REBEL commander Alexander Zakharchenko smiled only slightly on hearing that he had won this weekend’s elections in Donetsk, Ukraine (pictured). The results were never in doubt: Mr Zakharchenko’s nominal opponents openly supported him, and his face was the only one on campaign billboards. Nonetheless, eastern Ukraine’s separatist republics went through the motions of democracy, including inviting international election observers. Those proved hard to find: while Russia has said it will respect the vote, America, the European Union, and the United Nations have all condemned it. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe refused to monitor the elections. The European politicians who did show up to observe were drawn from a smattering of far-right parties, including Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, and Italy’s Forza, as well as a few far-left ones. While they may not have done much to legitimise the vote, their presence was significant as a marker of Russia’s growing relationship with Europe’s political fringes.
The elections in the breakaway pro-Russian regions were marked by armed men standing next to ballot boxes and a disturbing absence of voter rolls. This did not bother the European observers, who pronounced the voting free and fair. Many of them had arrived in Donetsk with luggage bearing “ROV” airline tags, code for the Russian city of Rostov, where they had flown in before crossing the border by car into separatist-held territory. Russia has been courting European fringe parties for years, part of a multi-pronged strategy aimed at “undermining the EU project”, argues Thomas Gomart, a Russia scholar at the French Institute of International Relations.
The Ukraine crisis has been a galvanising moment for such anti-American and Eurosceptic sentiment, and has coincided with fertile conditions for the European far-right in their home countries. On May 25, the same day that Ukraine elected the pro-European oligarch Petro Poroshenko as president, Eurosceptic parties won nearly a quarter of the vote in European Parliament elections. Vladimir Putin has praised figures such as Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front. His actions in Ukraine have burnished his credentials in Eurosceptic circles, and have also won support from mainstream politicians who dissent from parts of the European agenda. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been repeatedly warned by Brussels for restricting press and economic freedoms, promised in July to build his own “illiberal state” based in part on the Russian model.
The relationship with Hungary is particularly important to Russia in the fight over Ukraine. In September Hungary frustrated Ukrainian efforts to break free of dependency on Russian gas by shutting off reverse flows to Ukraine, and it has supported construction of the South Stream pipeline, which would allow Russian gas to bypass Ukrainian territory. Hungary can also be a partner for destabilization inside Ukraine, which has a 200,000-strong Hungarian minority in its western Transcarpathia region. Like Mr Putin, Mr Orban has bolstered his domestic popularity by taking up the cause of his fellow ethnics abroad, saying he will push for autonomy for the Hungarian minority. This spring, a far-right Hungarian politician spoke at the Council of Europe wearing a T-shirt that read: “Crimea legally belongs to Russia! Transcarpathia legally belongs to Hungary!”
“Hungarian nationalism has a territorial element that has become parallel with the interests of the Kremlin,” says Peter Kreko of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank. He notes that Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party has been working, unsuccessfully so far, to spark a secessionist movement in Transcarpathia. Gabor Vona, Jobbik’s chairman, is close to Russian nationalist figures such as the far-right ideologist Alexander Dugin. Bela Kovacs, another prominent Jobbik leader and a member of the European Parliament, was recently accused by the Hungarian government of spying for Russia.
For Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik deputy who came to Donetsk as an election observer, Hungarian national interests directly align with the cause of the Donbas separatists. He describes a broader “geopolitical battle” unfolding between Russia and the West, and rails against a world filled with “Western puppet states” and “riots sponsored by George Soros”. It should come as little surprise that this nominally impartial election observer calls on the West to recognise Mr Zakharchenko’s election as the “will of the people”. Mr Zakharchenko, for his part, appears most concerned about retaking lost territory from the Ukrainian forces at his doorstep. If heavy fighting resumes, Mr Zakharchenko and Mr Putin will find Eurosceptic politicians useful allies in gumming up EU support for Kiev.
Reprinted from The Economist.