The Invisible Hand: how and when the Kremlin interferes in elections in Europe

Anton Shekhovtsov on how and when the Kremlin interferes in elections in Europe.

The elections to the European Parliament were marked by high voter turnout (51%, the highest in the past quarter century), the “sinking” of the right- and center-left establishment parties (the traditional alliance of “old” conservatives and social-democrats lost their parliamentary majority), the rise of the liberal centrists and Green parties, the failure of the far-left (even in their main strongholds, Greece, Spain, and France), and the continuation of the radical right trend (the far right won in Hungary, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom, which is on its way out of the EU).

The upsurge of the far right leads many to remark upon the success of Kremlin strategies, which traditionally support ultra-right forces and Euro-skeptics, but to what extent can Moscow actually credit itself with such a result?

“Moscow’s hand” aroused an especially active discussion after US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Mueller’s efforts convincingly proved a systemic attempt to influence US elections and uncovered varying Russian structures, ranging from hackers to a “troll factory.” The investigation continued for almost two years, from May 2017 to March 2019, and in this period, Russian interference in the American elections was confirmed first by the interim results of the investigation, and then through confessions of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and others about the use of their services to influence the elections. The public’s time stretched immersion in the sea of information about Russian meddling in the US presidential elections — not to mention the reasonable suspicions of Russian influence in the British Brexit referendum that same year — created a mythological concept of ubiquitous Russian interference in Western electoral processes, which itself has become a “new normal.” Therefore, it is unsurprising that in the run-up to elections to the European Parliament, Western media would sometimes descend to clickbait that warned, in a panicked tone, about the Russian threat.

It must be understood that Moscow cannot directly influence the European Parliament. After all, the EU elections take place in EU Member States, and not in Brussels. Russia has developed specific relationships with each country in the EU, and as diverse as the relationships are, so is the possibility of Russian interference in these countries. In each instance, one must take into account many nuances: for example, if Moscow decides to support a particular party in Country X, does this decision then undermine the reputation of that political party in its home country? All Western countries are different, and whereas in one society a brotherly relationship with Moscow is an advantage, elsewhere, it is a kiss of death.

In sum, the method and extent of Russian meddling strongly differs with respect to country, and there exist three patterns of Moscow’s approaches to elections in Western countries: Russian structures either (1) interfere, (2) do not interfere because they cannot, or 3) do not interfere because they do not need to.

For example, Moscow appeared in all her “glory” in the French presidential elections of 2017, despite having no intentions of doing so even in 2016. Up to the beginning of 2017, all public opinion surveys showed that the second round of the election would see Francois Fillon facing Marine Le Pen. Both candidates were friendly toward Putin’s regime and criticized the EU’s sanctions against Russia. This was an ideal situation for Moscow, a “win-win,” so why interfere? But when the Russia-skeptic Emmanuel Macron “pushed” Fillon to the third place in popularity, Russia turned against Macron with all her artillery: hacker and cyber-attacks, disinformation in French editions of RT and Sputnik, the release of false surveys of public opinion, and a meeting between Le Pen and Putin.

That same year, Moscow also showed herself in the German parliamentary elections. The Kremlin openly disliked the politics of Angela Merkel and German-language Russian mass media platforms actively promoted the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which made Angela Merkel its primary opponent. Russian-speaking mass media also attempted to mobilize “Russian Germans” to vote for the AfD. In comparison, however, to the Russian meddling in France, Moscow’s actions in Germany were restrained by one important factor: while it was easy in France to choose between the skeptic (Macron) and the friend (Le Pen), in Germany, Putin’s friends can be found not only in the AfD, but also in some other parties that dislike the AfD. Therefore, it was necessary for Moscow to maneuver between the desire to hinder Merkel through support of the AfD, and the wish to avoid jeopardizing alliances with the Social Democratic party or the Christian Social Union.

One could observe a very different picture in the case of the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands and Norway (2017), and in Sweden (2018). Most importantly, these countries lacked meaningful political supporters of the Kremlin. There were parties ambivalent towards Russia: the Progress Party in Norway, Sweden Democrats in Sweden, and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands. Not one of them, however, was prepared to cooperate with Russian structures. In the political culture of these countries, Putin’s Russia is toxic and any connections to Moscow are detrimental.

In Sweden, one finds a curious paradox: many Swedes are Euro-skeptics, do not like either the US or NATO, and criticize migration policies, but while these phenomena are often rather successfully exploited by international Russian mass media for the promotion of its pro-Kremlin agenda, they do not translate into pro-Russian sentiment in Sweden as they do in many other countries. Furthermore, all three countries lack the media resources for Russian interference as there is no Flemish, Norwegian, or Swedish version of RT or Sputnik. There were localized editions of Sputnik in Norwegian and Swedish, but they were discontinued one year after their launch. Norwegians and Swedes were simply not interested in reading them, and Moscow did not want to waste money, as it realized the skepticism toward Putin’s Russia that dominated foreign policy orientations in Norway and Sweden.

The situation with the parliamentary elections in Austria (2017), Hungary and Italy (2018) was, again, different. In these countries, Moscow simply had no reason to interfere because the Kremlin was satisfied with the political developments in those countries. In Austria, all three main political forces (the People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the far-right Freedom Party) were, to varying degrees, friendly toward Russia, and Moscow values contacts with Austrian big businesses connected to the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party. Because of this, even if the Freedom Party was the most pro-Russian party in Austria (as the recent Ibiza scandal convincingly showed), Moscow would not provide them any kind of meaningful support for fear of endangering relations with the conservatives and social democrats.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz have been in power since 2010, and by the 2018 parliamentary elections, Fidesz’s ratings were so high that the only mystery was whether or not it would secure a constitutional majority or “just” a parliamentary one. For Moscow, it was important that Orbán sympathized with Putin’s regime and that no other political force in Hungary could challenge his party. There was a Hungarian edition of the Voice of Russia but in 2015, when Russia replaced the Voice of Russia with Sputnik, the Hungarian service was revived. By that time, Orbán had already built his own propaganda machine, which was even more successful than Sputnik at spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories.

In Italy, the Kremlin had several allies: “Forward Italy” led by Silvio Berlusconi, far-right Norther League and “Brothers of Italy,” and the populist Five Star Movement. They all criticized EU’s sanctions against Putin’s Russia and called for unconditional restoration of the relations between Russian and the EU. Moreover, public opinion polls showed the increase of popularity of this block of parties. Recently, a journalistic investigation asserted that the Kremlin planned to provide financial assistance to the Northern League, but even without Moscow’s money the political platform of this party is useful to the Kremlin.

As for the European elections in May this year, Moscow was not interested in influencing them. In the circles in and around the Kremlin, the European Parliament is not felt to be a particularly meaningful European institution in terms of its influence on the EU’s approach to Russia. Such an approach is formed by the authorities of the individual EU Member States, and these authorities are elected not in the elections to the European Parliament, but in the national parliamentary and presidential elections. And this is exactly where Russian interference can be found, albeit far from always, as the evidence shows.

This article was originally published on The Insider

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