supplies, especially natural gas, views Moscow as an important economic partner. Despite diversification efforts in the past year, Bulgaria still heavily depends on Russian gas supplies, receives a lot of Russian tourists, and many Russian firms operate there. There is also a strong cultural affinity—both are Orthodox countries and speak Slavic languages—with strong historical ties given Russia’s liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth century.
In the Baltic countries such as Estonia and Lithuania, the party politics of Russia has traditionally been strongly influenced by the history of annexation by the Soviet Union. In Norway, the fact that Russia is a neighbouring country has complicated the political disapproval of all things Russian.
In Italy, one of the main reasons why right-wing populists support Putin’s Russia is a matter of economic self-interest and the fact that Italy imports large quantities of Russian oil. Back in 2005, Berlusconi’s right-wing populist government had prepared, for instance, an agreement that would have allowed the Russian company Gazprom to resell Russian gas directly to Italian consumers. In the Northern part of the country, which has traditionally been the electoral stronghold of the Lega, Salvini’s admiration for Putin is also linked with commercial interests, especially those of industrial firms in the region with significant Russian business. In Hungary, the ties with Russia are also explained by the relatively cheap Russian oil and gas and the multi-billion-euro extension of the Paks nuclear power station, which Orbán traded with Putin, which he has been able to use both economically and politically.
In the Netherlands, we find a country-specific feature: the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, almost certainly shot down by Russian-controlled forces in the area, killing over 190 Dutch citizens. This dramatic event prompted the government to call for tough sanctions against Russia, making it more difficult for Dutch populists to exhibit public support for Putin.
Together with country-level contextual factors, we also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, most notably concerning the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters, and to broaden their electoral appeal. The literature on the Far Right has emphasized the importance of agency and the ability of Far Right parties to build a “reputational shield” to fend off accusations of racism and extremism (de Lange & Art, 2011; Art, 2011). Many of these parties in Western Europe have used their agency and changed their platforms, personnel, and appearance to distance themselves from the legacy of Far Right extremist ideology and to be tolerated by a larger share of the public (Akkerman et al., 2016; Bjånesøy, 2021). On the other hand, new Far Right actors may take a more radical course to differentiate themselves from their “moderating” counterparts. This trend has been observed in Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, and Slovakia.
We can discern a relationship between such strategies of normalization and the populist Radical Right’s response to the war in Ukraine across a number of the countries studied in this report. Italy is the most obvious example, where FdI has a much broader appeal than its coalition partner, Lega. In the Netherlands, for instance, this is reflected in the competition between the PVV and the FvD, with the former strategically situating itself closer to the mainstream, while the latter would continue on a more radical anti-system course, as revealed in its recent efforts to create an alternative social space for its supporters.
We see a similar split of the populist Radical Right in the French case, whereby Le Pen has striven to detoxify her party to take it into the political mainstream in recent years. In contrast, Zemmour has adopted a hardline strategy, endorsing themes and rhetoric of the Extreme Right while continuing to implicitly lend support to Russia and Putin even after the outbreak of the war. In Portugal, Chega and André Ventura’s discourses on Ukraine were deployed instrumentally, allowing Chega to continue to trail a path towards normalization as a regular player in the political system.
Since shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland has seen a surge of new marginal Far Right parties advocating a Finnish exit from the European Union and going against Finland joining NATO, which contrasted with the more moderate positions taken by the more established Finns Party. In Croatia, we have seen HSP 1861 take a radically different stance on Putin, sanctions, and the war than other Radical Right parties closer to the mainstream. Similarly, in Latvia, S! maintained a pro-Russian stance to differentiate itself from the SSD. In Bulgaria, the two pro-Russian parties, BSP and Revival, have adopted different strategies, with the former maintaining a moderate position, despite opposing sanctions, whereas the latter radicalizing its pro-Russian rhetoric even more and managing to steal votes from the BSP.
Finally, different strategic responses to the Ukraine war may reflect the different geometry of pan-European alliances of populist Radical Right parties in the European Parliament, as some of these parties may need to seek support from other like-minded parties across the continent. Populist Radical Right parties currently distribute themselves across the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups in the European Parliament, which show different policy orientations and strategic positioning in the broader European political landscape. The ECR group traditionally shows moderate Euroscepticism compared with the more radical stances in the ID cluster of populist Radical Right parties around Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. The positions on Russia by parties such as the Italian FdI and the SD may thus reflect their membership in the ECR group.
In the Swedish case, support for the Russian regime among some of the other Radical Right parties has been seen as one reason why the Sweden Democrats chose not to join the ID party group together with the RN and Lega in the European Parliament (McDonnell & Werner, 2019). Similarly, the DF has navigated the war by trying to distance itself from its allies in the ID group and the potentially damaging effect of pro-Putin stances of parties such as the RN and Lega on the DF in domestic politics. The ECR group also has members from Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Latvian, Romanian and Slovak parties, where we notice a mix of Far Right to conservative parties. Although the ECR appears more moderate than the ID group, some MEPs have demonstrated extremist behaviour, such as Bulgarian MEP from IMRO, Angel Dzambaski, have been accused more than once of scandalous remarks and behaviour, including giving a Nazi salute in a session of the EU Parliament.
In the ID group, Salvini’s connections to Marine Le Pen reflect a distinct network of populist Radical Right shared hostility to the EU and ties to Putin’s regime inside the European Parliament, including other relevant radical right-wing populist parties such as the FPÖ in Austria, the German AfD, the Flemish VB, the Estonian EKRE, and the SPD in the Czech Republic. Moreover, the ID cluster of parties has established links with parties currently outside the formal EP group, such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary. Such transnational cooperation was revealed in the two-day summit organized by VOX in Madrid in January 2022, which was attended by Orbán, Mateusz Morawiecki from Poland’s PiS, and Le Pen, together with representatives of the populist Radical Right from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and the Netherlands.
Internally, the different responses to the war by the Far Right populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideology and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition.
Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of “their” people, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Such divides may also overlap with the primary socioeconomic orientation of those parties. The literature has found heterogeneity in the socioeconomic policies of populist Radical Right parties across countries and over time (Michel, 2020). While some parties have embraced neoliberalism, others have turned to neo-Keynesian policies, emphasizing social protection and redistribution (Otjes et al., 2018).
In the European context, the current inflation crisis is making socioeconomic issues much more salient, and this may provide incentives for Far Right parties to change and adjust their socioeconomic salience and positions concerning such matters, not only to respond to growing voter demand for redistribution but also to shift attention from their pro-Russian positions to their economic demands in favour of “the people”.
Such a response was visible across several populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In Norway, the energy crisis has opened a window of opportunity for the FrP to reclaim its populist roots, try and mobilize on petro-friendly politics, and campaign against the high prices and VAT on fossil fuels, electricity, and food. In the Netherlands, the PVV has emphasized the cost of the war for the Dutch people, linking high inflation and gas prices to sanctions on Russia, consistent with its welfare chauvinist economic positions. In Portugal, Chega quickly moved from emphasizing the need to support the Ukrainian people to claiming that the war money should be spent on Portuguese pensioners. Marine Le Pen in France well illustrated a welfare chauvinist orientation. Her 2022 campaign used social populist arguments combined with a generous redistributive package, resonating with the French’s many economic fears. Radical Right parties in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia have similarly honed in on the consequences of the war for domestic constituencies and the worsening economic conditions.
In contrast, other populist radical parties have adopted a more cultural approach, basing their support to Russia on civilizational arguments and somewhat ignoring the socioeconomic anxieties of the war. This is illustrated by the Bulgarian Revival and the Dutch FvD, which have continued emphasizing the cultural dimension and the larger global narrative to justify their support of Putin. In France, Zemmour’s focus on immigration and Islam, and his market liberal economic agenda, may have come at odds with the interests and increasingly pro-redistribution preferences of middle-class and working-class voters in 2022.
Voters in the Ukraine war
Turning to the “demand” side of populism, the country chapters have looked at how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Instead of “ending populism”, the war and the resulting populist discourse have coincided with populist electoral successes in many countries.
We have observed this all year with victories for populists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Sweden, France, and Italy (Lika, 2022). In Austria, public opinion support for Ukraine among Austrians has remained tenuous and lower than elsewhere in the EU, and the FPÖ is currently topping voting intention polls at about 28%. In Belgium, domestic issues have taken the forefront of the political agenda, and the war does not seem to have harmed the VB, which, according to the latest opinion poll, would be the largest Flemish party gaining up to 25.5% of the popular vote. We also see an increase in support for the Czech SDP since the war, which is correlated with decreasing public support for Ukraine and growing discontent with the Czech government’s handling of the war. In Hungary, the Russian invasion of Ukraine also played a role in reinforcing Fidesz’s dominant political position in the electoral campaign. Fidesz’s strategy successfully portrayed the united democratic opposition as a pro-Ukraine camp that would drag Hungary into war with Russia. We see something similar, albeit of a much smaller magnitude, in Serbia, where many commentators have argued that the invasion may have helped populist Radical Right parties to surpass the 3% threshold, whereas none of those parties had entered government in 2020. In Bulgaria, Revival doubled its support in the early elections of 2022 compared to the early elections in 2021.
Elsewhere in Europe, we find no clear evidence that the war in Ukraine may have significantly depressed support for radical right-wing populism. In Slovakia, the outbreak of the war did not bring any substantial shifts in popular support for the populist Radical Right. In Portugal, Chega’s strategy was moderately successful, showing minor gains in public opinion polls. In Germany, the AfD has not benefited from the dramatic developments as much as one could have assumed. There has been only a four percentage points increase in support for the party in polls, and the AfD so far remains below its peak of 17–18% public support recorded in 2018. In Bulgaria, by default, at least a third of Bulgarians are very pro-Russian, and the increase in support for Revival can be explained by shifting votes from the other pro-Russian party, the BSP. Support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees was strong initially, but it steadily declined by November 2022. Currently, most voters do not take a side in the war and do not defend Ukraine or Russia. Only in Lithuania do we see a potentially adverse effect of the war on right-wing populist politics, first and foremost reflecting a very high level of support for Ukraine and traditionally deep anti-Russian sentiments in the mass public.
Other populists and the war
While the focus of the report was primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country, where deemed relevant. This was the case in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, where mainstream parties traditionally have strong pro-Russian views and positions.
A brief overview of the positions and strategies of non-Radical Right populist parties suggests that parties such as the French France Insoumise (LFI) and the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) have taken pro-Russian stances in the past, essentially based on anti-Americanism, pacifism, and the opposition to NATO. But, like with the populist Radical Right, we see some differences in those parties’ responses to the Ukraine war.
In Portugal, parties on the Left, especially the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), have traditionally used sovereigntist anti-EU and anti-NATO rhetoric. The PCP has adopted an ambiguous position regarding the invasion of Ukraine, calling for “a stop to escalating political, economic, and military confrontation by NATO, the USA, and the EU towards Russia, and relying on its contribution towards a negotiated political, peaceful, resolution” (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 10). In Germany, The Left (die Linke), which is considered a populist party, is a self-professed pacifist party, and it has long campaigned for the dissolution of NATO, frequently taken a pro-Russian stance and is highly suspicious of the United States, the EU, and Germany’s security apparatus. However, the party has unambiguously condemned Russia’s attack as a violation of international law, portraying Ukraine as the victim of a power struggle between the West and Russia and calling for Western countries to spearhead de-escalation.
In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s LFI has taken pro-Russian stances predicated on Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views and based on the concept of a “non-aligned” France. LFI’s sympathy for Russia essentially reflects the traditional Radical Left’s hostility toward the United States, neoliberalism and American imperialism, and the party has advocated that France should leave NATO’s integrated military command. Nevertheless, Mélenchon continued to show an ambiguous stance during the few weeks before the invasion, calling for “de-escalation” while simultaneously pointing to the threat of NATO moving closer to Russia’s borders. However, he dramatically shifted his position immediately after the beginning of the war to avoid too severe damage to his party’s credibility in the context of the April 2022 presidential election. In the first round, Mélenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote.
In Italy, the positions of the M5S have changed over time, with the party moving towards a more pro-Russian position and showing ambiguous stances after the invasion. Like other populist parties, Russia exemplifies a robust opposition to the United States and the EU, both described by the M5S as harmful to Italy’s national interests. While Beppe Grillo, the founder of the M5S, made no public statement after the February 2022 invasion, Giuseppe Conte, leader of the party, condemned it. As part of the Draghi government, the M5S also voted in favour of sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine, however, expressing doubts about the efficacy and effect on Italy. In the summer of 2022, a split occurred in the party after an internal campaign to push for an end to Italian weapons supplies to Ukraine, which was supported by Conte, who opposed Luigi Di Maio, the more Atlanticist minister of foreign affairs at the time, who left the party. Such internal struggle over the war may have weakened the M5S in the September 2022 elections, where its vote share declined from 32.7 to 15.4% compared with 2018.
Discussion and perspectives
A critical takeaway from this report is the diversity of populist politics across regions, countries and parties. Even limiting our inquiry to the populist Radical Right, we have seen a great diversity of positions and reactions. If our expectations at the outset were to find patterns that distinguish the East from the West, we have found significant variance within regions and countries. Such heterogeneity has already been observed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In their recent analysis of the fourth wave of Far Right parties in Europe, Wondreys and Mudde (2022) emphasize substantial internal heterogeneity, showing different responses to current socioeconomic and cultural issues and different effects of such issues on the electoral support for those parties.
Our findings reinforce the thesis that populism should by no means be considered a uniform phenomenon as it can take many different forms across contexts and actors while also showing change over time. Previous research has emphasized such diversity of contemporary populism (Ivaldi et al., 2017). In this respect, Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser (2016) argue that
populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related with other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. (p. 9)
With regards to the Far Right, more specifically, Pirro (2022) similarly underlines the complexity of contemporary Far Right politics and argues that its current developments “reflect various forms of ideological and/or organisational osmosis” (p. 2).
Looking more broadly at anti-establishment politics in Europe, Pytlas (2022) notes that we need more studies to “assess the diversity of ‘thin’ anti-establishment supply and explore how these messages play into electoral strategies of different parties” (p. 2). Yet another approach views populism as a strategy to gain voter support (Weyland, 1999). Jones (2007), for example, views populist leaders as “political entrepreneurs” competing for voters. Such an approach portrays populists as strategic actors who adapt to changing environments. It further accounts for a dynamics-based component which helps understand the rise and evolution of populist parties and changes in their positions, behaviour and voter support, further linking them to changes in the political and economic context (Zankina, 2016). Indeed, the case studies in this report confirm prevailing heterogeneity and varied strategic responses to a fast-changing political environment.
Honing in on strategy, many parties across the continent have attempted to move towards more moderate positions in terms of foreign policy in response to the initial overwhelming public support for Ukraine by citizens across Europe. In some cases, such a move was part of an already existing strategy of mainstreaming and normalization aiming to appeal to a broader segment of voters. In other cases, the move was triggered by the war and criticisms these parties faced regarding their attitudes and links with Russia. However, we witnessed that this change in position was also dynamic. As the war has dragged on and economic costs have started affecting more voters across the continent, some parties have returned to more extreme rhetoric, albeit with a greater focus on domestic issues than on foreign policy and geostrategic alignment.
Framing the war in terms of domestic socioeconomic issues was another strategy adopted by many of the parties examined. In fact, many parties muted their positions on the war and instead emphasized domestic concerns and the economic costs of sanctions, refugees, and military and financial support to Ukraine. Hence, the war was used as an arena to criticize supranational institutions or current governments for their neglect of domestic issues and ineffective policies, allowing populist Radical Right parties to forward their traditional populist Radical Right discourse that appeals to voter frustrations and emotions. Moreover, the populist politics of the war in Ukraine illustrates how populists may ‘perform’ a crisis. As Moffit (2015) argues,
populist actors actively participate in the “spectacularization of failure” that underlies crisis, allowing them to pit “the people” against a dangerous other, radically simplify the terms and terrain of political debate and advocate strong leadership and quick political action to stave off or solve the impending crisis. (p. 190)
This report illustrates the populist performance of the Ukrainian crisis and how Radical Right populists across Europe may have seized the opportunity of the war to instrumentalize war-related economic anxieties and propagate anti-elite and anti-establishment rhetoric.
Emphasizing domestic socioeconomic issues did not preclude populist Radical Right parties from using the war as an opportunity to reinforce nationalist sentiment and national pride. Many parties drew parallels between the heroism and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people in defending their nation and nationalist attitudes and devotion to the nation at home. Many parties further portrayed the war as an existential threat to the nation, calling for a strong and immediate response, including strengthening military capability. At least in one case, this renewed nationalist discourse drew mainstream parties to the right and into support for nationalist policies.
The repertoire of strategies and responses to war has demonstrated the ability of the populist Radical Right to adapt quickly, adopt new issues and discourses and put them through a populist Radical Right prism. Changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristic (Taggart, 2000), suggesting a good deal of adaptability and those parties’ capacity to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi et al., 2022). Most Radical Right populist parties have adapted their discourse due to the war in Ukraine, with more remarkable successes than ever in Europe. The circumstances surrounding the Ukraine war serve to once again demonstrate the ability of populism to adapt quickly to different contexts and to make use of “calculated ambivalence” (Wodak, 2015). If anything, cases of some of the oldest European populist parties such as the Austrian FPÖ, the French RN and the Italian Lega attest not only to the ability of these parties to successfully navigate the recent period of the war in Ukraine but also demonstrate the political longevity and resilience of populism since the mid-1980s.
In policy terms, the malleability of these parties poses one of the main challenges to countering the success of such parties. One may argue that we can counter populism by addressing the issues that populists raise. However, populists are very quick to move on and radicalize another issue, making policy solutions short-lived in electoral terms. This is possible because populist Radical Right parties are, in essence, not programmatic and ideological but rather strategic in being quick to adapt to public sentiments, forward emotional appeals, and establish a direct link with voters (Jones, 2007; Weyland, 1999; Zankina, 2016). This aligns with the scholarship that more generally emphasizes how populist parties may deliberately blur their positions (Rovny, 2013) or adopt ambiguous stances to sustain or increase their electoral support (Jordan, 2022; Lefevere, 2023; Lorimer, 2021). Such use of strategic ambiguity by populists makes it even more difficult for parties in the mainstream to confront and counter their populist challengers programmatically.
Such challenges notwithstanding, the war and the various responses and strategies adopted by Radical Right parties have not led to a boost in their support. While there has been an increase in voter support for some populist Radical Right parties in the past year, it is not uniform. In many cases, the war has not led to a significant change in voter support for Radical Right parties. Despite the continued success of populist Radical Right parties across Europe, we must acknowledge that one of the main consequences of the war has been to unite Europeans in their support for Ukraine and strengthen overall support for democracy and democratic institutions. Except for countries such as Hungary, Serbia, and Turkey (none characterized as functioning democracies), the populist Far Right does not have a dominant position in politics.
(*) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.
(**) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
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Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war.
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused hundreds of thousands more to flee while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. However, the consequences of Russia’s aggression have been felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders. The financial sanctions on Russia, disruptions to supply chains, and general economic insecurity have destabilized global energy markets and supply chains, causing food prices to soar (Boungou & Yatié, 2022). Furthermore, the urgency of the Russia–Ukraine conflict has stalled critical international cooperation in addressing the climate crisis (Ali et al., 2022; Liadze et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Orhan, 2022; Pereira et al., 2022; Rawtani et al., 2022).
The fallout of the conflict has hit certain territories harder than others, depending on the region’s proximity to the competition and reliance on Russian and Ukrainian exports. In Europe, this has meant an asymmetric impact on domestic economies relative to their dependence on Russian gas and Ukrainian grain. This has triggered a significant slowdown in economic growth in the Eurozone and an energy crisis over the winter (Celi et al., 2022; International Monetary Fund, 2022; Smit et al., 2022). Furthermore, European countries have used considerable resources to provide welfare assistance, temporary housing, and organizations to welcome refugees fleeing the conflict (Liadze et al., 2022). The economic repercussions of the war have resulted in a looming recession due to the interconnected nature of the global economy (Smit et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2022; Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2022).
Through its many economic, cultural and political ramifications, the war in Ukraine has dramatically impacted Europe both on the individual member states and at the European Union level, creating new constraints and opportunities for political actors in the different parts of the bloc. While parties across the political spectrum—both within and outside the mainstream—may have been affected by the war, this report focused closely on the pan-European populist Radical Right, which is a party family that has long enjoyed close ties with Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. With the Kremlin now an international pariah, questions arise about how the Ukraine war has affected such parties across Europe.
In this introduction, we briefly explain the rationale for this focus on the European populist Radical Right party family and the questions that all our national experts and contributors to the report have addressed. We then chart the topography of contemporary radical right-wing populism in Europe and briefly outline the cases included in the analysis. The findings of this cross-national examination and the main takeaways of the analysis are summarized and discussed in the conclusion.
A cross-national study of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war
Defined as a “thin ideology” (Mudde, 2004), populism in Europe has manifested across the political spectrum and can be found in a range of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist-technocratic variants (Ivaldi et al., 2017; Ivaldi, 2020). Its most dominant and persistent strain in the past decades has been the populist Radical Right, which is marked by a commitment to nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
The contemporary wave of the populist Radical Right has been characterized by the mainstreaming and, increasingly, the political normalization of these parties (Mudde 2022), as more and more populist Radical Right parties are represented in parliaments, even forming governments. As a result, these parties have become a well-established political force in many European party systems. Moreover, they currently represent the most electorally successful “brand” of populism, enjoying substantial levels of popular support across Europe.
Moreover, these parties are widely considered the principal agents of illiberal politics, supporting discriminatory nativist and authoritarian policies, while rejecting the fundamental European liberal values of minority rights and the rule of law. Nativism has traditionally represented a core ideological feature of the European Radical Right. It includes a combination of nationalism and xenophobia, which “comes in a number of guises, from the mobilization of socioeconomic anxieties to the appeal to racial prejudices” (Betz, 2017, p. 347). Welfare chauvinism is another typical characteristic of this party family and follows logically from nativism, xenophobia, the rejection of minority rights, and support for excluding migrants and domestic minorities from accessing national welfare systems (Greve, 2019). Far Right parties frame immigration as a threat to the welfare and cultural fabric of Western societies (Mudde, 2022).
Most parties of the populist Radical Right are also strong opponents of European integration and supranationalism more generally (Vasilopoulou, 2011, 2018). They often manipulate Eurosceptic frames to mobilize voters (Gómez-Reino & Llamazares, 2013; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2016). However, many of those parties have recently toned down their Euroscepticism. Looking at the recent period, Taggart (2019) notes that most Eurosceptic parties have moderated their position vis-à-vis the European Union (EU), switching to a more reformist rhetoric, and arguing that they would change the EU from within. As suggested by Brack (2020), “against the background of the difficult and unclear Brexit negotiations, most parties softened their position, and few of them still openly advocate for their country’s exit from the EU” (p. 6). An empirical study by Braun et al. (2019) demonstrates that such changes in the tone of Far Right parties toward the EU are primarily determined by the EU-related evaluation – the polity mood – of the national citizenry and the level of public support for EU integration at the domestic level.
In contemporary Far Right politics, Eurosceptic stances are associated with the idea of protecting the nation, which is expressed in claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). Populist Radical Right parties such as the Rassemblement National in France and Lega in Italy portray themselves as champions of national values and defenders of national interests against supranational institutions, and they all assume the primacy of the nation-state as a means of re-establishing the people’s sovereignty (Ivaldi & Mazzoleni, 2020).
Finally, most populist Radical Right parties have been admirers of Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. The relationship between radical right-wing populist parties and Russia has been amply documented in the literature (Shekhovtsov, 2018). As early as the 1990s, there were some attempts at cooperation between populist right-wing parties in Europe and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed at the time by Far Right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Futàk-Campbell, 2020). More recently, there have been growing links between Russian actors and Radical Right activists, publicists, ideologues, and politicians in the West. Such ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right have grown stronger over the last decade, reflecting what has been deemed a “marriage of convenience” based on converging interests (Makarychev, 2018). As Shekhovtsov (2018) suggests, Moscow has begun to support particular populist radical right political forces to gain leverage on European politics and undermine the liberal democratic consensus in the West.
Overall, then, European radical right-wing populists are generally “admirers” of Putin’s regime based on their shared nativism, authoritarianism, and, increasingly, illiberal politics, as well as, for some of those parties, their rejection of NATO and what is deemed American imperialism. Additionally, Moscow and radical right-wing populist actors converge on their shared opposition to the EU (Makarychev & Terry, 2020). Many European populist Radical Right parties have also established formal links with Russia, and some of these parties, such as the French Rassemblement and Italian Lega, have even received funding from the Kremlin (Futàk-Campbell, 2020).
In 2014, most European populist radical right-wing parties justified the annexation of Crimea by Russia by adopting the Kremlin’s rhetoric and strong criticism of the Ukrainian state. In so doing, they parroted Kremlin talking points about the so-called “reunification” of Crimea with Russia through the supposed self-determination of the “people of Crimea”, as expressed in the Crimean referendum of March 16, 2014.
The war in Ukraine has cast into sharp relief Russia’s hybrid war for control and influence over Europe and the so-called “fifth column”, the network of Far Right political parties and movements in Europe that Russia has been cultivating and explicitly supporting. These Far Right parties, Guide (2017) argues, “are capitalizing on economic and security crises in Europe to build popular support and now operate as a fifth column that is undermining the Western liberal order from within” (pp. 1–2). Russia’s objective in this “war” is ultimately to establish a new world order that, in the words of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “is multipolar, just, and democratic” (France24, 2022).
At a more practical level, Russia aims to undermine the unity of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and within the EU and establish bilateral relations with individual countries (the same strategy China has been using with its Belt and Road Initiative). Doing so would give Russia much more leverage in bilateral negotiations but also in dealing with the EU, where individual countries (such as Hungary) could be creating obstacles to any decisions not favourable to Russia.
In its hybrid war, Russia has utilized several tactics: 1) gas dependencies (over 40% for the EU, but over 60% for some EU member states such as Italy, and over 90% of countries such as Bulgaria and North Macedonia); 2) investments and oligarchs (the UK has been the prime destination for Russian oligarchs and investments and those seeking “golden passports”, but other European countries have also been welcoming); 3) disinformation (through social media and paid trolls); 4) intelligence and spies (poisoning cases), and, last but not least; 5) the funding of nationalist parties. These tactics can be traced in many European countries, from France and Britain to Bulgaria.
Russia has long been accused of funding populist Radical Right parties in Europe, from the Front National and Lega to Austria’s FPÖ and Hungary’s Jobbik (Pabst, 2014; Rettman, 2017; Weiss, 2020). Russia has also created some open ties with anti-EU parties, inviting their leaders to various conferences and symposia organized by Kremlin’s close associates (Futàk-Campbell, 2020; Rettman, 2017). One such forum in 2015 proved the biggest gathering of Europe’s Far Right parties, with representatives of Radical Right parties from several European countries, including Golden Dawn (Greece), the National Democratic Party (Germany), Ataka (Bulgaria), the Lombardy League (Italy), the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (EU-wide), New Force (Italy), the British National Party (United Kingdom), National Democracy (Spain), the Party of the Swedes (Sweden), and the Danish Party (Denmark). Indeed, Far Right parties have been good allies to the Kremlin, voting in ways favourable to Russia both at home and in the European Parliament on issues such as Ukraine, human rights in Russia, Association Agreements with post-Soviet states, and more (Wesslau, 2016).
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, on the other hand, presented new challenges for Kremlin-backed radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain for their association with Russia and admiration of Putin’s regime and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war in Ukraine, thus raising specific concerns about how such parties have navigated this new context and the impact that the war may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level.
Questions addressed in the report
This report examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the populist Radical Right in Europe. Country experts were asked to tackle different questions in relation to radical right-wing populist parties and the Ukrainian crisis. More specifically, special attention was paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties.
Let us note here that while the report focuses primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country where deemed relevant. The scholarship on populism and foreign policy suggests that populist parties and leaders generally adopt anti-American and pro-Russian positions (Chryssogelos, 2010, 2011; Balfour et al., 2016). This makes such analysis of the broader group of non-Radical Right populist actors also relevant to this report, most notably in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia where mainstream parties have had traditionally strong pro-Russian views and positions.
By looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across over 20 European countries, this reports provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defence). As Moffit (2015) suggests, crises such as the Ukraine war are never “neutral” phenomena but are mediated and “performed” by populist parties. In return, while many of these parties have sought to evade accusations of sympathy for Russia since the outbreak of the war, their political opponents have used their previous ties with Moscow, which is another significant aspect of the analysis in this report.
Turning to the “demand” side, we ask how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders in the mass public, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Far from the heralded end of the “Age of Populism” (Douthat, 2022), some radical right-wing populist parties have succeeded more than ever in Europe.
Recent elections in France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, and Sweden have attested to the electoral vitality of the Far Right parties. In the 2022 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, won 41.5% of the second-round runoff against incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, which marked a new culmination of the Far Right in France. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán reasserted the dominance of Fidesz and his ever-more authoritarian rule, gaining even more seats in parliament. In Latvia, two new populist Radical Right parties gained 20 seats in the 100-seat parliament. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy have topped the 2022 general election, making Meloni the country’s new (and first female) prime minister. In Sweden, a former extreme right party with links with neo-Nazi movements, the Sweden Democrats, won over 20% of the vote in the 2022 elections, and the party has officially become part of the right-wing governing coalition.
Finally, each country chapter assesses the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics, allowing for the broader conclusions discussed in this report’s final section.
The topography of European radical right-wing populist parties
According to Pirro (2022), the Far Right refers to “all those ultranationalist collective actors sharing a common exclusionary and authoritarian worldview—predominantly determined on sociocultural criteria—yet varying allegiances to democracy” (p. 3). The “populist Radical Right” refers to a specific subset of parties within the wider “Far Right” party family, in which typical Far Right features are associated with a populist ideology and illiberal rather than anti-democratic tendencies (Mudde, 2019; Pirro, 2022). Pirro notes that populism is primarily associated with the Radical Right. Through their anti-establishment profile, such parties “glorify ‘the people’ and consider it the linchpin of any rightful political goal and decision, at the same time criticizing ‘the elite’ as responsible for all the ills of the world” (Pirro, 2022, p. 6).
While any taxonomy of political parties may be the subject of disagreement among scholars, there is a relatively sizeable academic consensus about which parties may be included in the broad European ‘Far Right’ party family and, more specifically, in the populist Radical Right cluster of parties (Mudde, 2022; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
In this report, the relevant cases of populist Radical Right parties were identified by the national experts based on their extensive knowledge of radical right-wing populism in their country, including the more recent developments in a somewhat fluid and rapidly evolving political phenomenon – see for instance the recent rise of new Far Right actors in Bulgaria, France, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland, and not necessarily yet considered in the comparative literature on the topic.
Table 1 below shows the main parties included in the analysis. As already noted, experts have sometimes included populist parties that may not strictly fall within the Radical Right category, but whose reactions to the war are relevant to the focus of this research.
Table 1. A summary of populist Radical Right parties included in the report
% of votes last general election
Date of last general election
Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)
Vlaams Belang (VB)
Danish People’s Party (DF)New Right (NB)
Finns PartyBlue Reform
Rassemblement National (RN)Reconquête!
Alternative for Germany (AfD)
Brothers of Italy (FdI)LegaForza Italia (FI)
Progress Party (FrP)
Sweden Democrats (SD)
Freedom Party (PVV)Forum for Democracy (FvD)Juist Alternative 2021 (JA21)
AtakaInternal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO)National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB)Revival (Vazrazhdane)
0.30 0.81 0.1410.18
The Croatian Party of Rights (HSF) The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP)The Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP)The Croatian Party of Rights 1861 (HSP 1861)
Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD)
Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE)
For Each and Everyone (KuK)For Stability (S!)Latvia First (LPV)National Alliance (NA)
Lithuanian Family Movement (LŠS)The National Alliance (NA)Union for Nation and Justice (TTS)
Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR)
DSSDveriSovereignistsSerbian Progressive Party (SNS)SRSZavetnici
Justice and Development Party (AKP)
Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. This report is divided into 23 country chapters. Their principal findings are discussed comparatively in the conclusion.
Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war. Moreover, the cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion to try and sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia or, in some cases, by showcasing their support for Russia. Such variability is observed across countries but also within them (Carlotti, 2023) and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite what is often deemed a highly centralized organization and strong leadership.
Both external and internal factors may account for different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war. Externally, we find country-specific factors related to different histories, foreign policy traditions, and economic factors. Among these, we can count each particular country’s level of dependence on Russian oil and gas, as well as trade relations. We also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, particularly regarding the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters and to broaden their electoral appeal.
Internally, the different responses to the war by radical right-wing populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideologies and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition. Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of their “people”, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Finally, the changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristics, suggesting a good deal of adaptability and the capacity of these parties to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi, 2022; Carlotti, 2023).
(*) The Editors would like to thank Azize Sargin, Ivan Escobar Fernández and Martin Galland at the ECPS for their support and assistance in preparing this report.
(**) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.
(***) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
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The right-wing, populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has viewed Putin’s Russia as an effective constraint on what the Radical Right regards as a liberal cultural and economic agenda pursued by the European Union and the United States. The FPÖ remained a supporter of Kremlin policies, even after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and even signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in 2016. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the FPÖ has been careful not to be seen defending Moscow’s aggression. Instead, it has resorted to populist framing that casts the Austrian people as victims of national and Western political elites. Concretely, the party leadership claims that the country’s policies toward Russia are counterproductive and have been decided without the consent of the people. This approach is an extension of the FPÖ’s traditional Euroscepticism and anti-establishment positioning. It also appeals to Austrians’ longstanding preference for neutrality. According to polling data, the FPÖ is well positioned to outperform all other parties in the current issue environment.
The Austrian Radical Right has its roots in pan-Germanic nationalism and has traditionally been anti-Slavic (in general) and anti-Russian (in particular). Especially after the Second World War, the populist Radical Right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) held strong anti-Soviet and anti-communist positions. But as the FPÖ has grown increasingly concerned with the progressive cultural and liberal economic agenda of Washington and Brussels, it has come to view Putin’s Russia as an effective curb on Western liberalism. The FPÖ signed a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia in 2016 and became a defender of Kremlin policy. It has generally blamed Western political elites for the deterioration of international relations and the conflict in the region, including Ukraine. The FPÖ has repeatedly called on the Austrian government to adopt a neutral stance, criticized Western sanctions on Russia, and labelled Ukraine a corrupt state. Especially on the Radical Right, the current conflict is seen as part of a broader contest between liberal and anti-liberal agendas.
Why the Austrian case matters
The Austrian case is particularly illuminating as it differs from other European countries in three important respects. First, Austria enjoys a close relationship with Russia. The FPÖ’s ties with the Kremlin are particularly strong. The second is Austria’s traditional neutral foreign policy, enshrined in the 1955 State Treaty ending the Four Power occupation. Indeed, Austria stayed outside the European Union (EU) until after the end of the Cold War and is not a NATO member. A third factor is Austria’s considerable dependence on Russian energy supplies, especially natural gas, and the extensive commercial ties between the two countries. Indeed, President Putin received a warm welcome in Vienna from Austrian political and economic elites in June 2014, just a few months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Thus, while all major political parties in Austria have supported maintaining good relations with Russia, the FPÖ has stood out in seeking closer political ties with the Kremlin for ideological reasons.
The political positioning of the populist Radical Right Freedom Party
A closer look at the Freedom Party’s electoral performance since 1956 reveals a clear pattern (see Figure 1). For decades, the party’s vote share languished at around 5%, and it played only a marginal role in Austria’s de facto two-party system, in which the Christian conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) dominated. Until the 1980s, the FPÖ primarily recruited from pan-German nationalists, former Nazis, and war veterans. Then, in the mid-1980s, it transformed into a populist Radical Right party under the leadership of its flamboyant young leader, Jörg Haider, and began to actively court working-class and socioeconomically disadvantaged voters. It appealed to people fed up with the existing political arrangements and frustrated by being left behind in Austria’s economic development.
Under Haider’s leadership, the party embraced an “Austria-first” agenda that included opposition to immigration and globalization, as well as Euroscepticism and populist anti-elitism. While the FPÖ vowed to defend Christian civilization against Islam in sociocultural terms, its socioeconomic positions increasingly drifted leftward. Another appeal of the party was the strong and charismatic leadership displayed by Haider and his successors Heinz-Christian Strache and later Herbert Kickl (Heinisch, 2017; Belafi, 2017).
On two occasions, in 2000 and 2017, the FPÖ formed governing coalitions with the ÖVP. In both instances, the party failed in public office due to massive internal problems, subsequently losing large shares of its electorate (Heinisch, 2003; Heinisch, 2017; Belafi, 2017). In 2005 a party split saw a smaller, more moderate Haider-led faction called Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) break away from the FPÖ. While competing directly with the FPÖ, the BZÖ did not survive long as a successful populist alternative after Haider’s unexpected death in 2008 (Belafi, 2017). Figure 1 shows the electoral support for the BZÖ as well as the combined vote share of the FPÖ and BZÖ before most of the latter’s members gravitated back to the FPÖ after 2013.
Figure 1. National vote share of the FPÖ and BZÖ (1956–2019)
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (n.d.).
After the second ÖVP–FPÖ government failed in 2019, the Freedom Party suffered significant electoral losses. Figures 2 and 3 present the general election results (vote shares of the major parties) in 2017 and 2019, respectively, indicating a decline in voter support of about ten percentage points for the FPÖ in the space of just two years.
Figure 2. National election results in 2017
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (2017).
Figure 3. National election results in 2019
Source: Compiled by the author with data from BMI (2019).
Moreover, the political scandal that forced the FPÖ out of government in 2019 implicated not only its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache but also Johann Gudenus, the party’s point man for relations with Russia (Baumgärtner et al., 2019). With Strache and Gedenus leaving the field, Herbert Kickl —an ideological hardliner — was able to take the reins of the party in 2021 and push it once again further to the anti-establishment Right.
The Freedom Party and Austrian–Russian relations
The 1955 State Treaty between Austria and the so-called Four Powers, including the Soviet Union, enabled Austria to regain full sovereignty after the Second World War and served as the basis for relations between Austria and Russia (Weiss, 2020). An associated voluntary commitment to permanent neutrality in military conflicts has been a cornerstone of Austrian foreign policy ever since. As a result of close economic ties dating back to the Cold War, Austria’s dependence on Russian energy supplies has steadily increased. It is far above the level of other Western countries (APA, 2022; Weiss, 2020).
Before the invasion, the FPÖ maintained close political relations with Russia and President Putin based on shared anti-liberal ideological positions (Weiss 2020, Weidinger et al. 2017). Members of the FPÖ openly praised and admired the Russian regime for its aversion to western liberal principles and shared Moscow’s criticism of Brussels during the refugee crisis. The FPÖ condemned the EU’s sanctions against Moscow and defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This position was reinforced by a formal partnership agreement between Putin’s party, United Russia and the FPÖ in 2016 (Weiss, 2020; Cede & Mangott, 2023). Although the FPÖ under Kickl publicly distanced themselves from this agreement, the party let the deadline for terminating the accord pass, thereby allowing it to be renewed until 2026 (Die Presse, 2021). Nevertheless, as Cede and Mangott (2023) note, no Austrian government opposed extending sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, including the one in which the FPÖ was a coalition partner from 2017 to 2019. Moreover, the FPÖ has been careful not to be seen as defending Moscow’s conduct of the war but rather reframe the conflict in ways that fit the party’s political narrative.
Reframing the conflict to fit the political agenda
On social media, the FPÖ frames the Ukraine conflict differently from the other Austrian parties (and official Austrian policy). In the FPÖ’s narrative, the conflict is a struggle between opposing sides in pursuit of clashing agendas rather than as a war of aggression launched by a large state against its smaller neighbour. According to this view, Austria would do well to remain neutral. The party directs its ire not at Moscow but at Brussels’ sanctions against Russia, emphasizing how these have damaged the Austrian economy. High inflation, spikes in energy prices, and bottlenecks are attributed to the actions of the EU and the West more broadly (FPÖ, 2022d, 2022b, 2022d).
Overall, the party directs its criticism at the United States and the Biden administration by claiming that Washington stands to gain the most from the conflict. The party insinuates that the “true goal” is to weaken Russia and make Europe more dependent on Washington. This sentiment was clearly expressed in a speech given in the Austrian parliament by Susanne Fürst, a Freedom Party member of the Australian parliament, in July 2022:
[The government] fails to recognize or understand […] that there are different interests between the EU and the US, that the US is not playing it entirely straight, that it naturally has interests in weakening Russia, in weakening Russia’s economy. So it’s good [for them] if the war lasts a little longer than necessary. They want to disrupt coexistence and, above all, economic cooperation between Russia and Europe. (Applause from the FPÖ). (Parlament Österreich, 2022a).
Similarly, the FPÖ spokesperson on foreign policy Axel Kassegger described President Biden’s policy as follows:
Just yesterday, Biden reiterated that he does not want to talk to Putin. His only response to Russia is to make ineffective threatening gestures, as can be seen in the current developments in Ukraine, which are causing great suffering to the Ukrainian people. (Heute, 2022)
Kasserger also hinted that the United States might be behind the attacks on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (OTS, 2022a). The FPÖ studiously avoids denying that Russia is an aggressor or that the Ukrainian people are not also suffering. But its framing feeds into a traditional scepticism toward Brussels and Washington, whose motives are routinely questioned by mainstream political actors. Not surprisingly, the header on the FPÖ’s Facebook page shown in Figure 4 depicts party leader Kickl in front of an Austrian flag, claiming that “[s]ecuring wealth means defending neutrality!”
Figure 4: Banner from the Freedom Party’s Facebook page
Source: FPÖ (n.d., a)
Instead of sanctioning Russia, Austria should stay true to its tradition of neutrality (FPÖ, n.d. a, FPÖ, 2022b), as this would safeguard the country’s wealth and guarantee security in the current crisis and an uncertain world. The FPÖ disparages the sanctions as “Knieschuss-Sanktionen”, meaning that by imposing them, the EU is shooting itself in the foot (FPÖ, 2022e). This discourse implies that Austria is forced to bear the consequences of decisions made by others and is thus another victim of the conflict. The perpetrator, in this case, is not Moscow but rather the political elites in Brussels (or the West in general). This underscores the populist framing of “the people” versus “the elite” that the Freedom Party applies to this conflict. A telling example are the party’s frequent references to the “US armaments industry” that seeks to extend the war (OTS, 2022b). This also forms the basis for the FPÖ’s calls for a referendum on the sanctions against Russia (FPÖ, 2022a).
The FPÖ also supports other actors in the EU who challenge the bloc’s common foreign policy toward Russia, especially the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as shown in Figure 5. The FPÖ applauded him on Facebook for blocking an EU aid package for Ukraine: “Bravo Viktor Orbán! Put an end to this EU warmongering!” (FPÖ, 2022c). Thus, the sanctions against Russia and aid packages for Ukraine are both framed as breaches of Austrian neutrality. Herbert Kickl and other leading FPO officials have repeated these lines of criticism in parliamentary speeches (Parlament Österreich, 2022b). However, despite the FPÖ’s stance on neutrality
Figure 5: FPÖ Facebook post about Orbán’s blocking an EU aid package for Ukraine
Source: FPÖ (2022c)
Voter preferences and support for the Freedom Party
Since the FPÖ has called for both early elections and a referendum on sanctions against Russia, the question remains about how relevant this stance is for voters. In August 2022, the Austrian daily Der Standard reported that the public is split along party lines — supporters of the mainstream and centrist parties back sanctions on Russia, while FPÖ sympathizers are overwhelmingly opposed. However, the overall majority in support was small and thus vulnerable to further adverse developments, such as new spikes in energy prices or even energy shortages and power outages (Seidl, 2022b). In addition, political circles in Austria feared that a severe winter would significantly erode public support.
This view is confirmed by polling data in Figure 6, showing that the central concerns for many Austrians are rising prices and the widening gap between poor and rich, followed by climate change and the war in Ukraine (SORA, 2022). These sentiments are closely connected with expressions of anger about the current political situation, which is often directed against those in power (ibid.).
Figure 6: Important issues for Austrian voters, 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from SORA (2022, p. 8).
As Figure 7 shows, growing geopolitical insecurity has also not shaken the traditional preference for Austria’s policy of neutrality (Seidl, 2022a), which, according to a survey by the Austrian Institute for European Politics (ÖGfE), is favoured by 9 out of 10 Austrians (ÖGfE 2022a). Similarly, most respondents reject the idea of joining NATO or even participating in a common European security system (Seidl, 2022a).
In fact, FPÖ voters and those of the small populist anti-vaccination party (MFG) are most in favour of neutrality over participating in a Europe-wide security system. Still, neutrality is also preferred by a large number of ÖVP and SPÖ voters. Only Greens and NEOs voters, who presumably support the internationalist outlook of those parties, oppose neutrality in large numbers. Nonetheless, there is no overall majority in Austria for abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the European security system. This isolationist streak among Austrians makes the FPÖ’s position potentially attractive beyond its core constituency (i.e., ÖVP and SPÖ supporters).
Figure 7: Austrian voters’ attitudes towards neutrality in 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from Seidl (2022a)
Additionally, polling commissioned by Der Standard in December 2022 suggested that the FPÖ would either share first place with the SPÖ or win outright if an election were held the following week (Seidl, 2022c). In fact, as Figure 8 indicates, the FPÖ had 29% of support — ahead of the SPÖ and all centrist parties (Seidl, 2022c) — a 13 percentage-point increase in the space of three years.
Figure 8: Party support among Austrian voters, December 2022
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from Seidel (2022c).
The Austrian Freedom Party has avoided defending Russia’s war of aggression outright but applies populist framing that presents Austrians as victims of the policy machinations of unaccountable national and Western political elites. These policy decisions vis-à-vis Russia are portrayed as ineffective and counterproductive and blamed for contributing to the escalation of the conflict. The FPÖ accuses the EU of adopting its Russia policy without popular consent and lays the blame on Brussels for rising prices and deteriorating living standards (FPÖ, 2022a, 2022e). This approach is an extension of the FPÖ’s traditional Euroscepticism (Heinisch et al., 2021) and anti-establishment positioning, which has underpinned the party’s traditional support base of about one-quarter of the electorate.
The FPÖ seeks to further broaden this appeal by emphasizing Austria’s traditional policy orientation of neutrality in military conflicts and recalling the benefits of close economic relations with Russia. Moreover, by attributing negative economic news to the EU sanctions, the FPÖ can distinguish itself from all other parties in parliament and deflect criticism for its historical pro-Putin positioning.
Support for Ukraine among Austrians has remained lower than elsewhere in the EU (Mory, 2022). Nonetheless, Russian atrocities, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the frequent military setbacks of the Russian army, and the Kremlin’s general ineptitude in conducting the war, have left their mark on Austrians. As a result, the FPÖ must be careful not to appear too extreme in its positions. The FPÖ has worked tirelessly to overcome its erstwhile Nazi image; it has little desire to be seen all too obviously as Moscow’s stooge.
(*) Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian Politics at the University of Salzburg and currently serves as head of the Department of Political Science. His research on comparative populism, political parties, the Radical Right, and democracy has appeared in journals such as the European Journal of Political Research, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, Party Politics, Democratization, and West European Politics, among others. He recently completed a Horizon 2020 project on populism and democracy. Relevant book publications include Understanding Populist Party Organization: The Radical Right in Western Europe (Palgrave, 2016), The People and the Nation: Populism and Ethno-Territorial Politics (Routledge, 2019) and Political Populism. A Handbook (Nomos, 2021). He is an affiliated faculty member of the European Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh and is a regular visiting scholar at Renmin University of China in Beijing. Email: email@example.com
(**) Diana Hofmann is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Salzburg. Her research focuses on the effects of populist and nationalist attitudes on political participation and voting behaviour. Drawing on her expertise in quantitative research methods, she is also a researcher in the project on populism and conspiracy theories funded by the Austrian Science Fund. Moreover, she is currently involved in a project to help secondary school students across Austria better understand the concepts of populism and democracy from a political science perspective. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heinisch, R. (2003). Success in opposition–failure in government: Exploring the performance of the Austrian Freedom Party and other European right-wing populist parties in public office. West European Politics, 26(3), 91–130.
Heinisch, R. (2017). Demokratiekritik und (Rechts) Populismus: Modellfall Öster. In L. Helms & D. M. Wineroither (Eds.), Die österreichische Demokratie im Vergleich (pp. 449-477). Nomos Verlag.
Heinisch, R., McDonnell, D., & Werner, A. (2021). Equivocal Euroscepticism: How populist Radical Right parties can have their EU cake and eat it. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies,59(2), 189–205.
Mory, F. (2022, December 14). Unterstützung für Ukraine in Österreich geringer als EU-weit. Der Standard. https://www.derstandard.at/jetzt/livebericht/2000141776822/redcontent/1000291371?responsive=false
Pauwels, Teun. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on ties between the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Putin regime.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0013
The populist Radical Right party, Vlaams Belang (VB), has consistently proved itself a successful electoral competitor in Belgian politics. Already in 2004, the party obtained 24% of the vote in Flanders, focusing on issues such as immigration, Flemish nationalism, crime and law and order. As of 2007, however, the party faced increasing competition from the Flemish nationalist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which has been able to present itself as a democratic alternative to the populist VB. In recent years, the VB has tended to radicalize rather than moderate its tone to differentiate itself from competitors. While foreign policy has not been a salient issue within VB ideology, various party members have developed close ties to the Putin regime since 2010. For example, Filip Dewinter, a prominent member of the VB, has met Russian officials and appeared in Russian media. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. The current leader, Tom Van Grieken, has admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter has strongly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about sanctions against Russia.
The Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB) has consistently been one of the most successful populist Radical Right parties in Europe. In its early years, the VB was a real fringe party focusing almost exclusively on the goal of an autonomous Flemish state. As a result, only its leader Karel Dillen, who previously had shown sympathy towards the collaboration movement during German occupation, managed to gain representation in the national parliament when he was elected in 1978. However, after ideological and organizational changes, the party made its electoral breakthrough at the 1991 general elections (also known in Belgium as “Black Sunday” due to the VB’s success), gaining more than 10 % of the votes in Flanders.
In the south of Belgium, the Front National (FN) tried to reproduce the success of its French counterpart led by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite some occasional successes, the Belgian FN failed to break through. Led by the erratic Daniel Féret, who was unable to organize the party in a coherent way, the Belgian FN is no longer represented in the national parliament. Using evidence from interviews with media practitioners, De Jonge (2019) suggests that in the absence of a credible right-wing populist challenger, media practitioners in Wallonia adhere to a strict demarcation, whereas the Flemish media have become gradually more accommodating to the populist Radical Right. Since the populist Radical Right has been only successful in the Flemish part of Belgium, this report will focus entirely on the VB.
The structure of this report is as follows. First, we will briefly provide an overview of the ideology of the VB before turning to the organizational and electoral development of the party over time. The final section explores the relationship with the Putin regime and the impact of the war with Ukraine on VB’s ties with the Kremlin.
The ideology of the Vlaams Belang
The VB can be considered a textbook example of a populist Radical Right party focusing on nativism, populism and authoritarianism. Therefore, it is worth briefly outlining what each of these themes means and how they apply in the case of the VB.
Nativism is an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (“the nation”) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state (Mudde, 2007). Since the Flemish “nation” does not coincide with the state (Belgium), it has been evident to the VB that the artificial Belgian state should cease to exist and that the Flemish and the Walloons should go their separate ways. An independent Flemish republic has always been the principal goal of the VB. With the challenge of immigration, the VB has come to further underscore the need for internal homogenization. In 1992, Filip Dewinter developed a seventy-point programme, which provided an operational plan for the guided repatriation of non-European foreigners to their countries of origin (Mudde, 2000). These harsh stances have been softened throughout the years, and by 2003, Dewinter admitted that the plan was no longer realistic. Today the VB sees non-European immigrants and particularly Muslims, as one of the main threats to the nation. The party stresses the fundamental and irreconcilable antagonism between Islam and Western values and argues that Muslims increasingly impose their values upon the Flemings.
Even though the party featured elitist viewpoints in its early phase, the VB has increasingly presented itself as populist since the 1990s. The “pure people” is the equivalent of the common Fleming, who is honest, works hard and pays taxes but is politically quiescent. These people, the VB alleges, have been betrayed by a corrupt political class, which is willing to sell the Flemish cause due to self-interest. This corrupt mechanism is reinforced by the media, which is dependent upon subsidies (and is hence biased). Like other populist parties, the VB favours direct democracy to remove power from the establishment and give it back to the people.
Consistent with its nationalist–populist ideology, the VB thinks the individual cannot be separated from tradition and can only develop within his ethnic community. The traditional family, consisting of a heterosexual couple whose duty is to contribute to the continuity of the Flemish people, is considered the smallest unit of a harmonious, organic society. The party favours the promotion of traditional values to combat what it sees as an ongoing process of moral decay. In line with traditional ethics, it is argued that human life is only possible in a well-ordered community focusing on law and order (authoritarianism).
The development of the party over time
Figure 1 shows the electoral results of the VB in national and regional elections from 1978 until 2019. It reveals that the party has gone through roughly four phases: (1) party development at the margin of the Belgian party system (1978–1990); (2) electoral breakthrough (1991–2004); (3) new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014); and (4) renewal and electoral comeback (2015-present).
Figure 1: Electoral results for the Vlaams Belang in regional (Flemish) and national (Belgian) elections, 1978–2019
Source: Pauwels, 2014; Vlaams Parlement, 2019; Note: Figures represent the share of the vote the VB achieved in Flanders at each election (national and regional)
Phase I: Early developments at the margin of the party system (1978–1990)
The Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) emerged in 1978 following rising dissatisfaction with the Flemish nationalist Volksunie (VU). In the second half of the 1970s, the VU’s perceived overly moderate and left-leaning stances drew increasing criticism from the Flemish movement. This frustration peaked when the VU signed the so-called Egmont Pact, which envisioned a reform of the Belgian state leading to autonomy for the regions while also granting the French-speaking population in the periphery of Brussels some privileges. As a result, one VU member, Lode Claes, quit the party and established the Vlaamse Vokspartij (VVP). At the same time, Karel Dillen founded the Vlaams-Nationale Partij (VNP). The two parties decided to participate in the federal elections of 1978 under the name Vlaams Blok (VB). Against expectations, Dillen, and not Claes, was elected. The latter decided to leave politics, and Dillen absorbed the nationalist wing of the VVP. In May 1979, the VNP was dissolved, and the VB was officially established. The VB remained a small fringe party dominated by Dillen in its early years. Its programmatic focus was almost entirely directed against the Egmont Pact while striving for an independent Flemish state.
Phase II: Cordon sanitiare, breakthrough and electoral peak (1991–2004)
At the end of the 1980s, Dillen started a project to “rejuvenate” the party, promoting several young VB members within the party. As a result, a youth organization called Vlaams Blok Jongeren (VBJ) was established by, among others, Dewinter and Frank Vanhecke. However, these changes provoked internal tensions as a group of committed VB members accused the VBJ group of sidelining the Flemish cause in favour of the anti-immigrant issue in 1988. Dillen supported the VBJ, leading to the exit of the dissatisfied VB members and strengthening Dewinter’s position (Mudde, 2000). As a result, the VB gradually started to evolve into a modern populist Radical Right party.
The ideological and organizational changes started to pay off at the end of the 1980s. At local elections in 1987, the VB showed its electoral potential by gaining 17.7% of the vote in the city of Antwerp. The party’s national breakthrough came in 1991 when it secured 10.3% of the Flemish vote in the general election (corresponding to 6.6% of the national vote) (see Figure 1). “Black Sunday”, as the election came to be known, alarmed all the other Belgian parties, who agreed to construct a cordon sanitaire around the VB by pledging not to cooperate with it under any circumstances and on any political level. In 1996, Vanhecke — widely considered a consensus figure between the Flemish nationalist wing (symbolized by Gerolf Annemans) and the anti-immigrant wing (represented by Dewinter) — replaced Dillen as VB leader.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal in Ghent condemned several VB organizations for violating Belgium’s Anti-Racism Law, passed in 1981. Consequently, the party changed its name from Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang. The party also moderated its discourse somewhat, indicated by Dewinter’s admission that his infamous seventy-point plan was no longer realistic. Still, the changes were acknowledged as more about tone than substance. At the 2004 party conference, Vanhecke confirmed that the VB changed its name but not its identity. Still, the court’s ruling significantly increased the party’s visibility in the media and enabled the VB to present itself as the “victim” of the established parties. A few months after the 2004 conference, the VB polled its best result ever, taking 24% of the vote at regional and European elections in June (Pauwels, 2014).
Phase III: new competitors causing electoral decline (2005–2014)
The party faced its first electoral setbacks in the elections of 2007 and 2009. This setback cannot be explained by demand-side theories such as shifting public opinion on immigration or political trust, which remained static. Instead, the VB’s declining fortunes reflected a shrinking ideological niche for the populist Radical Right (Pauwels, 2011). On the one hand, the party faced competition from the newly established Lijst Dedecker (LDD), a neoliberal populist party that campaigned on a platform of defending hard-working people against corrupt elites and big government. On the other hand, a new party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (Flemish Nationalist Alliance or N-VA), gained momentum. The party was formed in 2001 as the successor of the VU, which had split because of internal tensions.
After the VU’s implosion, the N-VA had a hard time proving its relevance to Belgian voters. Therefore, the party chose an electoral alliance with the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, CD&V) in 2004. Following the 2007 elections, the CD&V–N-VA alliance promised meaningful state reform but failed to achieve much due to the formidable resistance of most francophone parties. Consequently, the N-VA left the coalition, claiming the Christian Democrats were insufficiently bold in defending Flemish autonomy. As a result, in 2009, the N-VA reprised its traditional role as the anti-establishment party in Belgium. Due to a broadening of its ideological profile and the emergence of Bart De Wever, a wildly popular party member, the N-VA was able to revive its Flemish nationalist credentials among voters at the expense of the VB.
A post-electoral analysis in 2009 showed that the LDD and the N-VA had siphoned off 8 and 15% of VB voters, respectively (Pauwels, 2011: 72). Plagued by internal tensions, the LDD disintegrated rapidly. In contrast, as of 2010, the N-VA had become the largest Flemish party and continued to be successful afterwards. Post-electoral research suggested that at the national elections of 2010, the N-VA picked up 32% of those who had voted for the VB in 2007 (Swyngedouw et al., 2012: 13). At the elections of May 2014, the VB achieved its worst result since 1987. Five months later, the 28-year-old Tom Van Grieken, was elected as party president.
Phase IV: renewal and electoral comeback (2015-current)
After 2015, the VB sought to pursue two opposing strategies. The first was party mainstreaming, as advocated by the new party leadership; the second was radicalization pushed by a faction led by Dewinter (Van Haute & Pauwels, 2016). The mainstreaming strategy aims to polish the sharp edges of the party programme in an attempt to get closer to power and overcome the cordon sanitaire. On the other hand, Dewinter’s strategy to restore the VB’s electoral relevance differs as he believes breaking the cordon is unrealistic. Instead, for Dewinter, the VB should acquire policy influence by putting pressure on the mainstream parties (the so-called “whip party” doctrine). A good illustration of the tensions inherent in this dual strategy occurred in 2016 when Dewinter and Anke Vandermeersch held a speech for the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn after which party president Van Grieken openly criticized and sanctioned them (Pauwels and van Haute, 2017).
Despite internal tensions, the VB performed well in the 2019 elections. And according to an opinion poll conducted in November 2022, the VB could secure 26% of the votes making it potentially the largest Flemish party (Knack, 2022). While it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about why the VB gained momentum, two elements might play a role. First, the issues of immigration and terrorism have become more salient. The ongoing refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016 sparked extensive debate on immigration and multiculturalism. Eurobarometer data from 2019 suggest these issues are salient all over Europe; indeed, immigration is the most important concern at the EU level, as mentioned by more than a third of Europeans (European Union, 2019). Second, the N-VA has been part of the governing coalition at the regional (Flemish) level for almost two decades while the VB remained in permanent opposition. It is possible that voters who hold more (radical) right-wing ideas think the N-VA has become too moderate and consensus-seeking and have thus given thought to again voting for the VB.
Ties between the VB and the Putin regime and the impact of the war in Ukraine
Foreign policy has not been a salient part of the VB’s ideology. For instance, the party manifestos of 2007 and 2019 devoted just 3.5% and 6.3% of space to the issue, respectively. However, within the foreign policy debate, the EU has become an issue of growing importance. On the one hand, the EU has been recognized as a virtue, creating welfare and peace while providing an opportunity for a “Flemish nation” within a confederal “Europe of fatherlands”. At the same time, the VB has a Eurosceptic side that denounces the current European “superstate” for undermining national sovereignty, particularly concerning immigration policy. The bureaucratic nature of the EU and financial transfers within Europe are other targets of party criticism (Abts et al., 2015).
Regarding defence policy, the VB’s position could be summarized as “pragmatic” and “neutral”, in order to guarantee national security. This pragmatism is illustrated by its stance concerning NATO. Given the lack of a European alternative, the VB supports Belgium’s NATO membership at a time of increasing security threats. At the same time, the party is sceptical towards NATO because it makes Europe overly dependent on the United States. The VB, therefore, calls for more military investments and cooperation with Belgium’s European allies to create a credible alternative to NATO and gain leverage in the international community. The recent invasion of Ukraine is explicitly mentioned as an illustration of the powerlessness of Europe in this respect (De Wachter, 2022).
While Russia has hardly been an issue in the VB’s official party literature, some VB members such as Frank Creyelman, Jan Penris, and Dewinter have been increasingly vocal in their support for the Putin regime, at least before the war in Ukraine. These more radical thinkers inside the party see Russia as an ally against globalization and Islam. For example, Dewinter has applauded Putin for promoting national sovereignty while defending Russia’s identity and conservative Christian values. He furthermore stated that “the only good thing about the Iron Curtain is that it has saved Eastern Europe from political correctness, multiculturalism and ‘wokeness’”, while embracing the dream of an “independent Europe from Vladivostok to the North Sea, separate from America, China and certainly the Arab world” (Verbergt, 2022).
In 2014, three VB members (Creyelmans, Penris and Christian Verougstraete) travelled to Crimea as “observers” of the referendum on Russia’s annexation of the region. It should be added that the party president at that time (Annemans) distanced himself from this action and stated that the VB “has no business in Ukraine” (Van Thillo, 2014). For his part, Dewinter has had meetings with, among others, Russia’s deputy prime minister and the president of the Russian parliament. He has also appeared several times in Russian media. Nevertheless, whether there are financial links between the VB and Russia has never been substantiated. However, this question has become increasingly relevant, as shown by the liberal Flemish Open VLD party’s recent call for an investigation into potential foreign influence and undermining of democracy. In doing so, the liberals focus, among other things, on the foreign financing of political parties and individual politicians (De Boeck, 2022).
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the VB was forced to shift its position on Putin’s regime. Tom Van Grieken has claimed that the party initially considered Russia an ally against multiculturalism but admitted he was seriously mistaken about Putin. Even Dewinter strongly condemned Putin as a dictator who had “totally lost it”. Political opponents have used Russia’s invasion to attack the VB. In April 2022, Russian consul general Georgy Kuznetsov was reportedly asked to leave Belgium on suspicion of espionage. Dewinter has been publicly seen with Kuznetsov several times and even invited him to the Flemish parliament. When it became known that Kuznetsov was potentially involved in espionage, the socialist party Vooruit (Forward) called on Dewinter to resign as first vice president of the Flemish parliament (which did not happen).
Since February 2022, the VB has distanced itself from Putin, noting that Russia’s invasion is a flagrant violation of international law. At the same time, the party remains sceptical about the harsh and “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia. This scepticism toward sanctions is informed, for the most part, by pragmatic economic arguments. There is the fear that “the Russian bear” might “claw back” in response to the sanctions with severely adverse consequences for already “exploding energy costs” (De Wachter, 2022). This might be surprising given the relatively high support for the current actions taken to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Belgium as well as in most other European countries (European Union, 2022). In November 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. While this resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of MEPs, the three from the VB chose to abstain.
Despite its ups and downs, the VB has been consistently successful in Belgian politics for over four decades. Foreign policy has not been a significant concern for the party, and when addressing international issues, it has called for a pragmatic or neutral approach to secure national interests. Yet some prominent VB members have developed ties with the Putin regime over time. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the party leadership and pro-Russian voices inside the party clearly condemned Putin. At the same time, the VB remains sceptical about “poorly thought out” sanctions against Russia because of the potential (economic) backfiring.
As explained earlier, the VB is doing very well in the polls, and it appears the party’s “position switch” on Russia has not harmed it in electoral terms. This is probably because the VB has never been focusing on foreign policy much and is also not associated with this issue by the voters. Instead, the VB remains the issue owner on topics like immigration, which remains a highly visible and contested subject. Combined with a very long governing period at the regional level of its rival N-VA, it seems that the populist Radical Right remains an attractive electoral alternative in the Flemish part of Belgium.
(*) Teun Pauwels holds a PhD in political science (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and is currently working as a policy analyst for the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training. He is the author of Populism in Western Europe. Comparing Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands (2014, Routledge).
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Pauwels, T. (2014). Populism in Western Europe: Comparing Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Routledge
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Van Haute, E., & Pauwels, T. (2016) The Vlaams Belang: Party organization and party dynamics. In R. Heinisch, & O. Mazzoleni (Eds.), Understanding populist party organisation: The Radical Right in Western Europe (pp. 49–77). Palgrave.
Petsinis, Vassilis. (2023). “The repercussions of the war in Ukraine on Croatia’s Far Right.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0014
This report deals with the repercussions of the war in Ukraine on the national conservative parties, as well as the radical and extremist right, in Croatia. It focuses closely on these actors’ attempts to draw parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s, known as the “Homeland War” (Domovinski rat). It also seeks to place into context what, if anything, is so “specific” about the activism of this party family concerning the war in Ukraine – including any “dissident” stances in comparison to the political mainstream. This report covers the most established parties of the Croatian Far Right but focuses most closely on the national conservative Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret). This report clarifies how this party: 1) seeks to draw a linkage between the developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War; and 2) utilizes this process in its endeavour to antagonize Croatia’s ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union.
Keywords:National conservativism; Radical Right; Croatia; Ukraine; Yugoslav Wars; Russia–Ukraine war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been generating shockwaves across Central and Southeastern Europe. Andrej Plenković, Croatia’s prime minister and chairman of the ruling centre-right, conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has pledged that his government will continue to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine and provide material support to the Ukrainian refugees hosted in Croatia (Jutarnji, 2023). Opposition parties such as the centre-left Social Democrat Party (SDP) and the Green–Left coalition Možemo (“We Can!”) have backed the government, asserting that the Croatian state should, within its capacities, provide Ukraine with the technological expertise and the logistical equipment required to withstand Russia’s invasion.
This report concentrates on the repercussions of the war on the national conservative parties, as well as the radical right, in Croatia. It focuses closely on these actors’ attempts to draw parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s, known as the “Homeland War” (Domovinski rat). It also seeks to place into context what, if anything, is so “specific” about the activism of this party family concerning the war in Ukraine – including any “dissident” stances in comparison to the political mainstream.
It begins by analysing the reactions to the conflict in Ukraine among the most established political parties of the Croatian far right, all of which claim to descend from Croatia’s original Party of Rights, founded by two nationalists, Ante Starčević and Eugen Kvaternik, in 1861—namely, the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), the Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP), and the Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP). The analysis also touches on minor parties like the Croatian Party of Rights 1861 (HSP 1861)—which, as the name suggests, also claims lineage from the original party—as well as grassroots and paramilitary actors. However, the principal focus is how the current war has been framed and interpreted by Croatia’s national conservative Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), which emerged as the third-largest party in the Croatian Parliament (the Sabor) after the June 2020 elections. The report asks how and to what extent this party: 1) seeks to draw a linkage between the developments in Ukraine and the identity and memory politics of the Homeland War and 2) utilizes this process in its endeavour to antagonize the ruling HDZ.
The findings of the report emerge from qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2012). The primary material consists of official documents such as party programmes, statements, and declarations issued by the parties under study, complemented with quotations of leading members of these parties, monitored in the Croatian and international press, expert reports, and public surveys.
Croatia’s “Homeland war” (1991–95): National imageries and political appropriations
The “Homeland War” refers to the conflict over Croatian independence fought by the country’s armed forces, first against the Yugoslav military (1991-92) and then the forces of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska Krajina in 1992-95. The interpretations of the war vary and are subject to the cleavages across Croatia’s party spectrum (Cvikić et al., 2014; Banjeglav, 2012).
However, these diverse understandings converge in recognizing the Homeland War as a landmark event in consolidating Croatian statehood (Šuligoj & Rudan, 2022). Of greater significance here is nationalist political actors’ utilization of the war and its symbolism. Notably, the eastern Slavonian town of Vukovar has been awarded the status of “master symbol” in the nationalist imageries of the Homeland War due to the fierce resistance that the Croatian forces put up against Yugoslav and Serb auxiliary units there from August to November 1991. More recently, between 2013 and 2016, a series of mass protests against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script took place in Vukovar (Pavelić, 2013). The organizers of these demonstrations had deemed it unacceptable that the Serb Cyrillic script would be officially used in a town with such traumatic memories and a centrality in the symbolism of the Homeland War (Koska & Matan, 2017).
Croatia’s far right and the war in Ukraine: Reactions by the established actors
The Croatian Party of Rights (HSP)
Dobroslav Paraga and Ante Paradžik established the HSP in February 1990. The leadership pledged commitment to the legacy of Starčević and Kvaternik, the nineteenth-century nationalists who founded the Party of Rights and laid the ground for modern Croatian nationalism. The HSP has no seats in the national parliament (the Sabor). However, the party controls the town halls of Popovača (City of Popovača, 2023) and Gospić. The mayor of Gospić is the former party chairman, Karlo Starčević (Gradonačelnik, n.d.).
Between 1991 and 1993, the HSP dispatched its paramilitary unit to Slavonia and Herzegovina (Petsinis, 2022). Between 2013 and 2016, the HSP participated in protests against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script in Vukovar. In the “Vukovar Declaration” of 2018, the party condemned “all those political forces who obstructed, prevented, or falsified the investigation process for the war crimes committed (by the Yugoslav and Serb paramilitary forces) during the Homeland War” (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2018).
As soon as Russia commenced its invasion on February 24, 2022, the HSP leadership expressed its unequivocal support for Ukraine by emphasizing that “what is defended with blood is not given away easily” (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2022). However, neither the party website nor the issues of the official HSP magazine, Hrvatsko Pravo (Croatian Right), nor any other declarations published between late February and December 2022 made any additional references to the war in Ukraine. Instead, the principal focus of the HSP’s official publications was internal party matters, anti-corruption themes and the function of Croatia’s judicial system, the veneration of selected historical figures (e.g., Ante Starčević and Rafael Boban), the situation of the ethnic Croat communities in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the obligation to safeguard the symbolism of the Homeland War (Hrvatska Stranka Prava, n.d.). Meanwhile, no evidence exists that the HSP organized demonstrations or other public events supporting Ukraine during that period.
The Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP)
The A-HSP was established in 2005. Like the HSP and the HČSP, it operates as an extra-parliamentary actor, having won no seats in the 2020 election (see Table 1). An ideological difference between the A-HSP and the HSP or the HČSP consists in the greater stress placed by this party on the purported “cultural exceptionalism of the Croatian nation” in relation to the Slavic, Germanic, and Latin realms of cultural influence. This party has been accused of inciting hatred against the ethnic Serb minority (HINA, 2018).
On February 25, 2022, the A-HSP chairman, Dražen Keleminec, wholeheartedly voiced his solidarity with the struggle of the Ukrainian nation against “the new Hitler, Vladimir Putin […] and his endeavour to erase Ukrainian statehood” (Autohtona–Hrvatska Stranka Prava, 2022). Keleminec also drew a linkage between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and “the invasion of Croatia by Putin’s allies, the Serbs, in the 1990s” and contended that “Ukrainians and Croats share the same ancestry from the ‘White Croats’ of the Middle Ages” (ibid.). Despite its marginality, the A-HSP has been more active and consistent than the HSP and the HČSP in its promotion of pro-Ukraine themes through the official website and other media. The party leadership has been repeatedly comparing the war in Ukraine with Croatia’s Homeland War (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022a). Furthermore, the A-HSP dubbed Croatian President, Zoran Milanović, a “man in the service of the Kremlin” (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022b) and has been warning about the alleged “recruitment of Croats among the ranks of KGB spies” (Hrvatska Desnica, 2022c).
The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP)
The HČSP (founded in December 1992) claims continuity from the original Croatian Pure Party of Rights established in 1895 (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, n.d. a). The leadership pledges commitment to the legacies of Starčević and has equally been accused of historical revisionism and attempts at rehabilitating the fascist wartime Ustaše movement and the Nazi puppet state in Croatia during the Second World War (Vidov, 2015). Nevertheless, this party is even weaker than the HSP, without a single deputy in the Sabor (see Table 1) or any municipality under its control. In its extensive programme, the HČSP pledges to protect the dignity of the Homeland War and its legacy (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2021).
The HČSP leadership was quick on their feet to draw parallels with the Homeland War and grant its categorical support to Ukraine as soon as Russia invaded the country in late February 2022. In a more extensive declaration in comparison to the one issued by the HSP, the party underlined that “no one can be allowed to impose their will on a sovereign nation through violence […] in these difficult times we voice our solidarity to the Ukrainian people and the brave Ukrainian defenders who fight for their homeland” (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, n.d. b). The HČSP also expressed its anxieties over a potential “spill over” of the conflict to neighbouring regions. At the same time, in accordance with its programmatic apprehension vis-à-vis the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the party leadership castigated the “so-called allies” of Ukraine for “responding to Russia’s aggression only with economic sanctions and not with more drastic and urgently required measures” (ibid.).
Nevertheless, in a similar vein as the HSP, HČSP’s official website and the other party publications prioritize topics such as the operation of the party’s local committees across Croatia (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022b); the commemoration of the Homeland War in its major sites (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022c), and the veneration of leading figures from the NDH period, including Ante Pavelić (Hrvatska Čista Stranka Prava, 2022a). Furthermore, there is no evidence that the party has coordinated any protests or other public manifestations in support of Ukraine since late February 2022.
A ‘dissident’ outlier? The case of the Croatian Party of Rights 1861
Dobroslav Paraga, a formerly leading member of the HSP, established the HSP 1861 in 1995. This party is not represented in the Sabor (See Table 1). The programmatic principles of the HSP 1861 converge with those of the HČSP and the A-HSP along their criticism of NATO. However, with specific regard to the war in Ukraine, the HSP 1861 went several steps ahead the other two parties. In early March 2022, the party leadership contended that “Croatia is in greater danger from its NATO membership than from Russian aggression” and estimated that “Ukraine will opt for military neutrality” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2022).
The HSP 1861 condemned the Russian invasion and acknowledged the yearning of the Ukrainian nation for freedom, democracy, and independence. However, the party argued that this cannot be achieved through Ukraine’s membership of NATO and accused the alliance of having “provoked” Russia to invade the country. The party dubbed, Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “NATO puppet who did nothing to implement the terms of the Minsk Agreement (2015)” and drew an indirect parallel between he and Ivo Sanader (ibid.). The party underlined that “Ukraine must be a bridge between Russia and the EU and not an apple of discord between Russia and NATO” (ibid.).This party’s principled and integral opposition to NATO brings the HSP 1861 close to the outlooks of parties such as “Our Slovakia” (Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko, 2022) and “Greeks for the Homeland” (Kasidiaris, 2022) on the war in Ukraine.
The role of grassroots and paramilitary actors
Since 2014, there are allegations that small numbers of Croatian extreme right-wingers had fought on an individual basis with the Azov Movement in eastern Ukraine. A prominent part in the recruitment of these individuals was played by Denis Šeler, a former leader of FC Dinamo Zagreb’s “Bad Blue Boys” ultras (Colborne, 2019). In March 2022, sources from the Russian defence ministry claimed that 200 Croatian citizens had gone to fight in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the ministry rejected those allegations (Grgurinović, 2022). Moreover, the Croatian branch of the extremist “Blood and Honour” coalition is said to have been maintaining links to likeminded groupings in Ukraine. However, “Blood and Honour” did not issue any statements regarding the war in Ukraine (Kuloglija, 2022).
Ambitious contenders from the right and the war in Ukraine: The Homeland Movement
The Homeland Movement (DP) was established in February 2020 by former singer and TV host Miroslav Škoro. In the parliamentary elections of July 2020, the DP garnered 10.89% of the vote, sending 16 deputies to the Sabor (out of 151 seats), and took the third spot after the HDZ and SDP (Table 1). The party benefited from the weakening of the HDZ’s “right-wing faction” on the municipal and local levels, especially in the war-ravaged territories of Slavonia (Hrvatski Sabor, 2020). This was largely the case with the departure of Vukovar’s mayor and current leader of the DP, Ivan Penava, from the HDZ in May 2020 and his decision to join forces with the DP (Dnevnik, 2020). In 2016, Penava had played a pivotal part in the coordination of the demonstrations against the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script (Petsinis, 2022).
On February 24, 2022, Ivan Penava stated that “our party expresses its firm solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people […] we hope that this conflict will last as shortly as possible with as few human and material losses as possible” (Domovinski Pokret, 2022a). The same politician urged the state authorities to organize the accommodation of Ukrainian refugees in Croatia and allocate the material resources required in an efficient manner. In addition to highlighting the commonalities between the Homeland War and the developments in Ukraine, Penava cast doubts on the competence of the government to manage a migration crisis in Croatia (ibid.) Furthermore, on April 6, 2022, the party’s MP Stipo Mlinarić praised Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dealing with the ’fifth column’ in Ukraine and lamented the fact that “the HDZ-led government has not done the same with the “fifth column” that operates from within the Serbian Democratic Independent Party (Domovinski Pokret, 2022b).
Since 2020, the primary objective of the DP has been to antagonize the HDZ and the ruling party’s more nationalistic and socially conservative “right-wing faction” with which the DP shares core principles on identity politics (e.g., ethnic minority issues, gender-related themes, and the informal partnership between the Catholic Church and the state). So far, there is no evidence that the emphasis on the war in Ukraine alone has assisted the party to augment its appeal vis-à-vis the HDZ. On the contrary, as indicated in several public surveys, conducted by the Promocija Plus, 2X1 Komunikacije, and Ipsos polling agencies between March and December 2022, the DP has been lagging behind both Možemo and the centre-right Bridge List according to Europe Elects (https://europeelects.eu/croatia/).
To reverse this decline in popularity, the DP has been putting simultaneous stress on the rapidly increasing cost of living and the government’s alleged incompetence to harness the galloping inflation (Domovinski Pokret, 2022c). In this light, the strategy of the DP appears to resemble the policymaking patterns of populist and radical right-wing parties—such as Estonia’s far-right party, EKRE (ERR, 2022a, 2022b)—which have prioritized the deteriorating economic situation since the autumn of 2022.
Table 1. Vote share selected parties in the Croatian parliamentary elections (July 2020)
Several actors in the far-right spectrum of Croatian politics have sought to draw linkages between the war in Ukraine and the Homeland War. Among the older parties of the radical and extremist right, the HSP, the HČSP, and the A-HSP converge along their unconditional support for Ukraine, whereas the HSP 1861 prioritizes its geopolitical opposition to NATO. Nevertheless, as a result of their marginality, all these parties place a disproportionally higher emphasis on domestic politics than on the developments in Ukraine since late February 2022. Meanwhile, the DP, as a more ambitious actor, does not seem to have capitalized sufficiently on the conflict in Ukraine as a trajectory towards boosting their appeal, either. As a closing remark, I would note that both the DP and the forces of Croatia’s radical right appear to converge on the prioritization of themes such as anti-corruption and dealing with the increasing energy costs and the cost of living in general in their political discourses.
(*) Vassilis Petsinisis an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Corvinus University (Institute of Global Studies) in Budapest, Hungary. He is a political scientist with expertise in European Politics and Ethnopolitics. His Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA-IF) individual research project at the University of Tartu (2017–19) was entitled: “Patterns and management of ethnic relations in the Western Balkans and the Baltic States” (project ID: 749400-MERWBKBS). As a specialist in the politics of Central and Eastern Europe, Petsinis is the author of the monographs National Identity in Serbia: The Vojvodina and a Multiethnic Community in the Balkans (Bloomsbury, 2020) and Cross-regional Ethnopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe: Lessons from the Western Balkans and the Baltic States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), as well as other academic publications that cover a range of countries as diverse as Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Greece.
Kasidiaris, I [@IliasKasidiaris]. (2022, March 4). My geostrategic analysis, on the war in #Ukraine, the evolution of business, the new status quo that is being created in the world, and what should be Greece’s position in the events [Video attached] [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/iliaskasidiaris/status/1499661169610604544
Koska, V., & Matan, A. (2017). Croatian citizenship regime and traumatized categories of Croatian citizens: Serb minority and Croatian defenders of the Homeland War. Politička Misao, 54(1–2), 119–149.
Petsinis, V. (2022). Croatia turning to the Right: The right-wing faction and hot-button issues. In N. Mörner (Ed.), The many faces of the Far Right in the post-communist space, A comparative study of Far-Right movements and identity in the region (pp. 76–83). Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies (Östersjöstiftelsen). http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1640388/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
Schreier, M. (2012). Qualitative Content Analysis in Practice. SAGE.
 In Vukovar and other parts of Slavonia where the ethnic Serb population meets the 30% threshold prescribed by Croatian law, the official use of the Serb Cyrillic script has not been implemented largely due to public opposition.
 Rafael Boban was a military commander in the fascist Ustaše (“Insurgents”) militia under the rule of the Nazi puppet state in Croatia (NDH) created in 1941. He disappeared in 1945 but a right-wing cult grew up around him in subsequent years.
 Zoran Milanović is said to have maintained a controversial stance on Ukraine. On this issue, see Trkanjec (2022) and Radosavljević (2022).
 Ivo Sanader is a former Croatian prime minister (2003–09) and member of the HDZ who is serving a sentence in prison on corruption charges. Croatia was admitted into NATO in 2009 at the end of his term in office.
 One should add that, as early as the Euromaidan protests in 2014, the HSP 1861 had been accusing the West of “Byzantine policies towards Ukraine” and had detected “geopolitical games of the global powers highly reminiscent of those in Croatia” (Hrvatsko Pravo, 2014).
 The SDSS is the largest political party among the ethnic Serb minority in Croatia. It currently participates as a coalition partner in the Croatian government together with the HDZ.
Havlík, Vlastimil & Kluknavská, Alena. (2023). “Our people first (again)! The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on the populist Radical Right in the Czech Republic.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0015
The report examines the impact of the war on the Czech populist Radical Right Freedom and Democracy Party (SDP) and its reaction to the war. Among the countries of the European Union (EU), the Czech Republic has become one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine, creating specific discursive opportunities for populist Radical Right actors. The paper investigates the supply and demand side of populist Radical Right politics, focusing on how the party positioned itself to attract support facing the challenge of reading and accommodating new public sentiments. We use qualitative analysis of the social media posts of the party leader Tomio Okamura to show that after the initial hesitant rejection of the Russian invasion, the party (re-)turned to pro-Russian narratives, incorporating the war into its populist nativist discourse and driving the ideas of welfare chauvinism and economic protectionism. Using data from the representative public opinion surveys, we show that the party supporters criticize economic support for Ukraine and the refugees and have the most positive attitudes towards Russia compared to the rest of the electorate. We discuss the potential long-term consequences on the position of the Czech populist Radical Right stressing the economic difficulties and war-related grievances.
Among the member states of the European Union (EU), the Czech Republic has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion of February 2022. Petr Fiala of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS)—the Czech prime minister since September 2021—was among the first high-ranking politicians to visit Kyiv (in March 2022), alongside Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński (then deputy prime minister) and Slovenian prime minister, Janez Janša. Moreover, the Czech Republic has also provided Ukraine with extensive military support and implemented an open border policy for Ukrainian refugees, who have been provided both asylum and extensive social support (including financial and housing assistance). Almost half a million Ukrainians (equivalent to 5% of the entire population of the Czech Republic) have entered the country since the outbreak of the war, making Czechia home to one of the largest populations of displaced Ukrainians in the EU.
This paper examines the impact of the war on populism in Czechia through the prism of the Radical Right Freedom and Democracy Party (Svoboda a přímá demokracie, SPD) and its reaction to the war. We focus on the supply and demand side of their politics, showing how the SPD has positioned itself to attract support facing the challenge of reading and accommodating new public sentiments. On the supply side, we evaluate how the SPD has communicated the war in its political messages through qualitative analysis of the social media posts of party leader Tomio Okamura (Okamura, n.d.). We show that after the initial hesitant rejection of the Russian invasion, the SPD (re-)turned to pro-Russian discourse. The party successfully incorporated the war and related issues, such as the energy crisis and inflation, into its nativist–populist discourse, mainly as a way to drive the ideas of welfare chauvinism and economic protectionism. On the demand side, the electoral support of the SPD has increased modestly since the beginning of the war. Using data from public opinion surveys, we show that party supporters criticize economic support for Ukraine and the refugees coming to the country and have the most positive attitudes towards Russia compared to the rest of the electorate.
Populist Radical Right parties in the Czech Republic
The Radical Right populist “Rally for the Republic” or the Republican Party of Czechoslovakia was founded in 1989 during the transition to democracy; after some parliamentary success in the 1990s, the party fell out of national political favour (Hanley, 2012). Aside from several minor parties whose support seldom exceeded 1% (such as the Workers Party or the Republican Party), the Czech party system lacked a significant Far Right presence through the first decade of this century, diverging from most other European party systems. It was not until the 2013 general election that a populist Radical Right party crossed the electoral threshold and entered the parliament.
Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy was established shortly before the 2013 general election, in which it scored almost 7% of the vote and 14 seats (out of 200). The party, led by a well-known entrepreneur and sitting senator of Czech-Japanese-Korean descent, Tomio Okamura, was built around strong anti-elitist and anti-corruption slogans. The political context was favourable for such a strategy: already low public trust in established political parties was compounded by a series of political crises and deteriorating macroeconomic conditions (Havlík, 2015). During the initial phase of the party’s existence, Dawn was not focused primarily on issues preoccupying the Radical Right except for occasional exclusionist anti-Roma statements. After intra-party disputes about the party’s future direction and Okamura’s alleged embezzlement of party funds, he was expelled from Dawn. Shortly after, in 2015, Okamura founded the SPD.
Unlike Dawn, the SPD immediately embraced Radical Right rhetoric. It employed a stanch anti-Muslim and anti-immigration discourse, taking advantage of the unfolding refugee crisis and the prevailing anti-refugee xenophobic attitudes among the public. In economic terms, the SPD combined right-wing (low taxation) and leftist protectionist measures (decent state-guaranteed pensions) with welfare chauvinism (exclusion of immigrants and Roma people from social security measures). The party also adopted hard-Eurosceptic positions (calling for “Czexit”) and drew clear authoritarian and anti-progressive lines, including denying the existence of human-made climate change (Kim, 2020). The party has also forged a programmatic profile similar to populist Radical Right parties elsewhere in Europe. The SPD gained 11% of the vote (and 22 seats) in the 2017 general election and slightly less than 10% (20 seats) in the 2021 general elections. Because the party’s populist Radical Right profile hampers its coalition potential, the SPD has spent all its parliamentary presence in opposition.
The supply side: Freedom and Democracy’s populist framing of war-time conditions
After 2015, the SPD was among the few pro-Russian or pro-Putin political parties in the Czech parliament (alongside the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which is no longer in the parliament). The SPD’s discourse on Russia integrated anti-liberal, anti-EU, anti-American, and xenophobic narratives, depicting Putin and his regime as guardians of “traditional” values and Christianity. In his social media posts, Okamura endorsed Putin’s disparaging rhetoric on issues such as migration, same-sex marriage, and the role of the West and the United States in international relations. The party also shared the Russian narrative about the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas as the logical Russian reaction to Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” (also known as the Maidan Revolution). The party representatives recognized the referendum in Crimea as legitimate, described it as a decision made by the Ukrainian citizens, and even compared it to the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 (Hrbáček, 2018, p. 31).
Shortly before the invasion, Okamura downplayed the risks of Russia attacking Ukraine. During the weeks after February 2022, the party only rarely commented on the war. When public reactions became more readable after the initial shock of Russia’s war of aggression, the SPD developed a coherent discourse about the war. The party’s communication revolved around three main points: (1) a general and abstract anti-war narrative; (2) an overarching socioeconomic framing of the war combined with nativism (welfare chauvinism), and (3) persistent anti-elitism.
The underlying frame of the war-related communication of SPD can be best characterized as an abstract anti-war narrative. This narrative named generalized “aggression in Ukraine” as the problem to be addressed (omitting Russia’s criminal liability as the aggressor) based on an oversimplified version of reality in which there would be no war if only the conflict were resolved with “peaceful, diplomatic solutions” (Tomio Okamura – SPD, 2022a). Though this general statement was Okamura’s only comment on war published on his social media during the first two weeks following the Russian invasion, it set the tone of the party’s principal stance on the war: relativizing Russia’s responsibility by attributing part of the blame on Ukraine, and framing of the war as a logical reaction to security threats to Russia posed by Ukraine and the West. This victim-blaming position toward Ukraine replicated the official Russian narrative. The SPD also rejected the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, the United States, and other countries as “ineffective” and criticized the military supplies for Ukraine as potentially escalating the conflict and threatening Czech security. The abstract anti-war arguments thus equalled a position against intervention, eventually legitimizing the aggressor.
Nonetheless, direct references to war were rare in the SPD’s communication about the conflict. Explicit mentions of Russia and Putin, or the term “invasion”, were almost non-existent in Okamura’s social media posts. Interestingly, older positive mentions of Putin and his regime were deleted from Okamura’s Facebook page (Moláček, 2022), possibly to avoid accusations of direct sympathy for Putin.
The economic difficulties arising from the conflict became the central context in which the war-related issues were presented. The SPD repeatedly pointed to the high inflation in the Czech Republic, one of the highest in the EU, and the threats to energy security (Czechia is highly dependent on gas supplies from Russia) at the beginning of the war. Okamura’s economic messaging reflected the broader Putin-is-not-to-blame framing of the conflict. Although the inflation rate and spiking energy prices were not explicitly linked to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the SPD used these as vivid images in a broader narrative exploiting insecurity and the sense of crisis created by the war. More directly, the SPD supported policies that would help Russia economically, especially regarding energy supplies. Legitimizing this approach by pointing to Hungary’s policies and generating fear about the prospect of further inflation driven by spiking gas prices, Okamura advocated purchasing “cheap gas” directly from Russia’s Gazprom instead of through the “expensive” gas market in Germany.
The SPD also skilfully framed the economic impacts of the war through appeals to nativism and welfare chauvinism. In general, welfare chauvinism avoids direct criticism of the welfare state itself and instead focuses on its scope (and expense) by shining a light on the universality of entitlements (De Koster et al., 2013). Thus, policy choices around welfare spending are framed in terms of the prudent allocation of scarce economic resources setting up a competition between the (deserving native) “people” and the (undeserving foreign) “others”.
Initially, Okamura indicated a positive attitude to accepting Ukrainian refugees for “humanitarian reasons” and an “absolutely necessary period of time” (Okamura, 7.3.2022). Soon, however, the SPD leader set substantial financial support for Ukrainian refugees against the backdrop of a worsening macroeconomic situation and the need to shepherd scarce government resources carefully. The party described the immediate measures and planned public spending on integration as costly and destabilizing for the Czech social and healthcare system. Furthermore, accepting a large number of refugees was presented as a challenge for the job market, the education system, and community safety. The party leader also occasionally (though far less often than in the case of non-European refugees during the 2015 migration crisis) questioned the refugee status of Ukrainians by blaming them for “drawing too many solidarity and humanitarian benefits from our budget” (Okamura, 13.4.2022) and downplayed the severity of the situation by claiming that “there is no war on the majority of Ukraine’s territory” (Wirnitzer, 2022).
The party further created a persistent anti-elitist anti-government narrative. Okamura accused the governing coalition of incompetence, inefficient measures, and not solving the country’s economic troubles (or even deepening them). Against this discursive background, Okamura constructed a nativist divide between the Czech people and Ukrainians, claiming the government was placing the needs of foreigners ahead of its own people. Okamura described Fiala’s cabinet as “The government acts as if it were the Ukrainian government in exile, and not the government of our citizens. It takes care of Ukrainians but not Czech citizens. […] For example, single mothers or people who are disabled have been waiting for apartments for a long time without success, but priority is given to immigrants, whose arrival is at the same time still supported by the offer of free transport on sleeper trains from Lviv,” (Tomio Okamura – SPD, 2022b).
The number of issues the SPD mentioned in this context increased. Still, the main message remained consistent: the government (and the media) was prioritizing Ukrainians and neglecting ordinary Czech people whose already difficult circumstances were deteriorating further in the wake of spiking food and energy prices.
The demand side: Czech voters fed up with rolling crises
The war started just a few months after the October 2021 general election in the Czech Republic. The SPD gained slightly less than 10 % of the vote, a similar result to its 2017 performance. Public opinion polls indicated a modest increase in the popularity of the party and its leader in the wake of Russia’s invasion. According to data collected by the Czech research agency MEDIAN, the party’s support grew from 8.5% in November 2021 to 10% in March 2022 and 14% in August 2022 (iDnes, 2022). Party support then stabilized at around 12%.
Although it is difficult to draw a causal link between the outbreak of the war and support for political parties, we see an interesting pattern. Since the outbreak of the conflict, SPD support has been consistently higher than in the past, when it rarely surpassed 10%. Moreover, we can observe a significant increase in public trust in Tomio Okamura. According to a poll conducted by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (CVVM) in March and May 2022, 34% of respondents expressed trust in Okamura, roughly ten percentage points more than the average recorded in the two years preceding Russia’s invasion (Červenka, 2022a).
The increased support for SPD correlates with decreased public support for Ukraine and the Czech government’s handling of the war. The CVVM data shows that while almost 60% of voters supported the government’s general approach towards Ukraine in the spring of 2022, support had dropped to 40% by the autumn (Červenka, 2022b). A similar decrease was recorded regarding specific policies: 55% of respondents supported financial aid for Ukraine in the autumn (compared to 73% in the spring), and 43% of respondents supported providing Ukraine with military materiel (54% in the spring). Also, the public attitude towards the general approach to Russia “softened” over time. While 63% of respondents were for a “total political and economic isolation of Russia” in the spring, only 49% said so in the autumn.
The assumed linkage between the public perception of the war and the popularity of the SPD is supported by the data on supporters of individual political parties. According to a survey administered by CVVM between November 2022 and January 2023, 80% of the declared voters of SPD did not agree with the government’s support for Ukraine, and 70% of them were against accepting Ukrainian refugees to the country. Moreover, when asked about emotions induced by the current political and societal situation, 80% of SPD voters agreed with the statement that they feel fear (CVVM, 2023). Although we do not have hard data uncovering the causal mechanism, the evidence indicates that the SPD has succeeded in seizing the opportunities presented by the crisis to mobilize voters around its pro-Russian populist nativism.
Discussion and perspectives
The Russian invasion of Ukraine profoundly impacted the populist Radical Right in the Czech Republic. In this report, we have focused on the SPD, the only significant populist Radical Right party in the Czech Republic, showing how it adapted crisis communication to the new situation. First, the party discarded messaging that openly supported Putin and Russia or cast Putin as a role model for defending conservative values against the liberal and “decadent” West. SPD leader Okamura even removed pro-Russian social media messages posted before the war. Second, the SPD integrated its communications about the war into the party’s established populist and nativist narratives. Most notably, the party has deployed welfare chauvinist and anti-elitist arguments to contest the Czech government’s financial and military aid for Ukraine. Worsening macroeconomic conditions (especially high inflation) and the volatile energy market helped the party integrate these arguments into its discourse. Moreover, eschewing the cultural xenophobia it had adopted during the 2015 refugee crisis, the SPD instead framed its opposition to government policy on prudential grounds (careful allocation of scarce resources) and national security (pointing to the risk of escalation of the war). Finally, although the SPD stopped short of an explicitly pro-Russian stance, it occasionally downplayed the intensity of the conflict, failed to condemn Putin’s aggression and relativized Russia’s responsibility, eventually taking the Kremlin’s side by supporting vague “peace talks” and “diplomatic solutions”.
The data from public opinion surveys indicate that the war modestly boosted support for the SPD. Not surprisingly, most SPD voters do not support governmental aid for Ukraine, are against accepting Ukrainian refugees, and are most fearful when evaluating the current political and societal situation. By the end of 2022, the war had not lead to the emergence or rise of already existing populist Radical Right parties. As for other populist actors in the system, the centre-left ANO party of the former prime minister, Andrej Babiš, underwent a significant transformation of its attitude to Russia. After taking a clear anti-Russian position and openly supporting the government’s moves after the invasion, the party stepped back somewhat, adopting what we could call a “soft pro-Ukrainian” stance. During his candidacy for the president of the Czech Republic (the election took place in January 2023), Babiš adopted a more Russian posture, stressing the need for peace talks (in a similar way as Okamura). Before the run-off, he also accused his opponent, Petr Pavel, a former general, of warmongering to appeal to the anti-Ukrainian part of the electorate. Pavel based his campaign on anti-populism, describing Babiš’s incompetence and graft as his primary motivation to run, contrasting “chaos and personal gain” with order, calmness, dignity, and civility, the central values of his candidacy. In the second round, Pavel won a landslide victory, taking 58.3% of the vote.
The mainstream parties also used war-related narratives in their communications. In the lead up to the 2021 general election, the two electoral coalitions, the right-wing SPOLU and the centrist Pirates and Mayors and Independents (which eventually formed the government), based their electoral campaign on an anti-populist appeal. This strategy constructed two opposing identities: the populist and extremist camp (consisting of ANO, the SPD, and the communist party on the one side) and the anti-populist democratic camp on the other. One of the defining features of their discursive anti-populism was the construction of a frame in which a pro-Western (and pro-democratic) group was holding the line against an implicitly anti-West and pro-Russian extremist one (Havlík & Kluknavská, 2022). Notably, the anti-populists (predominantly SPOLU) used war-related narratives in their communications before the local election in the autumn of 2022 and anti-populist messages mainly targeted the ANO party. SPOLU built on Babiš’s past record of collaboration with the communist secret police, compared him to Putin, and blamed the former prime minister for the Czech Republic’s dependence on Russian gas (Koalice SPOLU, 2022).
At the time of writing (February 2023), the end of the war seems nowhere in sight. The populist Radical Right SPD has successfully adapted its discourse to the new conditions and communicated a more or less implicit pro-Russian narrative while leveraging the economic challenges the Czech Republic is facing to appeal to disaffected voters. As the public grows steadily more disposed to the Russian position, space is opened for the populist Radical Right, already rising modestly in the polls, to mobilize voters. Still, an improvement in Czechia’s macroeconomic outlook or government assistance targeting the economically most vulnerable groups of the population may blunt the continuing rise of the SPD. It could also mean increasing trust in the democratic system as the SPD is more popular among the less educated and poorer voters, who are disenchanted with politics (Voda & Havlík, 2021). Also, given the change in the communication strategy of the populist ANO, we may witness a discursive (and electoral) competition between the two populist parties trying to take advantage of the war. Regardless of who wins this fight, in the absence of an effective mainstream political opposition, the Czech Republic will likely encounter further polarization between populist and anti-populist forces.
(*) Vlastimil Havlík is associate professor at Masaryk University and the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI) (https://www.syri.institute/). His research focus includes populism and political parties in Central and Eastern Europe. He is also editor-in-chief of the Czech Journal of Political Science (politologickycasopis.cz). [ORCID: 0000-0003-3650-5783]
(**) Alena Kluknavská is assistant professor at Masaryk University and the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI) (https://www.syri.institute/). Her research focuses on political communication and public and political discourses on migration and minority issues. She is also interested in understanding the communication strategies and successes of the populist Radical Right parties and movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Recently, her work has focused on truth contestation and polarisation in political discourse, particularly on social media. [ORCID: 0000-0002-3679-3335]
This researchwas supported by the NPO “Systemic Risk Institute” project number LX22NPO5101, funded by the European Union–Next Generation EU (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, NPO: EXCELES).
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Meret, Susi. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on Right-Wing Populism in Europe. The case of Denmark.” 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/rp0016
At the referendum held in Denmark on June 1st, 2022 (Indenrigsministeriet, 2022), two-thirds of the electorate (66.9 %) voted for the removal of the Danish EU opt-out on Common Security and Defense Policy. This result was noteworthy, and it must be understood within the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the light of the situation of instability and insecurity sparked by an international crisis, that added up to the effects of the global health crisis. The populist right-wing parties in parliament were against the removal, arguing Denmark would renounce decisional power on key military and security areas. Instead, these parties advocate for the strengthening of the military within the NATO-alliance, starkly opposing further development at EU level. The impact of the Russia-Ukrainian war opens new opportunities for the populist right, whose electoral support has been waning over the past years. The newly established party, The Denmark Democrats can gain from the situation to strengthen and consolidate their position. The New Right and the crisis ridden Danish People’s Party can exploit the situation to gain voters’ support, playing on feelings of insecurity and international crisis.
The Danish public opinion has been traditionally reluctant to concede on the Danish four opt-outs that were adopted in 1993. The opt-out regarding the defence also epitomizes a deep-seated and symbolically crucial matter, interpreted as a bulwark against yet more power to the EU, particularly on matters considered sovereign domain of the nation state. Already in the 1990s, reluctancy towards “more EU” was capitalized by the populist right, which rivalled with the Eurosceptic far-left and with single-issue movements against further EU integration. The populist right, and particularly The Danish People’s Party claims that “more EU” infers “less Denmark”, leading to more bureaucracy and the loss of Danish national sovereignty. This frame was reactivated also in relation to the 2022 referendum triggered by the developments in Ukraine.
At the 2022 elections, defence, usually a peripheral issue in the electoral agenda, was covered in 11% of the media reports. The figure was only 1 %. at the previous elections (Kosiara-Pedersen 2023). The NATO alliance is generally viewed as a necessary and sufficient military deterrent. This opinion emerges quite manifestly also from recent public opinion surveys (Andersen et al. 2022), showing high levels of trust for the NATO alliance among the Danes. The trust in the NATO alliance is today higher than it has been and significantly higher than people’s trust in the EU, but also in the Danish government. In terms of trust, the NATO comes just after the judicial system and the police forces. Interestingly, this is the case also across party differences, which have become less polarized on this matter, showing a change in the attitudes of the Far Left (e.g., the Unity List, and the Socialist People’s Party). The Russian invasion has decreased the opposition towards higher public spending in the military, and in rearmament, both seen as an inevitable consequence of the armed conflict. Gender – rather than party vote, does in fact mark a more significant difference. Women are much less supportive than men towards rearmament and more prone to consider the use diplomatic ways as a better means to resolving the conflict.
Denmark’s engagement on the Ukrainian side is almost unconditional (Henley 2022). Same goes for the support to the sanctions implemented against Russia by the EU, and for helping of Ukraine with weapons and military training. There is limited concern towards the recent plans of the German neighbour to rearm, which would otherwise have historical reason to occur. It is important to underline that this interventionist turn is no self-evident in a context like Denmark. Denmark has specific interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Russia. For one, the area of the Artic cooperation has in the past decade become more and more strategic; this would advise to keep military hostilities and diplomatic tensions at a minimum. It also shows that Denmark is not particularly influenced by the “little-country mentality”, which would advocate for neutrality, or at least for a less interventionist position.
At the same time – and contrary to other EU countries, Denmark does not depend on Russian gas and import market (although the Nord Stream 1 pipeline also runs through Danish waters), neither is Denmark particularly affected by close geographical proximity to Russia as it is the case of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Historically the country has entertained relatively good and peaceful diplomatic relations with its Eastern neighbour. Also, in spite of the fact that Russians had in 1945 occupied (after the Nazis) the Danish Island of Bornholm, where they stayed until 1946, their settlement creating growing alarm. In the post-war era, Denmark was for many years a frontline NATO state in the Nordic region.
Denmark’s foreign and security policy towards Russia became more activist (Mouritzen, 2022) after the Cold War, for instance, in supporting the NATO membership for the Baltic countries, with the purpose of securitizing the Eastern borders of Europe and also to build a stronger bulwark against future potential Russian aggressions. This background frame is essential to help explain today’s Danish unwavering pro-Ukraine support and the country’s backup to the NATO alliance and the sanctions. What in reality might set a threshold to the Danes’ interventionism and strong support to Ukraine, eventually also rekindling the electoral appeal for the populist Right, are two major and growing concerns: on the one side, the possibility that the conflict might degenerate into an atomic war; on the other side, the fear that an increase in energy prices (and in the overall inflation) might develop into yet another serious economic and financial crisis.
Fear about economic insecurity has been exacerbated since the outburst of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Danes are generally rather optimistic about the future of their own and of the country’s economy. Yet the concern about how the economic situation will look in the near future is today greater than it was in the aftermath of the financial crisis more than a decade ago. Particularly high among the population aged 30-50, which are also the cohorts more exposed to the effects of the inflation, and in particular of the higher mortgage rents. Economic uncertainty adds up to an increase in socioeconomic inequality in the country and to grievances about income and decreasing welfare provisions. These perceptions could result into stronger support for populist right-wing parties and politics, which in the past years has been dwindling. Yet this would unlikely impact on the support for Ukraine and on the positions towards Russia, but rather on attitudes towards the EU, cooperation politics on migration policy and economy.
New opportunities for a split populist right-wing in Denmark
EU has over the years adopted several important measures and initiatives to defend common democratic principles and values. Denmark has actively worked to support this value agenda. Things stand a little differently on issues concerning EU military cooperation and foreign policy. The fact that the 2022 referendum abolished a 30-year-old opt-out clause is remarkable. Yet the Eurosceptic populist Right strongly and consequently opposes what is seen as the effort to hand more power and sovereignty over to the EU. Both the Danish People’s Party and the New Right have rallied against “more EU,” and against the revoking of the opt-out. Instead, the two parties plea for stronger support to the NATO-alliance as the way to guarantee the country military security.
This responds to Denmark’s strengthening the Atlantic dimension in Danish military and foreign policy. In 2018 and again in 2019, the Danish government was quick to approve the expansion of defence spending to meet the 2 %. of the GDP prompted by the American pressure to ensure the alliance’s military readiness. The line is maintained by the incumbent Danish bipartisan government coalition formed after the 2022 November elections, which includes the Social Democrats, the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the newly formed The Moderates. The new government certainly pursues an interventionist approach and after taking office it prompted all the parties in the opposition to give their support to their proposal of fast-tracking the increase in public spending for defence, aiming at anticipating the goals from 2033 to 2030. Social Democrat PM Mette Frederiksen (Statsministeriet 2023) explained in her New Year’s speech to the nation: “Europe must stay stronger. And Denmark must pay more to NATO. […] This entails we all need to contribute some more. Thus, the government suggests we scrap a public holiday. I feel not everybody agrees with this, but hand on heart, and we cannot possibly overcome a war in Europe, the climate crisis and our domestic challenges, if each and every one, does not contribute some more.”
This move happened to be very unpopular. It triggered strong criticism from the trade unions, from the parties at the opposition and from different categories of workers. Pivotal is considered the way the government makes use of the of the war frame to hasten the scraping of a public holiday. This without consulting the other parties and the labour market parts, as it is tradition for in the country. What the opposition and the labour market parts question is in fact whether the additional spending on defence, explained as the need to sacrifice a little to meet the costs of the war and of rearmament cannot be financed through other measures than those currently on the agenda.
These recent developments have contributed to amplify a set of dilemmas in the country, but in particular among the populist right-wing parties, which are the most vocal supporters of the NATO-alliance and have always pledged for higher public spending in the military and defense. Their dilemma reverts on how to take advantage from the political opportunities opened by the conflict and to achieve these goals, without charging their electorate with additional costs.
The country’s right-wing populism topography
In an update posted on his Facebook profile on February 23, 2022, Morten Messerschmidt, the leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF) since the start of 2022, articulated the party position on the Russia-Ukraine war using these words: “Russia is threatening Europe’s freedom – NATO is the answer”. He further elaborated, arguing that: “If someone ever doubted where the Danish People’s Party stands on Russia and on Putin, let me put it boldly here: We stand with the Western defence NATO-alliance to protect and secure the Western freedom values and ideals [including] in all countries’ right to go their own way and make their alliances,” (Messerschmidt, 2022).
For Messerschmidt and the Danish People’s Party only a “strong NATO alliance with the backup of the US” can provide “a convincing answer to the Russian aggression”. The party is against any attempt to create an independent EU defence, with own structure of command. This would only contribute “to strengthen the US isolationist politics and could be fatal for the EU” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Forsøg på at skabe et europæisk forsvar med egen kommandostruktur vil uundgåeligt styrke isolationistiske kræfter i USA, hvilket kan blive skæbnesvangert for Europa. Dette er vi kommet et skridt nærmere med afskaffelsen af forsvarsforbeholdet i kølvandet på krigen i Ukraine
Conditions for the financing of the defence should be responsible and take place without deficit on the yearly state budget. This entails that the Danish military participation should only serve Denmark’s interest and security and should not act as “the world’s police officer” (Dansk Folkeparti, 2022). Intervention in other countries and regions deemed as strategically nonrelevant should be avoided. The party was, for instance, against the presence of Danish soldiers in Mali joining European special forces.
The party’s position on foreign and security policy above is not new. In the early 2000s, the party working program read (Dansk Folkeparti Arbejdsprogram, 2001): “Denmark should as a sovereign and free nation be part of a strong NATO-alliance”, whereas the party declared itself being “against any EU involvement in the military and defence”, contending this field must only be managed at national level (arguing thus for an increase in military and defence spending), and internationally coordinated by the NATO alliance. Morten Messerschmidt reiterated the party standing against Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thus responding to the twofold purpose of distancing from politically harmful pro-Russian views within its party, and among his European allies, with whom the Danish People’s Party had tried to forge a stronger far-right alliance under the 2019 European Parliament elections. Uncomfortable, albeit restricted, are the pro-Russian and pro-Putin standpoints publicly uttered by outstanding party MPs, such as by Søren Espersen, and Marie Krarup. The latter was certainly the most problematic case the party had to deal with, since she consistently stood on her pro-Russian positions (Kristensen, 2022), also after the invasion and despite going against the party line. Krarup eventually exited the party at the end of February 2022, also because of her disapproval of the new party leadership.
The Danish People’s Party internal disputes had begun time before the conflict in Ukraine, triggered by the remarkable drop in voters’ support at the 2019 and again at 2021 elections. These electoral losses provoked a mounting dissatisfaction with Kristan Thulesen Dahl’s leadership, ending with his resignation in 2021. The electorate blamed him for not having taken government responsibilities after the party triumph at the 2015 elections (Meret, 2021). In this sense, the Russia-Ukraine conflict posed just another challenging issue on the agenda to the already internally troubled and split Danish People’s Party. Besides, the relations with some of the parties in the Identity and Democracy European Parliament group, holding ambiguous positions with Putin and Russia (e.g., Lega, the Front National and the Alternative for Germany) contributed to aggravate the picture. From the outside, the Danish People’s Party has since 2019 been in competition with the New Right (Nye Borgerlige, NB) which coopted stricter positions on asylum and immigration and by the turn towards the right of the Social Democrats on immigration (Meret, 2020).
The Danish People’s Party leadership shift, with Morten Messerschmidt taking the lead amid internal party disagreement and criticism, took place only a month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Danish People’s Party activated a “reputational shield” to respond to the new crisis, drawing from the party long-standing support to the NATO-alliance and by its opposition to the EU military and defence cooperation. A third leg on foreign policy is constituted by the party emphasis on the value approach, centered upon the importance to preserve liberal democratic values, principles of sovereignty and Europe’s Christian heritage as strategic configurations to attack Putin’s regime and to regain the voters’ support. The party is also relatively more open towards the need to take in war refugees from Ukraine, bluntly upholding that besides being Ukraine a geographically near region, “there is clearly a huge difference if it is Christian Ukrainians who come into Denmark, rather than say [refugees] from Somalia or all other possible good people from a Muslim country.” (Volsing 2022)
The NB is another populist right-wing party at the political opposition in Denmark, having a shorter life history (it was formed in 2015) than the Danish People’s Party. Apart from the strongly neoliberal agenda, the New Right subscribes to similar (yet not the same) positions as the Danish People’s Party on other issues. On the Russia-Ukraine war, NB holds perhaps an even tougher tone in terms of a stronger interventionist conviction and an anti-European policy that still urges Denmark’s exit from the EU. In a blog published on the party website on the day of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, today former party leader Pernille Vermund criticized both centre-left and centre-right governments for having “neglected Danish military and defence” over the years, thus preventing the country from meeting the 2% of GDP target pledged to the NATO-alliance and, endangering Denmark’s national security and ability to react. The New Right’s opinion about Russia is straightforward: Russia has developed into a dictatorship with expansionist ambitions that threatens the Baltic and the Artic regions, and ultimately Denmark. Only option for the country is to strengthen its position within the NATO-alliance.
The newly launched party the Denmark Democrats (DD), former in June 2022 by integration minister Inger Støjberg does not yet have a clear program on matters of foreign policy, military and defence are still unwritten (Krog, 2022). Støjberg is a former Liberal MP, known as a hardliner on immigration and integration politics, who was impeached and later convicted for unlawfully ordering the separation of young asylum-seeking spouses. Her party, the Denmark Democrats gained a solid 8 %. at the 2022 elections and it is believed to be the spare for the voters who are discontent and frustrated with the status quo, amongst them also several former Danish People’s Party supporters and former MPs. Støjberg has also expressed her preference for helping Christian Ukrainian rather than Muslim refugees.
Voting intentions for right-wing populist parties in Denmark (2022)
Despite being among the most interventionist parties, also the Danish People’s Party, the New Right and the Denmark Democrats oppose the government’s recent proposal to economically fund the increase in military spending by removing the Great Prayers’ Day (Storbededag) from the Danes’ holiday calendar. The decision is sensitive, and while most parties in the opposition do agree with the purpose (more money to the military), the means to achieve have become contentious. For instance, the approval has been made as a condition to access the future financial negotiation for the military and the defence. Furthermore, the proposal comes just before the 2024 labour market collective agreement negotiations, making it particularly ostracized among trade unions and workers who see charges primarily taken by the working class. But the abolition of one of the Christian public holidays directly speaks to the populist right wing parties, which flagships the lack of interest for Denmark’s Christian legacies and cultural heritage. This allows to take on board right-wing populist fears about a threatened nation from within (by a detached political elite and a growing Muslim problem) and outside (by EU integration, Russian expansionist politics and an increasingly insecure world governance). As Morten Messerschmidt articulated on his Twitter account (Messerschmidt [@Messerschmidt] December 14, 2022): “To remove the Great Prayers’ Day is pure madness. We ought not change our traditions and holidays in the name of rationalism. And yes, it is a holy-day (!) which substituted all former catholic holidays. Fingers away from the Danish traditions.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered long term consequences on Danish domestic politics by encouraging more interventionist positions, and by creating the conditions for the future increase of the public spending and the reform of the Danish military. This however at the cost of welfare standards and levels of trust. The conflict contributed strengthening the country support in the NATO-alliance, drawing Denmark even closer to the US and its allies. Denmark is member of both NATO and the EU, yet on military and defence matters it has always felt much closer and loyal to the first. The result of the 2022 referendum preludes to some changes on this pattern, likely in the longer-term span. But the war in Ukraine speaks also to the right-wing populist voters, to their growing economic and societal concerns and grievances. Primarily it can represent the return to narrower understandings of the nation state, of safety and to the call to bring forces together to defend the country borders, security and welfare. It also contributes to creating new threats, sparking to Russophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, legitimated by the fear of what the future might bring in terms of economic, societal and cultural crises. It is issues that the populist right-wing knows already how to mobilize and capitalize upon. In this sense the European answer will be fundamental to prevent the return of nationalist and protectionist movements.
(*) Susi Meret is associate professor at the Department of Politics and Society in the University of Aalborg, Denmark. Her main research interest is with populist radical right-wing parties in Europe, populism, political extremisms and civil society reactions. She has conducted studies on right-wing populism in Denmark (and beyond), also considering party leadership charisma, the mainstream parties’ counter-strategies, the role of Islam and, more broadly, the civil society responses to growing anti-immigration and ethno-nationalism. For more info: https://vbn.aau.dk/en/persons/100658/publications/
Andersen, Jacob, Goul Andersen Jørgen, Hede, Anders (2022). Danskerne og Krigen i Ukraine. Tryghedsmåling, TrygFonden.
Meret, S. (2021). Duties first, rights next! The Danish Social Democrats’ right turn on migration politics. In N. Brandal, Ø. Bratberg, & D. E. Thorsen (Eds.), Yearbook on Social Democracy in the 21st Century. (pp. 223-244) Emerald Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0195-631020210000035010
Meret, S. (2021). Denmark. In D. Albertazzi, & D. Vampa (Eds.), Populism and new patterns Of political competition in Western Europe. Routledge.
Jakobson, Mari-Liis & Kasekamp, Andres. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Estonia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0017
For years, Estonia was an outlier in the European populist Radical Right scene, with no party being elected to parliament. This changed with the electoral breakthrough of the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) in 2015. Currently, EKRE is the second-most popular party in Estonia, with roughly 20% support and is expected to achieve a record result in the general election in March 2023. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created opportunities and challenges for EKRE to increase its support. The war has offered EKRE fresh opportunities on several fronts. First, it has amped up its nativist agenda with claims that “mass immigration” of Ukrainian refugees will make ethnic Estonians a minority in their own land. Second, it has found fertile soil for populist messaging, given voters’ economic insecurities, accusing the establishment of incompetence in managing the high inflation and energy prices. EKRE is in the paradoxical situation of being an Estonian nationalist party attempting to appeal to Estonia’s sizeable Russian minority, which shares its “traditional family values”, Euroscepticism, anti-establishment grievances, and resentment of Ukrainian refugees. Several factors could explain the party’s current positioning, including EKRE’s interest in blaming the war’s economic effects on the government’s incompetence, the party’s anti-establishment inclination in a context of a broad foreign policy consensus, and its interest in courting Russian-speaking voters.
Keywords: Estonia; populism; Far Right; Ukraine; Russian minority.
Estonia lacked a genuine and electorally competitive populist Radical Right party until 2015, mainly because mainstream right-wing parties had already captured the nationalist segment of the ideological spectrum (Auers & Kasekamp, 2009). However, this began to change in 2012 when the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE) was founded. Shortly before the 2015 general election, the party began to attract attention for its opposition to measures expanding rights for same-sex couples passed by the Estonian parliament. After the election and in view of the unfolding EU “refugee crisis” in the summer of that year, the party’s support spiked again. In the 2019 elections, EKRE came in third and, to the surprise of many, joined a governing coalition with the centre-left Centre Party and the conservative Isamaa party that managed to stay in office until early 2021. A month before the 2023 general elections, polls suggest that EKRE’s support will make it the second-largest party in the next parliament.
EKRE checks all the ideological boxes that Mudde (2007) specified for a typical Radical Right populist party, including 1) nativism (xenophobia, racism, anti-globalism, Euroscepticism, welfare chauvinism), 2) authoritarianism (strong leadership, tough on crime, emphasis on traditional family values and cultural identity, toxic masculinity), and 3) populism (anti-elitism, distrust of experts, unfulfillable promises, belief in deep state conspiracies). EKRE has also clearly aligned itself with other populist Radical Right actors, being a member of the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament and echoing narratives from the right-wing online media space, such as Breitbart News.
In most Eastern European countries, pro-Russian stances have historically been linked with the Left, especially the successors of the former communist parties. While Estonia has no communist party successor to speak of, the centre-left Centre Party has long been seen as pro-Russian, especially under Edgar Savisaar, its populist leader from 1991 to 2016. The party signed a cooperation memorandum with Russia’s ruling United Russia party in 2004 (formally terminating it only in March 2022) and has long enjoyed overwhelming support among Estonia’s sizeable Russian-speaking minority (reaching more than 75% at its peak). Although support from Russian-speaking voters has been falling since 2016, it remains the most popular party among this group.
The ‘supply side’ of right-wing populism
EKRE began as an ultra-nationalist party whose discursive core was Eurosceptic and anti-Russian (Kasekamp et al., 2019). In the European Parliament, EKRE is in the anti-Russian wing of the Identity and Democracy group (along with the Finns Party and Poland’s ruling party, PiS). The party has generally been pro-NATO, although the party’s former chairman Mart Helme has repeatedly expressed scepticism about the alliance’s fitness for purpose. For example, in 2019, Helme declared NATO “in crisis”, echoing similar observations by Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron; he has also argued that Estonia should act primarily on its national interests rather than relying on NATO’s common security framework (Voog, 2019).
Unlike many of its Western European counterparts, EKRE has never been an explicitly pro-Russian party. However, in the context of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the party’s messaging has become more ambivalent. While EKRE has called for greater defence spending to meet the Russian threat, it has also been parroting some of Russia’s propaganda narrative.
Meanwhile, in the past few years, EKRE has consciously sought to woo the sizeable Russian-speaking minority to grow its electoral base; as a result, it has become more ambiguous in its positions on some issues (Braghiroli & Makarychev, 2022). Despite being an Estonian nationalist party, EKRE has much in common with the worldview of Russian speakers, who, on average, hold more traditional values, are economically less successful than ethnic Estonians, and hold grievances against the establishment and distrust the elites. An example of how EKRE can gain support from ethnic Russians is the traditional energy sector, where many Russian speakers in the northeast of the country are employed and whose future is most clearly affected by the EU’s climate agenda.
The desire to appeal to Russian minority voters has probably also influenced the party’s foreign policy narrative, which has moderated from outright hostility to calls for Estonia to work towards good neighbourly relations. For example, EKRE was once highly critical of the Estonian-Russian border agreement, which recognizes Russian sovereignty over territory that was part of Estonia before Soviet rule. However, criticism of the agreement is directed primarily at the Estonian political establishment, not at Russia. Rather than calling it an “enemy”, Mart Helme prefers to talk about Russia as a great civilization, emphasizing its global role and the fact that it is a neighbour.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, all Estonian parties, including EKRE, condemned the attack. In October 2022, the parliament, including EKRE, unanimously voted to declare Russia a terrorist state (Parliament of Estonia, 2022). Furthermore, when a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism came before the European Parliament, EKRE’s MEP Jaak Madison voted in favour. Estonia’s official position has been to support Ukraine until it is victorious and that peace should be negotiated once Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been restored. In this regard, EKRE has sent somewhat mixed messages. For instance, in an interview with a Russophone television programme, Mart Helme echoed some of the Kremlin’s talking points:
We find that the best solution would be a peace treaty, no matter how hard it would be for both sides – at least people would no longer have to die. We are not on Russia’s side, and we are not on Ukraine’s side; we are on the side of peace. (ERR, 2022c)
Later, the party’s leadership clarified EKRE’s support for Ukraine and excused Helme’s “unfortunate wording” while also reiterating the underlying claim, saying, “who wouldn’t be for peace?” (ERR, 2022d). The peace narrative is a subtle way of undermining support for Ukraine without appearing to be overtly pro-Russian. EKRE’s rhetoric has also been noted and praised by Russia’s state-controlled media (Lomp, 2022).
Another populist Radical Right figure, who has been speaking out for good neighbourly relations with Russia, is the leader of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK), Varro Vooglaid, who has a considerable following on his website Objektiiv (https://objektiiv.ee). Vooglaid is now a candidate for EKRE (although he has stopped short of actually becoming a member) and is almost certain to be elected to parliament. Vooglaid has also depicted Ukraine as an innocent casualty in a war between Russia and the West, provoked by the latter to bring Moscow into an open military conflict to drain its capabilities and weaken it (Vooglaid, 2022b).
EKRE (and Vooglaid) objected to the government-initiated bill banning the display of symbols under which international crimes, such as the infamous “Z” used by the Russian military, have been committed because the wording is imprecise and interferes with the freedom of speech (Vooglaid, 2022a). Nevertheless, it sided with the government in the heated debate over removing Red Army monuments in the spring and summer of 2022. As a result, many of EKRE’s ethnic Russian activists, who joined the party before the local elections in 2021, left the party (ERR, 2022a). In certain ways, the more liberal right-wing parties have begun to move into EKRE’s nationalist and authoritarian niche. For instance, the Reform Party and Isamaa have proposed revoking the right of permanent residents who are citizens of Russia to vote in local elections, initially suggested by EKRE in 2017 (ERR, 2022b).
While taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is awkward for EKRE, and it struggles to gain airtime with nationalist statements, the party has been vocal about the war’s adverse socioeconomic and cultural effects.
As of early February 2023, 123,000 Ukrainian refugees had crossed into Estonia. Roughly half have moved on to other countries, and 43,000 have applied for temporary protection status (Estonian Social Insurance Board, n.d.), making Estonia the largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees on a per capita basis in the world (Estonia’s population is 1.3 million). Trying to appeal to both Estonian and Russian-speaking audiences, EKRE has used a Janus-faced strategy. When communicating with their Russian-speaking audience, they play on their anti-Ukrainian sentiment, claiming that Ukrainian refugees threaten local Russians’ job prospects. But when addressing their Estonian audience, they appeal to anti-Russian sentiment and frame the events as a mass influx of Russian-speaking immigrants and a danger to the survival of the Estonian nation, as the share of ethnic Estonians in the population has been falling. EKRE also claims that integrating Ukrainian children into the Estonian school system will result in the russification of Estonian schools and prevents Ukrainians from returning to Ukraine and the Ukrainian school system (Hindre, 2022). Furthermore, EKRE members are fuelling conspiracy theories about the government hiding the actual number and intention of refugees, claiming that Estonia is giving refuge to Ukrainian men who are forbidden to leave Ukraine, thus weakening Ukraine’s position in the war (Uued Uudised, 2022). In a speech to the parliament on 13 March 2022, EKRE founder Mart Helme claimed that Ukrainian refugees are bringing communicable diseases like HIV and will engage in prostitution (Delfi, 2022).
While its anti-refugee rhetoric has lessened over time, EKRE remains highly vocal about the economic consequences of the war. For instance, EKRE organized a widely-publicized rally on October 16, 2022, against high energy prices. However, EKRE did not blame the soaring prices on Russia or the war but on the ineptitude of the government and the European Green Deal proposed by Brussels.
Estonia goes to the polls again on March 5, 2023, and the main issues in the election campaign are defence policy and the cost of living. In defence debates, EKRE mainly aims to appear as an expert on which investments must be made to build specific military capacities. It merges these recommendations with its earlier criticism of NATO, claiming that Estonia must build independent defence capabilities (Uued Uudised, 2023). However, the campaign’s primary focus is on combating inflation. In a promotional video from December 2022, EKRE promised generous tax cuts and welfare benefits, especially for families, claiming that this would help revive the economy (Birnbaum, 2022). Furthermore, EKRE positions itself as protecting Estonia’s national interests while claiming other parties are prioritizing Ukrainian welfare (Karell, 2023)
Other parties are keen to accuse EKRE of ambivalence on the war but, aside from the rhetorical inconsistencies mentioned above, do not have much to pin on them. For instance, EKRE’s opposition to the bill criminalizing the display of symbols of international crimes against humanity was interpreted as an attempt to safeguard the right of their activists to flaunt Nazi symbols.
The “demand side” of right-wing populism
EKRE surpassed the Centre Party to become the second-most popular party for the first time in 2021. Before the war started, EKRE had steadily been closing the gap with the Reform Party, Estonia’s largest by vote share. When Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February 2022 (Estonia’s Independence Day), both the public and political reaction was unanimous in condemning Russia’s action and showing solidarity with Ukraine.
Due to the active role of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and the rally-round-the-flag effect that benefits incumbent parties during crises, both the government as an institution as well as the Reform Party enjoyed a surge in support (see Figures 1 and 2). This suggests that the war has generally reduced the potential success of populist, anti-establishment messaging.
Figure 1. Public trust in state institutions in Estonia (January–December 2022)
Source: Public Opinion monitoring, Turu-Uuringute AS (2023, p. 5).
However, the main loser in the popularity ratings was not EKRE, but the Centre Party, which was in an awkward position as it was also condemning Russia’s actions, then being a government party (see Figure 2), which created ambivalent feelings, especially among the party’s numerous Russian-speaking supporters. EKRE’s ratings initially remained stable but began to grow again and, according to the popularity ratings by Norstat (n.d. a), reached an all-time high of 27% in October 2022 before declining to just under 20% in January 2023. EKRE’s ratings seem to have strongly correlated with the Centre Party’s popularity, which has recently begun to recover some of its earlier losses. The recent decline in EKRE’s relative support can also be explained by the declining share of “undecided” voters, who seem to be breaking for the other parties as the elections approach. While EKRE’s supporter base of staunch partisans remains more or less stable, the party seems unable to appeal beyond it, meaning other parties are pulling ahead.
Figure 2. Voting intentions in Estonia, January 2022 – January 2023
Source: Compiled by the authors based on data from TNS Emor (2023)
EKRE’s surge of support in the autumn of 2022 can be explained by its campaign efforts. The peak of its popularity coincided with the protest rallies against rising energy prices in October. After that, however, its rating went into evident decline in November after Mart Helme’s remarks about being “for peace”. Interestingly, the decrease in EKRE’s overall rating in November coincided with a surge in their popularity among voters from ethnicity other than Estonian (Norstat n.d. b). This suggests that Helme’s ambiguous statements (and their amplification in the media) did have some positive effect on the preferences of the Russian-speaking voters. Still, the ensuing clarifications made it temporary, and its effect on the ethnic Estonian voters was negative.
One reason why EKRE’s anti-refugee messaging did not improve its ratings, unlike during the European Migration Crisis in 2015–16, relates to the public’s much more accommodating attitude towards Ukrainian refugees. While in 2015, 43–54% of respondents agreed that Estonia should accept refugees (Jakobson et al., 2017); in 2022, 71–81% of respondents agreed that Estonia should accept refugees from Ukraine (Turu-Uuringute AS, 2023, p. 11).
Discussion and perspectives
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a manifold effect on the Estonian populist Radical Right and has created both challenges and opportunities for it. Initially, EKRE’s support plummeted as people rallied around the flag and behind the prime minister’s party. Opponents tried to claim that EKRE had been acting as a “useful idiot” for Putin. Furthermore, mainstream parties are beginning to co-opt some items on the nativist anti-Russian agenda. The war also hampered EKRE’s plans to expand its electoral base to include a greater share of the Russian-speaking population. However, the high inflation and economic difficulties occasioned by the war and sanctions provided the populists with new possibilities to gain support.
Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to negatively impact EKRE’s competitive position in the long run, as the party has solidly institutionalized (Saarts et al., 2021). Significantly, EKRE still retains its near monopoly on many salient issues, such as immigration, Euroscepticism, championing “traditional” values (with a focus on opposing LGBTQ rights), and opposition to the European Green Deal, which will remain on the political agenda for the foreseeable future.
(*) Mari-Liis Jakobson is Associate Professor of Political Sociology at Tallinn University, Estonia. Her expertise relates to populism and the politics of migration and citizenship. She has published articles on transnational migration and populism in top-ranked international journals, including Contemporary Politics, European Political Science and Comparative Migration Studies. In 2023, her co-edited volume, The Anxieties of Migration and Integration in Turbulent Times, was published with Springer.She is also the principal investigator of the project “Breaking into the Mainstream While Remaining Radical: Sidestreaming Strategies on the Populist Radical Right”, funded by the Estonian Research Council.
(**) Andres Kasekamp is the Chair of Estonian Studies and Professor of History at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was a Professor of Baltic Politics at the University of Tartu and has served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies. He obtained his PhD in modern history from University College London in 1996 and was the first researcher to publish and teach on the Radical Right in Estonia. His books include The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia (Macmillan, 2000) and A History of the Baltic States (Palgrave, 2010).
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Saarts, T., Jakobson, M. L., & Kalev, L. (2021). When a right-wing populist party inherits a mass party organisation: The case of EKRE. Politics and Governance, 9(4), 354–364 https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v9i4.4566