It’s not just Greece’s economy that’s keeping the country’s neo-Nazi party afloat. Russia may also have a hand in the party’s continued relevance.
The Golden Dawn, otherwise known as Chrysi Avgi, rose from obscurity in 2012, when it won 18 seats in the Hellenic parliament. Although a number of party members — including its founder, Nikolaos Michaloliakos — were scooped up in a series of arrests following the murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013, the party’s anti-immigrant, anti-austerity platform has kept the Golden Dawn from slinking back into the shadows. In 2014, the party won three of 21 seats in the country’s delegation to the European parliament — up from zero seats in 2009. The party lost one of its 18 seats in Greece’s 2015 legislative elections in January, but a substantial win by the far-left Syriza resulted in Golden Dawn shifting from the fifth to the third largest party in Hellenic parliament.
As if the Golden Dawn’s political persuasion wasn’t enough to keep lawmakers up at night, the party’s “pivot” to Russia should be. From the party’s presence at an annual conference of right-wing extremists in St. Petersburg to Putin’s growing support for Europe’s far-right, the Golden Dawn is proving to be just one of many “powder kegs” that Europe has failed to effectively neutralize. It, far less than Syriza, could prove to be a critical asset for Putin and his allies as he seeks to destabilize Europe from within.
Putin has courted Europe’s far-right for some time, and his crackdown on gay rights, push for closer ties between church and state, and embrace of a sort of ethno-nationalism have made him appealing to these groups. Like Russia’s troop movements in Ukraine, it’s a relationship that has its roots in the east. Many Eastern Europe far-right leaders have strong ties to Russia, some of which are more dubious than others. Volen Siderov, the leader of Bulgaria’s Ataka party, has thrown his support behind the Russian president, and even presented Putin with a 60th birthday present in person in October 2012. A year later, Gábor Vona, the leader of the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik, made the rounds in Moscow. One of his speaking arrangements was borne out of an invitation from Alexandr Dugin, a self-proclaimed Russian fascist and academic who many see as the architect of Putin’s Crimea land grab. (The Hungarian neo-Nazi party now grapples accusations of working for and receiving funding from Russia.)
Today, Putin can also claim support from far-right parties in France, Austria, Denmark and, of course, Greece.
“The relationship between Russia and Western Europe’s far right may be a marriage of convenience, but it also shows signs of genuine affection,” Alina Polyakova of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars noted in World Affairs. “Closer ties with rising political parties in the EU will give Putin more leverage against NATO. For its part, the European right sees the Russian leader as a staunch defender of national sovereignty and conservative values who has challenged US influence and the idea of ‘Europe’ in a way that mirrors their own convictions.”
That romance was on display at the International Russian Conservative Forum, which was held this past week at Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg. (If the first thing that comes to mind after hearing “Holiday Inn” is a song by Pitbull, take a quick break to read this piece by Max Seddon. Party, it wasn’t.) Organized by Russia’s Rodina (Motherland) party — which was previously banned from participating in elections due to its overtly racist advertisements — the conference featured a number of European far-right and neo-Nazi groups, including Forza Nuova (Italy), National Democratic Party (Germany), the Alliance for Peace and Freedom and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), and, again, the Golden Dawn.
Given the Golden Dawn was one of the most powerful parties present — Jobbik and a number of other larger far-right parties were conspicuously absent — the forum was clearly by and for the fringes. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the forum had some clear ties to the Kremlin. Rodina, led by Aleksei Zhuravlyov, saw its election ban lifted after it threw its support behind Putin a few years ago. Some of former Rodina members found their way into Putin’s administration, including the founder of the party, Dmitry Rogozin, who is now Russia’s deputy prime minister. Other signs were less obvious. For instance, unlike events held by opposition figures, there was little police interference.
But a fringe party conferences aren’t the only ties that bind Golden Dawn to Russia. It has received, and probably will continue to receive, funding from Russia. Back in 2012, an op-ed in Pravda stressed that Greece should take Russia’s helping hand, and its money, so it can become a prosperous country again. (The writer estimated it would take a year.) But the real connections are even shadier than that. Christopher Lawrence noted in Truthout:
Golden Dawn has strong connections to the ultra-nationalist group Russky Obraz, which in turn has shadowy connections to Russian secret police and Putin’s political party, United Russia. It is entirely likely, even probable, that Russia sees Golden Dawn as an important element in its strategy to expand influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in light of the threat to its bases in Syria.
Then there’s Dugin. Dugin has been in contact with Michaloliakos for years — a fact that the Golden Dawn proudly advertizes. He’s made a point to establish good relations with the Golden Dawn, and met with representatives in May 2014 to discuss the situation in Ukraine, bilateral relations between the two countries, and other foreign policy issues. The Golden Dawn, in turn, has opposed sanctions against Russia and praised Russia’s efforts to oppose what it sees as American and European hegemony. Indeed, Russia is its “natural ally” in the struggle against American expansionism and for a “culture against the usurers and the decadent.”
Analysts have been noting that some of these ties, particularly to Dugin, exist in Syriza as well. U.S.-government funded Radio Free/Radio Liberty reported on a series of leaked emails from December 2014 that detailed correspondence between Georgy Gavrish, a friend of Dugin and his Eurasianist movement, and Syriza and Independent Greeks party members. According to blogger Christo Grozev, the emails showed “very close cooperation on strategy, on PR, and so on,” between the two groups. Two figures, Panos Kammenos, the current defense minister, and Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister, have received significant attention for their ties to Dugin.
While individual Syriza or Independent Greeks party members’ ties shouldn’t be ignored, it’s also critical to frame the party’s engagement as a whole in a strategic context. Since Alexis Tsipras’ election in January 2015, relations between Russia and Greece have warmed significantly. Just days after the election, Russia announced it would lift the food import ban if Greece left the EU. Tsipras and others have questioned sanctions against Russia, and even looked into the possibility of receiving financial assistance from Russia if negotiations with European officials fell through. Other economic issues have come to the fore, including a charm offensive in Russia and China.
Syriza’s “repositioning” toward Russia is likely far less ideological than its official’s ties to Russia would lead us to believe. For one, thanks to close cultural, religious, economic and historical ties, Greece has always been close to Russia. In that case, Syriza’s repositioning could be a product of its freedom of movement — freedom granted by the party’s more antagonistic position toward the Euro zone.
Most likely, Syriza is using its relations with Russia as a way to twist the troika’s arm, saying, “If you don’t give us what we want in negotiations, we’ll go with those guys.” Given the ongoing situation in Ukraine and the EU’s increasingly antagonistic diplomatic relationship with Russia, it could be an effective move. Greece pulling out of the Euro zone may have more appeal than a major European power having a cozy relationship with the West’s current adversary.
Meanwhile, Golden Dawn’s shift is one that the rest of the West has far less control over. Given the party’s record, it’s also an objectively more dangerous one. After all, if Syriza fails in its mission to save the Greek economy, the Golden Dawn would probably be the next in line.