A little help from her friends.

Photographer: Chesnot

Putin's European Allies Don't Need His Money

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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According to Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, Russia is pursuing a "divide and conquer" policy in Europe by trying to boost the euroskeptic populists. "It's regularly discussed," Zaoralek told Financial Times. "We have no doubt Russia is finding ways to finance this."

Others before him have made similar allegations but, like Zaoralek, they have been unable to produce proof of such funding. That may have to wait until after the current regime falls. Meanwhile, it's more important to understand two things about the rise of the right in Europe: It does benefit Russia, and it would still take place without any support from Moscow.

The only proof of Russia's financial backing for anti-European Union right-wingers is the French National Front's admission that it secured a 9 million euro ($10.2 million) loan from a small but well-connected private Russian bank. National Front leader Marine Le Pen is unashamed of the loan. Earlier this year, the party's treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just said the National Front was applying to Russian banks for more funding, since French banks were still refusing it credit. According to its 2014 disclosure -- the latest one available -- the NF had 13 million euros of debt  and few assets. The Russian loan was clearly not a business bet.

Other than that, evidence of Russian support has been circumstantial, sketchy or both. In February, the German weekly Der Spiegel wrote of a "security policy seminar" hosted by the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Alternative fuer Deutschland party and co-funded by the Russian embassy. Rumors have swirled about Russian support for Jobbik, the far-right Hungarian party, and others about Bulgarian and Greek right-wing parties. In the 2016 Intelligence Authorization Act, the U.S. congress ordered an investigation of the Russian funding of foreign political parties and non-governmental organizations since 2006, but if any report has been submitted, it hasn't been made public.

The lack of hard data is not surprising. The Soviet Union's direct financial support for left-wing parties was equally hard to prove -- until the Communist Party's archives in Moscow were opened briefly following a failed hardline coup in 1991. The records showed that the French and U.S. Communist parties received about $2 million a year each in the 1980s. In other countries, Soviet allies got less. The transfers, continued through 1991, when the Soviet Union was so broke many expected a famine.

Putin, as a KGB officer, must have been familiar with that machinery, and there are enough archive documents around to recreate it. As Russia is a capitalist country now, any fund transfer network in place today would be more sophisticated than the Soviet-era method of passing cash through KGB handlers.

While the old leftists loyalties have long faded, there is a clear affinity between today's right-wing populists and the Kremlin. Peter Kreko, who heads the Budapest think tank Political Capital Institute, analyzed the public statements and votes of European Parliament members representing these parties and found that of 14 such groups represented in the EU legislature, eight were "committed" to supporting Russia. That doesn't mean all or any of these parties receive Russian aid: They could just be ideological allies. "The anti-Western, anticapitalist, statist and nationalistic ideology, Russia’s authoritarian political system, traditionalism, its heavy-handed leader and his great-power rhetoric fit perfectly to the European far-right parties’ political agenda," Kreko wrote. 

Unlike in Soviet times, the Kremlin doesn't really have an ideology. When Putin came to power in 2000, he didn't even rule out North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership. Later, in the fat years of expensive oil, Russia simply defined itself as an energy superpower. Putin's more recent anti-Western line has flowered in response to domestic political expediency; the need for external enemies meant finding allies to undermine the establishment from inside Europe. The rubric of the populist right fit the bill nicely: Stop the rot, keep national and Christian traditions pure, keep immigrants out, rule with a strong hand.

While the ideological honeymoon continues between Putin and the European right, it doesn't matter much whether or not money changes hands, especially since Putin doesn't appear to demand too much of his allies right now, just as the Soviet Union didn't expect the Western Communist parties to stage revolutions. 

"Even if Putin does not manage to see parties with pro-Russian leanings forming governments, he can still hope that their growing influence will exert considerable pressure on EU governments, especially as far as relations with Russia are concerned," Greek political scientist Antonis Clapsis wrote in a 2015 paper. "To put it simply, pro-Russian far-right parties can act as Trojan horses for the Kremlin in its attempts to undermine the internal cohesion of the EU and NATO."

The Kremlin knows its allies, like the leftists the Soviet Union supported, are too weak to dictate policy, but Putin's goals are not so ambitious in this sphere. Whether it's the Dutch vote against free trade with Ukraine in a non-binding plebiscite, or Brexiters'  apparent to rise in the polls, the right-wingers merely serve to keep Putin's adversaries off-balance.

The populists can only get stronger if more Europeans come to believe their ideas. That can't really be bought with a few million euros here and there -- the extent of the National Front's funding. Le Pen's popularity owes little or nothing to Russian money; she has real support thanks to the failures of the mainstream parties. Germany's AFD doesn't poll 15 percent because the Russian embassy co-sponsors its events: It does so because many Germans are unhappy about Chancellor Angela Merkel's inconsistent immigration policy.

"Russia is using our weakness," Zaoralek told the FT. "We must find a way to respond." The response that is required, however, is not so much attempts to find traces of Russian funding -- probably a futile exercise -- but taking the political fight to the populists and defeating them in elections. That won't stop Putin from supporting them; but just as the communist ideological fiasco resulted in a stronger Europe, it'll make for a safer, more stable Europe despite Russian support.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net