A Threat to Democracy: Russia and the Rise of European Populism

Madeline Rutowski
Mar 7, 2018 · 10 min read

Over the past several months, words such as “dossier,” “investigation,” and “collusion” have riddled international headlines. These words are used in reference to Russia, a country suspected of extending its influence into the election processes that have occurred within Central and Eastern Europe. Recent presidential elections in member countries of the European Union have evidenced a brash movement towards a right-wing populist ideology, one that has once again found its way into the mainstream with increased national support for parties such as Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), France’s National Front (FN), and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD). Why this trend? Why now? These three parties have been in the spotlight over the past six months for their increased grassroots support. In France and Germany, FN and AfD each advanced candidates to the final rounds of their respective presidential or chancellor elections.

Britain’s 2016 decision to exit the European Union served as a catalyst of sorts for this surge of national support. Brexit, a process fueled by Nigel Farage’s UKIP, was one that sparked dissent amongst all of Europe; the results of Britain’s referendum election, 51.9% leave and 48.1% stay, are symbolic of the sentiments of the entire European Union (3).

While many protested the results of Brexit, others across Europe began to lean into their nationalistic tendencies. Increased distrust in the euro and an influx of Middle Eastern refugees pouring into European countries have turned right-leaning Europeans to more radical parties. As a result, parties that preach xenophobic and anti-establishment rhetoric have gained traction. Said rhetoric, while a motive for the recent move towards right wing populism, merely occupies the surface of the matter. It is not the events of Brexit alone that have fueled Europe’s surge towards the right wing. There is an actor involved in the process both powerful enough yet controversial enough to evade direct blame. Russia has historically held an expansionist foreign policy. It is due to the country’s immense power and investment in Western governments, that patterns of Russian collusion can be seen throughout the 2016–2017 European political season and Europe’s resultant ideological shift right of center.

Russia and its autocratic structure, in correspondence with its line of commanding, post-Communist leaders, has exercised influence in Eastern and Central Europe with the intention of challenging democracy. This has been done surreptitiously for the past thirty years, through the Cold War and into the present day, the most contemporary example being that of the recent European elections. There has been no direct confirmation as to Russia’s role in the surge of support for right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, FN, and AfD, however, past instances of Russian interference show how the country’s manipulation tactics have impacted similar situations in various Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs).

According to the United States embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, Russia has employed “political and regulatory capture, financing political parties” in addition to “soft power” tactics such as the use of “historical, religious, and ethnic symbols, Russian international media presence and local media ownership, [and] organizing massive media campaign” (10). It is according to this same 2016 policy brief put out by the American embassy in Sofia, that Russia’s long term goals involve gaining a potent form of influence over pivotal facets of the country’s government, and using said influence to “shape national policies and decisions” (10). It is this political double-dealing that fuels Russia’s system of influential penetration; Russia focuses on and takes advantage of their victim country’s resources in an effort to bolster their far-reaching and corruptive network. This is evidenced in a Reuters report in which Moscow is reported to have recruited sympathetic politicians in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, and Slovakia as a way to further assert its control over these countries’ energy and economic markets (12). This Russian penetration works to subvert anti-corruption efforts as a way to ensure that the governments of these same countries are able to be influenced by Russia (12).

Russia may be assisting in the slow unraveling of European democracy, however, the role that citizens within these European countries play in terms of their involvement with the proliferation of rightist sentiments is significant and not without weight. As Harvard professor Yascha Mounk has said “the past two decades have represented not a populist moment but rather a populist turn — one that will exert significant influence on policy and public opinion for decades to come” (7).

Since the the 1960s, populism has slowly made its way back into public relevance; most countries in the EU have a rightist populist party including Belgium, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland (7). While these countries’ respective populist parties are not duplicates, they do converge by way of an anti-immigrant and anti-EU base (7). A populist party has very rarely reigned victorious over a country’s more dominant parties. However, this does not stop the radical right from driving its influence into recent conversations over immigration, including the Syrian Crisis and other such questions of national security (7). This influence leeches into the mindset of the right-leaning electorate — traditionally middle-class, white individuals who are facing economic insecurity — and forces them to see the supposed rationale these populist parties claim to have regarding immigration (preventing it) and the EU (removing the home country from it) (7).

These right-leaning individuals are easily transformed into populist sympathizers, many of whom make up a majority, or very close to one, of the electorate in that country. This poses a very clear problem, one that has exemplified itself three times in the past year: the United Kingdom and Brexit in which populist ideology overtook 51.9% of the electorate, Austria’s presidential race in which populist candidate Norbert Hofer won 46.2% of the vote, and finally in France in which Marine Le Pen was in close contest with Emmanuel Macron, winning 33.9% of the electorate votes (7). It is the social circumstances surrounding these tense election periods, specifically circumstances regarding immigration policy and controversy within the EU, that force individuals to polarize themselves to one extreme or the other. In the case of the United Kingdom, the people on the right side of the spectrum outweighed those on the left.

Besides the most visible examples of recent populist upsurges within Europe, there are countries, such as Poland, where populist ideology has advanced beyond electoral wins. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in 2015 under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and since their initial victory, the party has placed loyalists in the constitutional tribunal, implemented propaganda through the besmirching of public radio, and has come to fist-to-cuffs with the European Commission over Poland’s policy on immigration and the country’s controversial relationship with European rule of law (8). Last year, the European Commission, under the EU Rule of Law Framework, conversed with Poland as to whether or not “there was a systemic threat to the rule of law” and how to prevent it from escalating (3). Unfortunately, these attempts to reach out to a country with an increasingly restrictive government have fallen short — Poland has ignored the European Commission and in response has continued to restrict the rule of law in Poland in addition to basic human rights such as “media freedom, freedom of assembly, and women’s sexual and reproductive rights” (3).

Kaczynski has inhibited the appointment of Constitutional Tribunal judges followed by the Polish Parliament’s move to discredit the Constitutional Tribunal and “undermine its legitimacy,” all the while affecting the court’s ability to carry out its function: to continue the country’s rule of law (3). These radical actions taken by the populist Polish government have resulted in the European Commission giving Poland three months to execute certain corrections to right the wrongs that have been committed by the country’s government. If this demand remains ignored by Poland, the Commission will have no other choice but to implement Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows for the mitigation of powers of that member state with regards to voting within the Council of the EU, when said member state violates an EU “founding value” (3). Poland refused to implement the Commission’s corrections, yet the latter has decided to refrain from enforcing Article 7 (3).

Actions, or rather inactions, like these taken by the European Commission in this case allow for the perpetuations of the negative effects of right-wing populism. It is necessary that the EU intervene; the failure to do so will lead to more violations of foundational rules of organizations, like the EU, to which member states give up their sovereignty. Poland is a rare case in which right-wing populism has successfully achieved power. The cases of France, Germany, and the Netherlands show the defeat of populism. However, it is paramount that society acknowledge the negative outcomes of a populist takeover. Poland was a warning sign of what was to come with the events of the 2016 and 2017 elections throughout Europe; Poland serves as a caveat for what is to come if the European democratic system becomes undermined by the populist ideology.

Right-wing populism has penetrated certain social demographics, such as UKIP sympathizers, entire countries, such as Poland, and even the fabric of Europe itself. This usurpation of the European democratic system is likely the work of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin’s control. Putin’s desire to exercise control of European democracy has been apparent since his rise to power in 1999. The revolutions in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine that protested authoritarianism and demanded democracy began the trend of Putin’s surreptitious attempts to fight democratization at every turn; “Putin has behaved as if obsessed with fear that the virus of mass democratic mobilization might spread to Russia itself (1).

Putin desires to reclaim all territories once held by the Soviet Union, thus restoring Russia to its former, “superpower” glory, while at the same time forcing the West to acknowledge Eastern dominance (1). This was exemplified through Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Russia involved itself in this conflict because of Georgia’s developing ties with Western forces (5). The Georgian ruler, Mikheil Saakashvili, made attempts to unify two previously divided regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while at the same time westernizing the country as a whole (5). South Ossetia is a communist region, heavily dependent on Russia (5). Georgia’s preemptive strike in South Ossetia was made in an attempt to catalyze unification and westernization (5). This strike was met with Russian militancy, thus the conflict led to war (5). Putin’s regime has a vested interest in opening the world to autocracy, at the expense of the Western world’s attempts at democratization, as is seen through its conflict with Georgia (1). While Putin is aware of his inability to subvert democracy in all countries, “he will corrupt and confuse it wherever he can” (1).

There has been recent concern in Europe that Russia is making attempts to conflict with the continent’s electoral processes: there has been a review issued by the United States government that addresses concern felt by Washington regarding Moscow’s apparent exploitation of “ European disunity in order to undermine Nato, block US missile defence programmes and revoke the punitive economic sanctions regime imposed after the annexation of Crimea” (4). There was alleged “Russian influence activity” in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic (4). Russian collusion, mainly in the form of propaganda, has been discovered in a referendum election in the Netherlands regarding whether or not to curtail the EU’s relations with Ukraine. When suspicions begin to percolate within Western countries of Russian influence, these countries lay claim to their intuitions of Russian duplicity. Russia evades accusations due to the speculation and lack of physical evidence of their wrongdoing; Putin’s former aid, Gleb Pavlovsky, even stated that Putin’s criminally elusive tendencies stem from the fact that Putin “ strives to place the West in the box of the aggressor, while he defends truth and global justice” (6).

The world possesses a malign perception of President Vladimir Putin and his country. This is due to the host of evidence present that he, and his government, have acted deceptively such as in the Italian constitutional referendum, the election in the Netherlands, the funding of the National Front party in France, and its attempts to interfere in Germany’s 2017 elections (9). The implementation of security procedures such as election safeguards by the European Union could have the potential of hindering any alleged Russian involvement. Policy alterations like this one would serve the EU and prevent any future dive into extremist behaviour at the hands of an outside force. The European election cycle of 2016–2017 made it clear that the EU is a vulnerable entity. The countries that comprise the union have all been touched by a wave of right-wing populism, which meant bringing to the forefront parties with histories rooted in Nazism, specifically those of National Front and Alternative for Germany. Russian interference consists of attempts at “destabilizing the European project from the inside out: dismantling decades of progress toward building a democratic Europe that is whole, free, and at peace” (9). Russia has a vendetta with western democracies that has now bled into the West and begun to affect the integrity of European elections taking place there. Western democracy is at risk of deterioration due to actions taken by an aggressor powerful enough and deceptive enough to carry on.


(1) Diamond, Larry. “Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 9 Dec. 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/russia-liberal-democracy/510011/ .

(2) “EU: Polish Government Undermines Rule of Law.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 16 Feb. 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/16/eu-polish-government-undermines-rule-law.

(3) “EU Referendum Results.” BBC News, BBC, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results.

(4) Foster, Peter. “Russia Accused of Clandestine Funding of European Parties as US Conducts Major Review of Vladimir Putin’s Strategy.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 16 Jan. 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/12103602/America-to-investigate-Russian-meddling-in-EU.html.

(5) Gressel, Gustav. “In the shadow of Ukraine: seven years on from Russian-Georgian war.” European Council on Foreign Relations. European Council on Foreign Relations, 6 August, 2015, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_in_the_shadow_of_ukraine_seven_years_on_from_russian_3086

(6) Lloyd, John. “What Is the Best Way to Describe Vladimir Putin’s Russia?” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 18 Mar. 2016, http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/03/18/what-is-the-best-way-to-describe-vladimir-putins-russia/.

(7) Maher, Richard. “Why Populism Is Still a Threat in Europe.” World Economic Forum, World Economic Forum, 12 June 2017.

(8) PRZYSUCHA. “Poland’s Illiberal Law and Justice Party Is Still on Top.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 3 July 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21724760-when-jaroslaw-kaczynski-tells-joke-you-laugh.

(9) Stelzenmuller, Constanze. “The impact of Russian interference on Germany’s 2017 elections.” Brookings. Brookings. 28 June, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-impact-of-russian-interference-on-germanys-2017-elections/.

(10) “The Wind That Blows From the East: Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe, Policy Brief №65.” Center for the Study of Democracy: US Embassy Sofia, 2016.

(12) Walcott, John and Strobel, Warren. “Russia has ‘playbook’ for covert influence in Eastern Europe: study.” Reuters, Reuters, 13 October 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-security-usa/russia-has-playbook-for-covert-influence-in-eastern-europe-study-idUSKCN12D13Q.


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