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From fringe to mainstream. Why are right-wing movements gaining popularity in Europe and will it affect Ukraine?

Right-wing parties in Europe: how do they affect Ukraine? Photo: collage by The Page

Right-wing parties in Europe: how do they affect Ukraine? Photo: collage by The Page

European voters tend to favor far-right parties. The far-right turn became evident during the latest elections in Italy and Sweden and was also corroborated by political trends in France, Hungary, Spain, and elsewhere.

As a recent study "Europe’s Path Back from the Fringe" concludes, illiberal attitudes unite both far-left and far-right European fringe party supporters.

Far-right support is correlated with high ethnocentrism, inflated estimates of demographic change, and distrust of public institutions. These are findings from the collective research of the following organizations:

  • The International Republican Institute (IRI);
  • The Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe (ALDE);
  • The European Liberal Forum (ELF).
Quote"An effective way to mitigate the salience of anti-immigrant sentiment is to reorient nationalism to justify the future admission of foreigners," the authors argue.

Politico observers cite political scientists to claim that the key to understanding this support lies in the social and economic consequences of the full-scale war that Russia started in Ukraine. These experts also predict "more right-wing wins across the continent" as those parties "offer nationalist, protectionist solutions to the globalized crises".

We looked into European far-right movements to see what they advocate for and how it relates to Ukraine.

Italy. Will Giorgia Meloni’s Euroscepticism prevent her from supporting Ukraine?

Giorgia Meloni, unlike her coalition partner, supports Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images

Giorgia Meloni, unlike her coalition partner, supports Ukraine. Photo: Getty Images

In late September, Italy, one of the founding countries of the European Union, formed the most right-wing government since dictator Benito Mussolini, which caused concerns across Europe. Thus, the Brothers of Italy party won 26% of the votes. For comparison, their result at the previous general election was 4%.

This political force led by Giorgia Meloni has fascist roots, which the newly elected prime minister utterly denies, "unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws," as quoted in decode 39.

Meanwhile, according to The Times of Israel, her policies are based on an ideology that rejects progressive values, substituting multiculturalism and feminism with "God, homeland, family". She scornfully refers to the protection of the rights of sexual minorities as the "LGBT lobby" and derides immigrants as "freeloaders".

While framing herself as pro-European, Giorgia Meloni likely implies the vision of the European Union shared by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, which means national interests should supersede common European ones, The Guardian noted.

However, the BBC reported that, despite the pro-Russian sentiment of her partners in the governing coalition, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, Meloni pursues the line of continued support for Ukraine by Italy.

Sweden: the Sweden Democrats’ Russian connections

The Sweden Democrats have been accused of having links to Russia. Photo: Wikipedia

The Sweden Democrats have been accused of having links to Russia. Photo: Wikipedia

In early autumn, the Sweden Democrats party won 20% of the votes, which was the biggest electoral success in all their history. In its early days, this movement was affiliated with neo-Nazis, an affiliation they later publicly denounced while moving from a radical positioning toward a more moderate one.

Nevertheless, their policies are still rooted in an anti-immigrant stance. As DW wrote, the party aims for "zero asylum-seekers" in Sweden, longer prison sentences and wider use of deportation for immigrants, and stricter border control.

The party leader, Jimmie Akesson, is known for his sayings like "make Sweden great again" or "keep Sweden Swedish", which resemble those of the U.S. ex-president Donald Trump, as DW and France 24 report.

Furthermore, the Acta Publica study conducted in the summer of 2022 found that of the 289 Swedish politicians known to have expressed extremist views, 214 belonged to the Sweden Democrats. Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist also accused them of having links to Russia and other authoritarian states, AA reported.

Being part of the center-right coalition with three other parties, the Sweden Democrats will likely pursue initiatives based on their Euroscepticism.

France: Marine Le Pen’s ambiguous statements

Despite Le Pen’s liking of Putin’s ideology, she condemned Russia. Photo: Getty Images

Despite Le Pen’s liking of Putin’s ideology, she condemned Russia. Photo: Getty Images

This year, Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron in the spring but succeeded in the summer parliamentary election. Her party National Rally increased its number of MPs from eight to 89 to become the largest opposition group, the French radio RFI reported.

As France 24 journalists explained, this was due to a record low turnover, which, in turn, is exemplary of people’s rising anti-system sentiment.

French voters were once opposed to the far-right to such an extent that this phenomenon was dubbed "front républicain", Le Journal du Dimanche wrote. Meanwhile, as prices soar, we see the rise to power of right-wing populists led by Marine Le Pen, who made a number of ambiguous statements before.

Quote"The policies that I represent are the policies represented by Trump and Putin," she confessed in an interview with the BBC.

She believes that France is "a university for jihadists" and the EU is "an anti-democratic monster". Besides anti-Islamism, she was also accused of antisemitism.

Concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to Le Monde, she condemns the terrorist country but is opposed to sanctions on Russia and weapons for Ukraine.

Hungary: the Eurosceptics’ lost paradise

Orban openly sympathizes with and imitates Putin. Photo: Getty Images

Orban openly sympathizes with and imitates Putin. Photo: Getty Images

According to Euronews, the majority of Hungary’s parliament, namely 151 of the 199 seats, is occupied by the far-right Fidesz party and its satellites, the Christian Democratic People's Party and the Our Homeland Movement.

They call for the preservation of "Hungary for the Hungarians" and deprecate Roma, Jews, and any other "non-Europeans". However, they assent to granting political asylum to those who, according to Viktor Orbán, are "true refugees" — anti-European Europeans.

Quote"We shall let in true refugees: Germans, Dutch, French, and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands."

On Russia’s full-scale invasion, the prime minister unsurprisingly took an anti-Ukrainian stance.

Orbán, as cited by Radio Free Europe, criticizes Europe for aiding Ukraine, doesn’t believe in victory over Russia, insists on peace talks between Washington (not Kyiv) and Moscow, and so on.

Spain: the politically incorrect Vox party sided with Ukrainian refugees

The Vox leader Santiago Abascal pledged support to refugees from Ukraine. Photo: Wikipedia

The Vox leader Santiago Abascal pledged support to refugees from Ukraine. Photo: Wikipedia

At the beginning of spring, the far-right won seats in the Spanish parliament for the first time since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Since then, the Vox political movement has been campaigning to repeal a ban on Franco-era symbols and aiming to reorganize Spain by replacing regional governance with a centralist form of administration.

Besides criticizing political correctness, members of this party win the favor of voters by promising to overcome the drought by investing in hydrology, which is not possible, since the cause of this natural phenomenon lies in global warming, Politico wrote.

According to The Guardian, they also strive to repeal legislation that prevents violence against women and push an anti-feminist agenda, accusing feminism of destroying the institution of the family.

At the same time, the party leader, Santiago Abascal, condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, adding that Ukrainian refugees, unlike Muslims, should be welcomed in Spain, AA reported.

The rise of the far-right in Europe: how does it affect Ukraine?

What does Ukraine have to do with all this? The Page asked Volodymyr Fesenko, Chairman of the Board of the Penta Center of Applied Political Studies, and Oleksii Haran, professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Europe’s radicals and populists: the risks are both from the right and the left

How do you believe this trend will affect Ukraine?

Volodymyr Fesenko
Volodymyr Fesenko
political scientist

It may affect us, but rather indirectly. What’s the risk from far-right parties? By the way, it applies not only to the far-right but also to those on the center-right who take populist stances.

One example is the current situation in the U.S. Republican Party. The threat to us is not radical populism but what is called national egoism. It is based on the claim that money must be spent on the citizens of your country and not on support for Ukraine or some other country, migrants, or refugees. Not on them, but on our own people — this is what they say. And, unfortunately, it can have an impact, although I think there will be no complete cessation of support for Ukraine.

One more problem arises from the left. I mean, we shouldn’t think that threats are coming from the right only. But there’s another thing, which is pacifism. Among the center-left and the left in general, there are proponents of the following ideas: war is bad, so we should not get involved in it by supplying weapons and the like.

The Page
Comment The Page

Risks for Ukraine come from the radical right and left.

Fear of nuclear war in Europe

Volodymyr Fesenko
Volodymyr Fesenko
political scientist

One more potential risk, which can arise in different factions, including the centrist one, is nuclear anxiety.

You see, each country has its unique situation, so it’s not the ideology that makes a difference, but rather, I would say, the level of personal relations with Putin. For example, Orbán and Kaczyński share similar ideas, but their attitudes toward Russia differ drastically.

In Italy, a new right-wing coalition rises to power. However, while Meloni criticizes Russia and supports Ukraine, Berlusconi has a different view, although he is a minor partner in this alliance. Meanwhile, Salvini presents a problem, with his admiration for Putin and the above-mentioned national egoism. The question is, how long will this coalition hold out given all its controversies?

Therefore, my forecast is as follows: there are risks, and they can increase as the war drags on and fatigue around it grows. However, the pro-Ukrainian stance will prevail in Western politics, including on its right flank.

The Page
Comment The Page

Nuclear anxiety can affect support for Ukraine.

Europe’s radical left and right sympathizes with Putin

Olexiy Haran
Olexiy Haran
professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Paradoxically, both radical right and radical left movements share common narratives that can be described as pro-Russian and pro-Putin. It’s especially surprising in the case of the left whose ideology is based on the classic triad of freedom, justice, and solidarity — while Russia is imperialism, oligarchy, and dictatorship.

Notably, those who sympathized with the USSR have transferred their sentiments onto today’s Russian Federation. The radical right is allured by Putin’s chauvinism and his dictatorial ambitions, as he appeals to their ideal of a strongman. Chauvinism, racism, and anti-Americanism are the ideas they embrace.

Let’s not forget that Putin, the FSB (formerly KGB), and Russian oil money are all working to provide support for these political movements. One example was Le Pen’s National Front having received funding from Russia, which caused a huge scandal.

The Page
Comment The Page

The radical right is allured by Putin’s chauvinism.

The radical right is compelled to moderate their positions

Olexiy Haran
Olexiy Haran
professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

As to direct policy influence, even radical right politicians are compelled to somewhat moderate if not their positions, then at least their rhetoric. Today, the whole world witnesses the atrocities that Russia commits in Ukraine, so even its sympathizers have to speak more carefully.

They also shift their positions on some other issues. For example, the aforementioned Le Pen no longer advocates leaving the EU or eurozone. They understand that such claims discourage people from voting for them.

Again, the radical right differs in each country. For example, there’s a far-right coalition in Italy, but while Berlusconi is Putin’s friend who utters nonsense claiming that Ukraine and Zelenskyy personally are to blame for the war, Meloni spoke in support of the Ukrainians before the election and has pledged to stay the course thereafter. This is why Berlusconi is so discontented with her.

The common trend is that these politicians, albeit more inclined to side with Putin than others, are making their course more moderate on some issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At least some of them try to distance themselves from pro-Russian narratives.

The Page
Comment The Page

Radical right politicians are compelled to somewhat moderate their positions as the world witnesses Putin’s atrocities.

Can the far-right win in Ukraine?

How likely are far-right movements in Ukraine to become more active in the coming years?

Volodymyr Fesenko
Volodymyr Fesenko
political scientist

So far, the most notable example of a tentatively far-right party that won enough seats in parliament to have some impact was Svoboda in 2012. Just over 10% of votes was the highest result for this party throughout its electoral history, and it was never repeated by any Ukrainian radical right party.

What happened next? There’s a paradox. The post-Maidan revolution period in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the war that ensued, was seemingly favorable for the far-right to rise. In Russia, there was lots of talk about [far-right politician] Dmytro Yarosh and the Right Sector [the party he was the leader of at the time]. Nevertheless, at the parliamentary election later that year, the Svoboda didn’t manage to get to the Verkhovna Rada, and the Right Sector won around 1% of the votes.

In that election, the voters chose other political parties, which were patriotic but moderate. As to those on the radical right who were part of the post-Maidan coalition, the people grew largely disappointed with them.

Today, I see no background — I underscore it, no background — to suggest the rising popularity of Ukrainian right-wing movements.

There were also specific circumstances before the full-scale war. When [then-president] Petro Poroshenko changed his positioning as he was campaigning for the 2019 election, he rebranded his political party to make it appear militant and patriotic and thus "swallowed" the voters of the aforementioned Svoboda and other radical right parties. Now the nationalistic flank is fractured, with the older Svoboda and the recently emerged National Corps.

The Page
Comment The Page

The Ukrainians have become largely disappointed with the radical right.

Post-war Ukraine: new parties will be shaped by former military

Volodymyr Fesenko
Volodymyr Fesenko
political scientist

I believe that after the war, those who fought on the frontline will have much more political weight and will form new political parties. Perhaps they will also have some radical right rhetoric, but I think it will not be classical right-wing radicalism or radical nationalism. They would rather form some kind of "war party" which will advocate for prioritizing defense spending and take a tougher stance on Russia, collaborationists, and regained territories.

However, all this differentiation between the right and the left makes little sense in Ukraine. In the 1990s and early 2000s, both camps were clearly defined: there were the far right, the nationalists, and the far left, namely the Communists.

But now, for various reasons, there are no classic left-wing movements in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the far right has lost a significant percentage of their voters because the shifting agenda and political situation in and around Ukraine has led to other politicians, including Zelenskyy, borrowing some elements of the nationalist ideological platform.

The Page
Comment The Page

Some elements of the nationalist ideological platform are now used by other politicians, including Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Defending Ukraine is mainstream, not right-wing radicalism

Olexiy Haran
Olexiy Haran
professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

First, it’s not right to classify Svoboda as a radical right party. They are right-wing conservatives.

Second, as to the Right Sector or Azov, their nationalism is not ethnic as they have numerous members of Russian and other ethnicities. That’s why one should be cautious about branding them as far right. This is what Russia uses against us.

All those people whom we once called right-wing radicals are now at war. There was criticism of Azov and [its former commander, the leader of the National Corps party] Biletskyi before. What were they doing on the eve of the war? They were preparing for it, militarily and otherwise, and hence played an important part in it, especially at the beginning.

First, they are not paramilitary. They articulate very clearly that they want to be part of a professional Ukrainian army. I did many interviews with them where they emphasized it. This is, I believe, very important. Second, they constitute absolutely no political opposition at the moment.

The slogans that were considered nationalist or radical before have now turned mainstream. Everyone is fighting for Ukraine and sees that Russia is an aggressor. Therefore, I suggest we reevaluate what we used to say about the so-called radical right because defending Ukraine and fighting Russia is now mainstream and will stay relevant for many years.

The Page
Comment The Page

The slogans that were considered nationalist or radical before have now turned mainstream.

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